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From the Observer archive, 14 March 1971: the genius of Stevie Smith


A tribute to the poet Stevie Smith, whose childlike vision made her both lovable and formidable

It would have been pleasant to begin this tribute with some description of Stevie for the benefit of those who never saw her. There must be many people in whose lives she plays an important part, people who love her poems and have dipped into them so often that something of her way of seeing the world has become instinctive with them too, but who have no personal impression of her. And now that she is gone and her work will remain, distilling its strange and healing essence, there will be more and more people who wonder what she, the woman Stevie Smith, was like, and fewer and fewer, and ultimately none, able to tell them.

Unfortunately, to describe her would be beyond my powers. Perhaps no poet can be described in prose; Stevie, at any rate, was that rarity, a truly indescribable person.

If I say she was a little bird-like woman with a fringe of brown hair, quick in her movements and with an expressive, humorous face – but her eyes were eloquent far beyond the range of mere expressiveness or mere humour – no, it won't do. If I say that, in the last decade of her life when I knew her best, she was an old woman with the face of a child, that might take us a little nearer, for she was alive with the spontaneity, the freshness, the wisdom of childhood. What is any artist but an adult in whom the child has refused to die – even though he may have the mountainous, painfully acquired experience of a Tolstoy or a Shakespeare? But partly because she was small and thin, Stevie's childlike qualities survived in her appearance as well as in her mind, giving her that unity of being which made her at once lovable and formidable: what she felt and wrote and imagined, she was.

As for her poetry, its most immediately striking feature is the perfect marriage of form and content. Since she perceived the world by the light of an imagination as undeflected as a child's, traditional poetic form would have hampered her like a frock coat on a mermaid; mere formlessness, on the other hand, would have failed to convey the ritual element in her message. Though formally a sceptic in religion, she had a strong sense of the numinous that pervaded everything she wrote; she saw humanity as rooted in nature, and she accepted nature with a completeness that acknowledged its terrors and menaces as well as its beauty and serenity. (If I had to pick one poem to illustrate this, I would pick "River God", about the river Mimram in Hertfordshire.) With unerring instinct, she found her own individual poetic vehicle for this vision: free-running, variable lines with strong rhymes, and a diction in which the familiar and domestic took on an aureole of wonder and, sometimes, of dread.

The world is a sadder and poorer places because Stevie has gone from it, but it is happier and richer because she lived and did her work.

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