Monday 13 December 2010

And did you once see Stevie plain...?

Over the weekend I caught an episode of Adventures in Poetry, a rather good Radio 4 series which studies individual poems in some depth (and rather more breadth). This one was devoted to Stevie Smith's Not Waving But Drowning - a poem that is almost too famous, its title having entered the language to the point where it's become a journalistic standby. It remains a remarkable poem, but it's not all there is to Stevie Smith. There is this wise and funny poem, for example...

Distractions and the Human Crowd

Ormerod was deeply troubled
When he read in philosophy and religion
Of man's lust after God,
And the knowledge of God,
And the experience of God
In the achievement of solitary communion and the loss of self.
For he said that he had known this knowledge,
And experienced this experience,
Before life and after death;
But that here in temporal life, and in temporal life only, was permitted
(As in a flaw of divine government, a voluntary recession)
A place where man might impinge upon man,
And be subject to a thousand and one idiotic distractions.
And thus it was that he found himself
Ever at issue with the schools,
For ever more and more he pursued the distractions,
Knowing them to be ephemeral, under time, peculiar,
And in eternity without place or puff.
Then, ah then, he said, following the tea-parties
(And the innumerable conferences for social rearrangement),
I knew, and shall know again, the name of God, closer than close;
But now I know a stranger thing,
That never can I study too closely, for never will it come again, -
Distractions and the human crowd.

I once saw Stevie Smith giving a reading - an unforgettable sight, with her hair cut in that angular bob, an acute amused smile on her face. An unforgettable sound too - that cut-glass voice articulating her words with such old-world precision. She seemed like a creature of another age - or no age. This can't have been long before her death... I also saw one of Marlene Dietrich's last performances, and that was pretty memorable. I have lived that long.


  1. My heart tells me to like this as a poem but my brain tells me to like this as prose. It's precisely the sort of 'poem' I struggle to understand as poetry.

  2. Further to that (and a bit of a epiphany): I don't suppose it matters which it is only that I like it.

  3. Ha! You came out of that reading and described her as a "female John Betjeman". Remember it clearly.

  4. Precisely - young idiot that I was. Mind you, there's much to be said for Betjeman... Yes I have lived that long.

  5. Very jealous that you saw Smith giving a reading!