In Search of Stevie Smith

5 Nov

A few weeks ago I listened to  a BBC podcast* and on it was an artist called Sarah Pickstone who had just won the John Moore award for painting with her piece entitled ‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’ (see left) inspired by Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Not Waving but Drowning’.

In the interview she talked about ‘making connections‘  ‘finding things together’ in her work. In her painting Pickstone took Stevie’s illustration for ‘Not Waving But Drowning’  and placed it amidst a mass of  willows. ‘A forceful gentleness’ one critic stated, dealing with the important issue of death and the ‘relief which can be found in death’.  This made me intrigued about ‘the shadow and story’ as the interviewer put it, ‘ that lurked behind the painting’, and indeed about the relationship between a  story communicated in a piece of art and the object itself. It made me want to explore and connect,  just like Sarah Pickstone. To connect with Stevie Smith and her work.

This post follows the connections I made, the seemingly random paths that were thrown up at me as I started to explore Stevie Smith. What lies ahead is a creative trail which touches (curiously and without intention) on all of the ideas and themes raised in the podcast….I thought I’d share the multi-form excursions I’ve been on this week  with you because they inspired me and made me think, and introduced me to new writers and artists and I wanted this for you too: from beginning to end. Beginning with Stevie and ending with Stevie.

Firstly a bit of a Biography about Stevie, to contextualise, to pave the way :

Stevie Smith was an English poet, novelist and illustrator who was born in 1902. Her father ran away to sea when she was 3 and she belonged to a church-going family. For the majority of her life Stevie had an ambiguous relationship with religion-an agnostic with a predisposition towards belief. As a child Stevie suffered from a very severe bout of Tuberculosis, often fearing for her life (death always felt near, and became a constant subject in her poetry later). Her mother died and she began to live with her aunt who she cared for until her aunt’s death in 1968. In the interim Stevie became a secretary and  published her first novel called Novel On Yellow Paper in 1936. A stream of consciousness novel based on her life. Her first book of poetry appeared in 1937 (‘A Good Time Was Had By All’). In 1953 she had a crisis at work and life became difficult  and ended with Stevie attempting to cut her wrists. In 1957 she published her collection. ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ which contained the poem we’re focusing on here.  In the 1960s Stevie was very popular and gave lots of poetry readings. In 1970 she began to have difficulties  finding words and she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died in 1971.

See Strange-Attractor website for more biographical detail


The video below was where I began; it gave me my first real glimpse of her. The above was  her life, and the video was her:  her  ‘ take’ on her relationship to her writing; her strident voice ringing out. It was the ‘how & the why’ of writing that reached out to me initially in its simplicity:

It was her choice of words that particularly grabbed me in her mini-talk. How striking they were and odd, slightly askew with her and her very precise persona. Words like ‘gnawing‘ and ‘pressure‘, and ‘ease‘, as if there was something seething underneath, something that will- out. It was this bubbling- underneath- the- surface-something  that drew me on…

She talks about the frequent  questions that everybody asks her: how and why she writes, and she states that her poetry comes from the experience of her own life, the ‘experience and the fancies’. She writes to give herself  EASE and RELIEF  and for herself- not the reader-not you or I. And this word ‘relief ‘, made a connection backwards, took me back to what the interviewer had said about Sarah Pickstone’s work, her painting as ‘a relief from the world’.

The poem and the painting -a means of relief.  Sarah Pickstone +Stevie Smith  (Making a connection (1))

Furthermore, while her poems are being written ‘NOBODY comes into it at all’. Writing for that moment has nothing to do with the reader and everything to do with the ease that the expulsion of the idea/object can bring to the  creator.

This lead me to a further connection :  ART & WRITING as expulsion. (Making a connection (2))

There was something dark and pressing inside Stevie  that ‘GNAWED‘ at her and this took on a variety of  forms and pressures.

The ‘PRESSURE’ of life: of earning, of work, of relationships, of knowledge, of despair, of pleasure, of funniness.

Lots and lots of weight.

And it was the word pressure that struck me: the sheer force and weight of life on her; a downward motion and not a reaching up; a drowning and not a waving. It seems to me that Stevie was actually more interested in the drowning. In the deathly quality of life and she grappled with this through lightness,  simplicity and a delicacy of prose. The poem inspired by a newspaper article  had  clearly disturbed her deeply, maybe the feeling inside, so disturbing to her that it needed to be  expelled ? Was it actually feeling she did not like? Was it perhaps that Stevie was frightened of the sheer weight of her emotions? Being frightened of pure feeling and then putting it into poetry and in so doing placing  it far, far away? It’s unclear.

Stevie also had a tendency to illustrate her works, as she said, ‘drawing often inspires a poem’. Like her poetry her illustrations are sparse, scratchy, caricature like. Veiled by their simplicity and their child-like quality.

