The Song of an Odd Bird

Why Stevie Smith is the right poet for our times.

by Caitlin Kimball
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE
I’m not that interested in the lives of poets. Lord Byron may have been “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but as any product of an MFA program can tell you, a poet’s life is typically short on titillating details. Italian loafers. Yoga classes. Book signings. Yawn.

Paradoxically, one facet of literary biography fascinates me: the day job. My own interest in poetry flowered during a series of low-wage temp gigs, and many of the writers whose books I hid in my desk drawer also were no strangers to clerical tedium. The poems of Marianne Moore (secretary) and Fernando Pessoa (ad agency copywriter) were short enough to read in the lulls between ordering toner and transferring calls. What’s more, I imagined that boredom could yield poetic epiphanies. During those hunched idylls in a cubicle, I got serious about Stevie Smith.

As is often the case with “minor” poets, Smith’s biography tends to serve as shorthand for her work, which included hundreds of sly, playful short verses. Some highlights: Born during the reign of King Edward, died during the sexual revolution. Served as the personal secretary to a publishing company executive for 30 years. Never married. Lived in the same house in suburban London for virtually her entire life. Notable for her half-sung, off-key recitations and girlish marginal doodles.

Okay, fine, she’s an odd bird, but her song is worth hearing. During decades of train rides and vigils at her desk, Smith absorbed the rhythms of workday jargon, of newspaper ads, of water cooler chitchat, and set it loose on her own tasks. Smith’s lack of bombast and sonority, her simultaneous social unease and need to charm and hold court, her manipulation of childhood ditties–it all suggests a deep ambivalence about being “taken seriously” in a culture so often wrong about what’s really serious.

Speaking of “serious,” “Not Waving but Drowning” is Smith’s most famous poem. This twelve-line punch to the gut is one of her most sober and plainly nihilistic pieces.

The poem begins after the central drama has already taken place. We join a crowd that has gathered at the site of an accidental drowning. Nothing can be done, so our witness is essentially forensic–until the dead man’s voice floats up from the deep. The first stanza shifts quickly from event reportage to the interior monologue of the drowned man trying, even in death, to convey to the living his lifetime of desperation. A grim premise: Life is a series of opportunities to be misunderstood.
      
      Nobody heard him, the dead man,
      But still he lay moaning:
      I was much further out than you thought
      And not waving but drowning.

He’s dead from the very beginning, but he continues to moan. The man’s words aren’t set off with italics or quotation marks, which subtly reinforces his place as the primary consciousness of the poem. A pass at rhythm, an off-rhyme (moaning/drowning), lends an air of jollity to the harrowing setup. But in the next stanza, the perspective shifts outward again and the chill really sets in:

      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.

They knew him. And they knew him long enough to know his tendency toward “larking.” And “poor chap”–oof. We’re not allowed to be haunted by the dead man’s testimony for too long before this glib epithet snaps us back to the social occasion. That third line tumbles out fast in monosyllables, like the murmuring of a crowd. Prancing around the edges of corniness, the irony is Pure Stevie: they were too cold for him. His heart broke under the strain of being misunderstood for so long, he wants to tell us. And so he does; that the dead man gets the last word is the poem’s only consolation:

      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.

Language failed him. Salutations failed him. We are all odd birds, all in danger of having our gestures, habits, and roles misread, mistaken for our substance. At work, whose collar doesn’t chafe? “The human creature is alone in his carapace,” Smith wrote. “Poetry is a strong way out. The passage that [Poetry] blasts is often in splinters, covered with blood; but she can come out softly.”

Caitlin Kimball is a poet living in St. Paul, Minnesota.

© 2007 by Caitlin Kimball. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www. poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on December 12, 2007.

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