I am delighted to say that my guest today, Paul Andruss is going to be a regular contributor to the blog in the coming year.. Paul not only writes fiction (details of his books are in his bio), but also writes articles on a wide range of topics. I am sure that you will enjoy his piece today on the life and work of poet Stevie Smith.
Please give him a warm welcome.
Still Waving (after all these years) by Paul Andruss
‘I am a camera with its shutter open.’
So reads the opening line of Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. If Isherwood thought he was detached, he was wrong. Memories are not concrete like photographs. If memories are anything, they are pixels subject to change, reorganisation and deletion in the Photoshop of the mind. Like blind men with an elephant we grasp a tail, a trunk, a leg, and believe we see the whole.
As readers we imagine the author’s work reflects the life. While some writers are biographical, Isherwood certainly was, many are not. Gore Vidal complained even his fellow literati believed his scandalous novel ‘The City and the Pillar’ was based on himself. He was identified with the protagonist so strongly, it almost destroyed his career. ‘I made him up, out of my head!’ Vidal protested. No one believed him.
As writers we know our work is imagination. Even autobiography is an act of selective re-creation. If our lives were as exciting as our words, we would all be Earnest Hemmingway. (I’ll never know how that man found the time to drink so much, never mind write so much).
Isherwood’s partly fictionalised memoir of Nazi Berlin gave rise to the phrase ‘Life is a cabaret’. Stevie Smith invented ‘A good time was had by all’ when she used it as the title of her first verse collection. In relation to both lives, neither seems particularly apposite.
Born Florence Margaret (1902 – 1971), she was nicknamed Stevie after a friend remarked she looked like a popular jockey. After her father abandoned them she moved to North London, at the age of 3, with her mother and older sister. Aunt Madge joined the family when Stevie’s mother fell ill. After she died, Madge reared the girls as if they were her own – spoiling them rotten.
Stevie lived the rest of her life with her aunt, spending her own later years caring for the ailing woman she affectionately referred to as the Lion Aunt, in tribute to her courage for the life she chose; the sacrifices she made. Stevie only lived three years after her beloved aunt passed away, dying of a brain tumour at the age of 69.
It is safe to say Stevie was an all-round paradox. Intensely nervous, sensitive and shy, she was a woman without fear. In her poem ‘A House of Mercy’, she writes of her upbringing:
It was a house of female habitation,
Two ladies fair inhabited the house,
And they were brave.
For although Fear knocked loud…
…They did not let him in.
Although she had at least one beau, she never married. She couldn’t suffer fools and later confessed to having no time for men. Famously adding she had no time for Hitler either. Perhaps her determined spinsterhood had a lot to do with the social constraints marriage forced on a respectable woman in those days. Perhaps it was the thought of losing a husband to the war. Or maybe she felt she could not abandon her aunt as her father had her mother. But now I’m speculating, whereas I should be like a camera, confined to impression, ignoring imagination. Click. Click. No interpretation.
Stevie worked her whole life as a publisher’s personal secretary, retreating each night to the seclusion offered by the net curtain draped world of suburbia. Yet she corresponded and socialised widely with fellow artists and writers. They variously described her as naive and selfish in some ways, and formidably intelligent in others. A spoiled child while, at the same time, a resolutely autonomous woman.
Her work contains all the contradictions of her personality. She wrote 3 obscure novels, one she considered an absolute failure, and some books of a poetry that was at once comic and serious. An excellent word-smith, she effortless wrapped the most unsettling observations in simple jokey verses resembling nursery rhymes, to which she often added quirky line drawings.
In comparison, her contemporaries Isherwood and Vidal had far more adventurous lives. They were not only men but also from privileged backgrounds. Stevie was bourgeois, with all the ticks and winces of her class – which she never ceased to mock, while at the same time bowing to their restrictions. In religion she variously described herself as ‘an Anglican agnostic’ or a ‘lapsed atheist’ acknowledging…
‘There is a God in whom I do not believe
Yet to this God my love stretches.’
