Stevie Smith (1902 - 1971)

The first work by Stevie Smith to be published was a collection of six poems, which appeared in the New Statesman in 1935. Later that year, she was advised to ‘go away and write a novel'. This she did, using the yellow paper used at Pearson's for carbon copies. The avant garde Novel on Yellow Paper or Work It Out For Yourself was published in 1936 and was an instant success. Two further novels followed, preceded by her first volume of poetry, A Good Time Was Had By All, published in 1937.

  

Stevie's poetry was at first less successful than her novels had been and during the late 1940s and early 1950s she was comparatively neglected as a poet. However, following the publication of her best known collection Not Waving But Drowning in 1957 she became more widely known. Throughout the 1960s she was increasingly popular in Britain and America, particularly for poetry readings and broadcasts and took delight in reading and even singing her work before live audiences. Seven volumes of her poetry were published between 1937 and 1971, with an eighth published in 1972 after her death.

 

Northumberland

Northumberland House, from The Frog Prince


Stevie Smith's three novels are all autobiographical. Through them, Stevie Smith shows us many of her opinions, preoccupations and "thoughts that come and go". She warns the reader who has recently purchased Novel on Yellow Paper that "if you are a foot-on-the-ground person this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down, leave it alone."

 

Stevie Smith's poetry is darkly comic in style. She was subject to periods of depression during her life and was preoccupied with death, but as a release or consolation. Her best-known poem ‘Not waving but drowning' was written in 1953 and reveals her feelings of sadness and isolation at this time. Her poetry has strong underlying themes of love and death, it is whimsical but fiercely honest and direct. She also loved drawing and linked her small illustrations with her poems. However, Stevie's attachment to her drawings was not always shared by publishers and she fought a long battle during the 1950s to find a publisher willing to include her drawings with her poetry. She then found a ‘dashing publisher', Gaberbocchus (Jabberwocky in Latin) to publish an entire volume of captioned drawings. Some Are More Human Than Others was published in 1958; a notice in Art News and Review described it as "a treasury to be treasured".

 

As one of the most distinctive of modern poets, Stevie Smith's deeply personal work has endured and remains popular to this day. On her death, The Times lauded her talent as "wholly individual, unconventional, and unpredictable".