In my last post on Stevie Smith, I suggested that the poet writes from a perspective of innocence, translating into a new sensibility or key the experiences of Stevie-the-Pilgrim. I did not do much to speculate on why such a translation might happen, beyond saying that it was a sanity-saving measure. But more can be said, and should if it is not to seem a glib game on Smith’s part, which any reader of the poems knows it not to be. Appreciating the motive depends on a more nuanced account of what this poetic voice of innocence is about: better explaining what it is doing will answer much of the question of why it does what it does. Translation is the right word, I think, in part because it is a recurrent mode of Smith’s art, whether she translates the voices of others, in stories or in dramatic monologues, or whether she translates Racine or Virgil, the former with especially great success. But it seems the wrong word in so far as she is, despite occasional drops of French in the lines, a thoroughly Anglophone poet, translating English to English. To put it directly, what she is doing is translating from the cant-filled, specious English into an English hollowed out from the common tongue, learned anew for her own purposes; we might think that all poets, purifying the dialect of the tribe, are doing something similar, but Smith is not doing it for the tribe, and what distinguishes her poetry is that she is neither translating, as bad poets do, into a poesy, nor, as many good ones do, into an existing register. She is translating instead into a language that she is still learning, in fact re-learning; her poems have an air of childishness and naivety because she in her poetry she is doing something children do, putting on the phrases and games of language, for reasons that are not childish at all: pushing back against the cant and manipulations of adult speech, and setting in their place a voice that is sometimes frank, sometimes perverse, sometimes harsh, sometimes tender, and often candidly inquisitive, as a child might be. The poems seem to grow into themselves, to evolve into their formal wholes, as she writes because each poem is an effort at learning, sometimes arriving (again as children might) at a moral, a concern with norms of taste and rightness, and often arriving elsewhere. Smith’s approach is distinctly her own, but might be taken up by any poet without the thought that they are imitating her; since the language a poet would be re-learning would be as culturally situated as her own, they would sound different from her.
What I am saying now may not be much different from what I thought, and wrote, in a post on Smith over seven years ago: “her poems are the record of that peculiar child we were who witnesses all of our life….childhood provides the way with words by which she rejects as incommensurable to her experience, as inadequate or foreign or arbitrary or pompously vacant, the means of consolation and communication offered to her.” Not wanting to drift into an argument with my former self, it’s clear there are at least some differences between then and now: it is not, I now think, an inner child, or childhood itself, so much as a resemblance to childhood that comes about not as an end in itself, but as a consequence of her determination to re-learn to look, say, and judge.
I was hoping to illustrate my point with one of the most famous poems, having chosen the fairly slender “Infant” for the last post, and I nearly did select “Magna est Veritas” for my purpose before finding more immediate pleasure in the poem that precedes it in the collected, All the Poems, “Look!” [note: “yet” here means “still,” as in former English usage]:
I am becalmed in a deep sea
And give signals, but they are not answered
And yet I see ships in the distance
And give signals, but they do not answer.
Am I a pariah, or a leper
To be shunned reasonably?
Or did I commit a crime long ago
And have forgotten, but they remember?
Into the dark night to darker I move
And the lights of the ship are not seen now
But instead there is a phosphorescence from the water.
That light shines, and now I see
Low down, as I bend my and in the water
A fish so transparent in his inner organs
That I know he comes from the earthquake bed
Five miles below where I sail, I sail.
All his viscera are transparent, his eyes globules on stalks,
Is he dead? Or alive and only languid? Now
Into my hand he comes, the travelling creature,
Not from the sea-bed only but from the generations,
Faint because of the lighter pressure,
Fainting, a long fish, stretched out.
So we meet, and for a moment
I forget my solitariness
But then I should like to show him,
And who shall I show him to?
The narrative is wonderful because it is so solemn and straight-faced as it records the fantastic, unbelievable encounter; it does not admit that this might be fiction. It is present tense, happening again before her as she speaks, carried off by the tale, but the present tense has the effect also of suggesting her talking to herself, and what she says (“Or alive and only languid,” for instance) is unguardedly, unreservedly open to both awe and acceptance of what is taking place. The pronouns of the poem tell a story: “I” dominates, set first against an unspecified “they” that are the ships, but that are also others, those from whom Smith sets herself apart; the poem is a measure of her distance from them both in what it says and in how it says it, with the title “Look!” appealing to a companion that is not there; in the final stanza, Smith offers the only “we” of the poem, the fish and herself. Smith firmly felt the connection that humans and other animals could share, and the line “I forget my solitariness” expresses something genuine; but she is also aware that the fish cannot understand her, and cannot share in her wonder at what she has found, both because it cannot think (“reasonably” is a crucial word early in the poem, since it draws the line, without fanfare, between humans and animals) and because some of that wonder depends on a difference that the fish cannot perceive, being on the other side of it. The poem brings two of Smith’s great subjects, loneliness and animal companionship, to bear on one another, recognizing both what Smith recognizes elsewhere, that too many adults are cruel and insensitive in what they make of and do to non-human animals, and what she does not, which is that it is one thing to find companionship in non-human animals but another to claim they can conquer the solitude of person from people. If Smith is doing what I suggest, writing poems in which she learns anew how to speak a language she already knows, then we should not be surprised to see words like “phosphorescence” or knowledge of deep-sea fish pressing through the poems; she already, in a sense, has the words—she is re-learning how to put them together. It should also be clear from this poem just what Smith wants to avoid by writing a poem that resists converting an animal life into a myth or symbol or sentiment, or that speaks too self-diagnostically of the pangs of loneliness; Smith is shrugging off the ways adults usually speak. It might be helpful to consider how different Marianne Moore’s poems about animals, if they really even are about animals; or to consider how one of the great animal poems of Smith’s century, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” cannot, because of its commitments and perspective, lay claim to the feeling Smith here evokes; how similarly Robert Frost, in “Two look at two,” cannot, however receptive he is to a shared present with the deer he and his companion see, let them provide the frank solace that Smith finds here, or express his awe without self-consciousness that she lacks. Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” has a single moment, when she first sees the seal, that compares to Smith’s poem, but it soon eclipsed by more obscure reflections on history. None of these poets, not even Bishop, starts from the same willingness to imagine what it would be to learn English again, as a child might—but also as an adult, knowing both the cost of doing so, and what other adults do with the language that makes imagining oneself as learning it again a sanity-saving imaginative undertaking.