Friday 23 February 2018

Book worm: Forgotten dead poets' revival starts here

Hull-born poet Stevie Smith
Hull-born poet Stevie Smith

John Boland

Who now reads Stevie Smith, or even knows her name? Fashionable at the time of her death in 1971, she's been largely forgotten in the last four decades, though there are indications that her reputation may be restored.

I hope so because she was a remarkable and entirely original poet who, in the judgment of an admiring Philip Larkin, had "a tone of voice that could not be copied". You'll hear it in her most famous poem, 'Not Waving but Drowning', but you'll encounter it, too, in hundreds of other poems that can seem almost childlike or flippant at first reading but that have a dark undertow about loneliness, death and a constantly questioned religious faith.

Born Florence Margaret Smith in the Hull where Larkin spent his later years, she and her family moved to the north London suburb of Palmers Green after her father absconded, and she spent the rest of her life sharing the same house with a maiden aunt, working as a secretary and constantly writing.

All of this was vividly evoked in Hugh Whitemore's 1977 play, Stevie, starring Glenda Jackson as Stevie and Mona Washbourne as the aunt, and this was subsequently made into a lovely (if little-seen) movie with the same performers.

Now the play is being revived at London's Hampstead theatre with Zoe Wanamaker in the title role, while Virago are reissuing her first work of fiction, Novel on Yellow Paper, which was written in 1936 and is just as quirky as the poems. The poems, though, are what newcomers to this most individual of writers should read first.

And while they're at it, they might wish to further the cause of American poet Edna St Vincent Millay, whose best work is just as arresting as that of Stevie Smith, though even more forgotten. A celebrated poet of the Jazz Age, she wrote wrenching lyrics about loss and loneliness, including almost 200 beautifully crafted sonnets with such wonderful opening lines as "Time does not bring relief; you all have lied" and "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why".

Yet nowadays this marvellous poet is so unregarded that there's no scholarly edition of her work. The campaign starts here.

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