Apr 22, 2010

Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning" and "Pretty"

These seem to be the best, or at least best known, of Stevie Smith's poems. "Not Waving" has the kind of chill I've mentioned here in relation to some of Dickinson's work and, more recently, Anne Sexton's.

"Pretty" has it too, but don't you think she lays it on a little thick? Even so, the poem invites me back to ponder why some parts work so much better than others. And I do like the target of her satire, which I take as our need to find everything pretty. To say it's all part of a spiffy design, one must gloss over some pretty gruesome stuff, don't you think? But not to do that, says Stevie Smith, is not to be human.

At the end, she adds that not being human would be pretty as well. Is that not a death wish that seems every bit as authentic as Sexton or Plath? It was in my head that Smith was also a suicide, but in getting this post up, I learned that she died of a brain tumor.

Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith : Poem Guide : Learning Lab : The Poetry Foundation

TLS Poem of the Week Pretty by Stevie Smith


Anonymous said...

I don't think I can trust any writer who doesn't have at least a touch of humor. That's why I like Stevie and don't like Sexton very much. Plus, Stevie had the good fortune to be interpreted by Glenda Jackson.

I don't think the last few lines of Pretty would work so well without all the set up. That's funny think Stevie shares a chill w/Dickinson; I think they share a similar wit.

Cozen-womyn, get over here.

Banjo52 said...

Chill and wit -- I think we're both right. I'll add that I think Plath and Smith are in similar wit neighborhoods--namely dark wit. I don't know Sexton as well as Plath, but will keep this question in mind if I get back to her any time soon.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Oooh, I have not read either of these before. I certainly would not call them pretty.

Not Waving is totally chilling. Just this once, he wasn't joking. Not pretty at all.

Her Pretty poem? I get SO confused without punctuation! I can read ee cummings fine, but this Smith poem has me re-examing EVERYTHING. Did she mean this a new sentence?? Is the end of the line the same as a period/comma/pause?

It isn't pretty in my mind. It is damn annoying. But I do love the imagery - the pike going for its prey, the water rat having such differences from other water animals.

And from now on, I will never say something is 'pretty'. I gotta go grab the thesaurus and come up with pretty new words.

Banjo52 said...

BrAZ, I wondered if there might be comments about punctuation. It seems very inconsistent to me.

Anonymous said...

Fine. Fine! I'll take Stevie and my toys and go home.

Banjo52 said...

But Hiker, wait! I'm with Braz on the sharp images in "Pretty." And I like its theme, though I hear Smith's voice on it so extreme that it might be facile--and creepily death-loving.

And for a long time, I've liked "Not Waving." I think that I think it's more focused and restrained, and therefore more powerful, than "Pretty."

As for the punctuation issue, I don't mean to digress to a trivial matter; I really don't get how a writer whose language can be so strong can be so reckless with that other language we call punctuation. But maybe it's purposeful; I haven't really studied it--just a gut reaction that such shenanigans are not worthy of her.

By the way, to all, for the sake of full disclosure or whatever, I added the last 4 sentences after the post had been up a few hours.

Banjo52 said...

And "creepily death-loving" has, for me, both power and repulsion.

Gary Carden said...

All this chatter about punctuation! I think that many fine writers and poets are intimidated by punctuation, especially by teachers who say "You must never." Everytime someone says "Don't ever do this!" I want to do it.
And I love the idea that an alleged punctuation error might lead to another possible meaning. That is wonderful, and suggests that the errors may be intentional.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjomyn, do/did you ever have your students write themes/essays based on the poetry style you are reading? In this case, the students would write confessional themes... something they did that backfired on them?

Or is that TOO introspective, for students to reveal that much?

In high school, our english teacher used to bring in huge photos of street scenes and we had to write an essay of what we thought was going on. It was pretty cool. I always got C- or D+ on the themes, but I was afraid to be imaginative. But poetry... wow, take a photo and write a poem. Or not.

AH, if you take your toys and Stevie and go home, how will you ever know? I'd miss you!!!! (this is called 'sucking up').

Anonymous said...

I wonder if poetry, as a profession, has the highest rate of suicides. Next to dentistry, of course.

Banjo52 said...

Gary, yes, but it's a slippery slope, isn't it. For example, when some free verse poets break lines in unusual places for no reason you can discern, isn't one of your responses something like, "Is that your best shot at technique, Dude? We gave up on rhyme and meter so you could break lines in ways that yank around the reader instead of respecting him and trying to share with him? --never mind that the formalists often had/have cuter line breaks than you ever dreamt of?" Or so I wonder.

Like Brenda, I'm often OK with cummings because his new rules consist of breaking old rules purposefully and understandably. But some poets just seem not to know what the hell they're doing, but do it anyway because it feels good or their better angels or somebody whispered in their ears.

A.Hiker, point noted. I've had the same thought. Now I wonder if it's because both poet and dentist have to work with great precision at a task that often brings pain and anger to the audience plus anonymity and lack of appreciation for the performer.

To all, my next post will consist of a more complete response to Brenda's questions, so try to get a good night's sleep.

Brenda's Arizona said...

This is the kind of annoyance that ANNOYS me:
"The prey escapes with an underwater flash
But not for long," - is the flash not for long or the escape?
"As Nature is always careless and indifferent
Who sees" - does Nature see or is it just careless and indifferent?

I spend stupid energy trying to diagram the sentence so I know how many verbs go with the subject. I WANT to be like Gary, relaxed and enjoying the double meaning. But the precise person in me needs to know what the poet is saying. It isn't pretty... and it is such a talent do write it once and mean twice.

Gary, I like your levity!

Brenda's Arizona said...

Why do dentist commit suicide?

Lovers' Lane