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The Selected Poems Of Stevie Smith

Regular readers of this blog know that I appreciate poetry. But I must confess, it does take more discipline and patience to read than prose. Much of this is because the ideas are so much more compressed. You don't breeze through a book of poetry the way you would a John Grisham novel, or even a John Steinbeck novel.  Or at least someone with my short attention span doesn't. That's why, with one exception, I have never described a collection of poetry as "a book I couldn't put down".

The exception is Selected Poems by Stevie Smith. I took it down to the coffee shop the other day  with the intention of reading around 20 pages, and ended up reading the entire unread portion of the book, or about 80 pages. I had never read that much poetry in a sitting before. It was not because her poems are trivial. They are accessible though, and her prosody skills and what Robert Lowell called "her unique and cheerfully gruesome voice" make her work compelling, even addictive.

Her poems can be quite morbid at times. The title of her most famous poem, Not Waving But Drowning, is a good indicator. I'll Have Your Heart is even more directly morbid. But neither of these is standard issue dark poetry. They are clearly not the product of  overgrown adolescent angst, but  of someone who has observed life carefully and thoroughly.

There is never sadness or ugliness for it's own sake in any of her poems. Some of them are downright happy, such as Autumn, about people finding love late in life, and The Pleasures Of Friendship. Many would be tempted to dismiss the latter poem as secretly ironic and not celebratory of friendship at all, but that would be a mistake. You can be sure that if there is an unhappy subtext, Ms. Smith will make sure you know about it.

Not that there are no hidden depths. Some poems are seemingly frivolous, but quite substantive upon further thought and examination. A poem called In The Park is about a couple of old men in the park, one of whom is hard of hearing. One man says "let us pray for mutes" and the hard of hearing man thinks he is saying "let us pray for newts".

At first glance, this premise is good for not much more than a skit or a vaudeville routine. But she manages to create a meditation on the relative merits of praying for the deficient and praising the praiseworthy. She makes it work, in spite of handicapping herself by using newts as her example of praiseworthiness. In another poem, she takes the old "parrot says something inappropriate" gag and puts a macabre twist on it. I'm not going to give details or even the title of the poem...it's more fun if  you discover it on  your own. Just trust me that it is brilliant. Not to mention cheerfully gruesome.

And there's another first. I have never concerned myself with spoiler warnings when writing about poetry. Stevie Smith is just unique that way. If you think you don't like poetry, or if you think accessible poetry is necessarily frivolous, read some Stevie Smith.
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