Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Poet Named Stevie

The name Stevie Smith was actually a pseudonym for Florence Margaret Smith (1902-1971), the British writer who is best remembered for her short, simple, yet sometimes very hard-hitting poetry.

Smith was born in Hull, England, but when she was three years old her family moved to the northern London suburb of Palmers Green, where she lived for the rest of her life. Her first and only job was with Newnes-Pearson, British magazine publishers, where she became private secretary to Sir George Newnes and Sir Neville Pearson. She submitted her first volume of poems to British publisher Jonathan Cape when she was 32 years old, but was asked to write a novel instead. Her first book, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), was an amusing, largely autobiographical monologue. Two other novels in a similar style followed—Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949), the story of a failed love affair.

Smith's poetic reputation for amusing, barbed, but often mournful short verses, was established by A Good Time Was Had By All (1937). She achieved fame with Not Waving But Drowning (1957), which has a central concept of loneliness but still retains an underlying comic manner. Four years after her death, The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith (1975), illustrated with Smith's own sketches, was published.

In 1977 Stevie, a stageplay based on her life by British playwright Hugh Whitemore, was produced, with British actress Glenda Jackson in the lead role. The play was made into a successful motion picture in 1978. Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, Illustrated by Herself, a collection of Smith's reviews, articles, letters, and previously uncollected poetry, was published in 1981.

For me, she was another one of those immensely talented wordsmiths, who sometimes made us laugh -- yet always made us think.


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