A short story in four stages
Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:
I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:
Oh there hasn’t been much change
At The Grange.
There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:
They wouldn’t go up to the door,
Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.
And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:
But few goes that way somehow
I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.
Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?
I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:
Oh Christianity, Christianity,
Why do you not answer our difficulties?
If He was God He was not like us
He could not lose.
Can Perfection be less than perfection?
Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?
What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him
Who made and possessed it? What do you mean?
Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:
I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty
Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,
For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear
Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.
I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,
To be good without enchantment, without the help
Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,
Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,
And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody
It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.
This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.
Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:
I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:
Coleridge received the Person from Porlock
And ever after called him a curse,
Then why did he hurry to let him in?
He could have hid in the house.
It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.
The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:
I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock
To break up everything and throw it away
Because then there will be nothing to keep them
And they need not stay.
The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:
There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.
Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.
I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.
I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.
Tom Deveson, February 2016