Here is the text of ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ and the illustration:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.


Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.

 Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   

(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning” from Collected Poems of Stevie Smith. Copyright © 1972 by Stevie Smith. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: New Selected Poems (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1988)

It  seems to me  that it was always too cold for Stevie, and this inclination towards ‘drowning’  was allieviated and managed by her need to COMMUNICATE  this unease and to do so through simple structures. It was actually more about the process than the story, even though it was the story that started it off.
In an essay by Stevie on her poem ‘My Muse’ she says:
‘All poetry has to do is to make a strong communication. All a poet has to do is listen’ .
Her art, it seems,  is about  creating a channel, a pathway through which her  meaning can be communicated-simply and purely. This need to communicate took me to  HOWARD HODGKIN (1932-)  a semi-abstract painter and a great admirer of Stevie who has also been similarly admonished for his simplicity of style. Here in a quote taken from an interview in the Independent in 2009 :
‘the naivety of Stevie Smith is one of the things I have in common with her and in the past I found I had to be rather defensive about that’
It’s as if being clear and broad-stroked is a bad thing.
Then there followed a discussion about simplicity and meaning.  As the journalist states:
‘So the critics who want to argue for complexity want to know the stories, because how can you understand a painting if you don’t know the story behind it? But what in the end, has a story got to do with a painting? A painting, surely, is like a poem. It’s an experience which undergoes a long, painstaking, often painful process of transformation-alchemy if you like- to become something else….The story behind it…it’s a different thing. Isn’t it?
“Yes”. says Hodgkin, “it’s something totally different”
So the story behind ‘Not Waving Not Drowning’, doesn’t really matter. It’s the process of transformation that matters, the process of expulsion. It’s the fact that Stevie needed to expel it that counts. And it’s the same in both forms- art and poetry (Making a connection 3). The newspaper article inspired Stevie but that’s it, the story behind it doesn’t matter. It’s more the simple act of producing and connecting that counts.
The process, ‘the getting something out’ is what joins the two forms. It’s the same hard, simple  journey.
that took me to GEORGE GROSZ:
A German caricaturist known for his searing drawings of war-time  Berlin. Born in 1893 dying in 1953 and who has been considered an influence on Stevie. You can see the edgy similarity of their drawing styles. The depth hidden behind their simplicity. Everything is up for grabs; up for interpretation.
Grosz said:
‘My aim is to be understood by everyone. I reject the ‘depth’ that people demand nowadays….A day will come when the artist will no longer be this bohemian, puffed-up anarchist but a healthy man working in clarity‘ 
Stevie, Hodgkin  and Grosz all share a need to just communicate through simplicity…Overtly rejecting depth but actually through the rejection engaging with it completely….
…..which took me to not only a semi-contemporary of Stevie’s  SYLVIA PLATH (a huge fan of her work)  but also to a line drawing  by a contemporary artist called  Summer Pierre .
You’ll find Pierre’s line drawing below, where I found these words,
‘Everything is Useful. Everything is Material‘, says Plath.
In the same way Stevie looked to the horror / or the ‘disturbing’ in the newspapers,   Plath used ‘everything’ to make simple connections which can then be used create a poem or a piece of art. (Making a connection (4))
which led me finally to this:
Here, Plath too acknowledges a space, a different intention behind the actual process of writing and the actual thing that exists after it is made.  For her it’s ‘after something happens to you’, for Stevie it’s when something is ‘eating at her’ or like Grosz when the sheer horror of the savagery of war-torn Berlin got too much for him.
My search for Stevie took me down this creative trail, through all these diverse artist all interlinked by a SIMPLE need to express and not to complicate. Extraordinary that such complexity and diversity of people can be interlinked by something so pure.
Pickstone+Smith+Hodgkin+Grosz+Plath+Pierre. Me. You.
Making Connections.
As always, thank you for your interest and any feedback or suggestions are always welcome!
  • ‘Flash Fortnightly’ starts this Wednesday  with Laura Besley– Your fortnightly dose of short fiction!
  • Alastair Cook, Full-time artist using film & photography. Director of  projects such as  ‘FilmPoems’, will be our guest blogger next Monday sharing a review of the  work he’s done this Summer with North Light via an article by Michael MacLeod, a freelance journalist.
  • Susan O’ Reilly has 4 new poems on her ‘Visitor Peep Page’
  • FabFiction Page Starting Soon…for anyone wishing to share their  short fiction or poetry, and you may get the odd author profile too. Do get in contact if you’d like to contribute.
  • Several other new initiatives are percolating…so watch this space!

One Response to “In Search of Stevie Smith”

  1. laurabesley November 6, 2012 at 3:33 am #

    I’ve done a couple of Stevie Smith poems with my students and they are so accessible, even to non-native speakers.

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