In 1957 she published a poetry collection titled Not Waving but Drowning. It included her famous poem of the same name: observers seeing a swimming man mistakenly believe he is waving to them…
‘Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
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.’
Fame came late to Stevie. It was not until the early 1960s that she established a reputation as a bona fide British eccentric after making a number of broadcasts for the BBC. Fellow poet Sylvia Plath wrote to her in 1962 confessing to be‘a desperate Smith-addict’ and expressing an interest in meeting. They never did meet. Soon after writing Plath committed suicide.
Sylvia is easier than Stevie. Knowing the destination we examine her work for the chosen path, taking forensic snapshots along the way. As if her end was inevitable. Stevie leaves no trail of breadcrumbs. No clues, just speculation about what went on inside her head. Unless you really believe writers only tell the truth. Her life might be an open book, but it is not an easy read.
She stated the certainty of death was the reason suicide never appealed during her lifelong bouts of depression. She was fascinated by death, who she described as ‘the only god who must come when called’. It started at the age of 7 when she was confined to a sanatorium with a type of tuberculosis. When informed her mother’s end was so swift she ‘died in minute’, the 16 year old Stevie coolly asked, ‘How long is a minute?’
Stevie claimed her life was one of quiet desperation. For this reason people often take ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ as significant. Yet unlike the man in the poem, Stevie never swam too far out. Her mind may have plumbed the dangerous currents of deep emotion, but life was lived in the shallows, even if they seem murky rather than sunlit.
If the poem is at all emblematic, perhaps it is of Stevie living her life waving not drowning. Something we should remember when life treats us harsh, as life invariable does. For even when things go well, somehow we manage to feel vaguely dissatisfied by it all.
At such times, we should count our blessings and celebrate our dullness and moments of brilliance, our contrariness and conformity; our innocence and guilty pleasures; the secret smiles (regardless if they were shared or solitary); the helpless laughter when tears ran down our faces and the tears that came when we weren’t laughing; the times we exceeded expectation and the times we failed to rise to the occasion; the fact that some people love us while others don’t; our disappointments and triumphs – no matter how small; our friends, and all the lion aunts.
And think, ‘You know what Stevie. I’m still waving too. Not drowning, but waving!’
Stevie is a 1978 biographical film of the poet’s (un)remarkable life. If the redoubtable Glenda Jackson playing Stevie Smith isn’t appeal enough, then I can only assume you are not reading this. So, if you feel stuffed to the gills with Christmas turkeys and want to clean house for the New Year then put your soul through a wash and spin here:
Image courtesy of http://therumpus.net/2016/02/all-the-poems-by-stevie-smith/
BUY all of Stevie Smith’s Poetry: https://www.amazon.com/Stevie-Smith/e/B000APHOPY
About Paul Andruss in his own words…..
If I were a musician I would be Kate Bush or the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson; but without the mental issues or dependency on prescription drugs. For Brian not Kate! I can talk about anything except myself, so let’s talk about my work.
I’ve written 4 novels, Finn Mac Cool, and the (Harry-Potteresque) Jack Hughes Trilogy. ‘Finn Mac Cool’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ are available for free download. Hint! Hint!
About Thomas the Rhymer.
11 year old British schoolboy, Jack Hughes, sees a fairy queen kidnap his brother. With friends Catherine & Ken, Jack embarks on a whirlwind adventure to return Thomas the Rhymer to fairyland & rescue his brother
What’s been said about … Thomas the Rhymer
‘Fans of Harry Potter & Narnia will love Thomas the Rhymer’
‘Thomas the Rhymer leaves you feeling like a child curled up in a comfy armchair on a wet & windy afternoon, lost in a good book’
‘Spellbinding! An ideal Christmas read for young & old alike!’
Download Free from Paul’s website: http://www.jackhughesbooks.com/
Find out more about Paul and connect to him.
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/paul.andruss.9
My thanks to Paul for a fascinating look at the life and work of this enigmatic poet Stevie Smith. If you missed Paul’s Christmas story earlier in December here is the link.
Your feedback is treasured.. do please leave a comment and always delighted if you add a link to your own blog so that people can head over and meet you in person. Thanks Sally