Miss Pauncefort sang at the top of her voice
(Sing tirry-lirry-lirry down the lane)
And nobody knew what she sang about
(Sing tirry-lirry-lirry all the same).
(Stevie Smith, ‘The Songster’)
The Broom and the Shovel, the Poker and Tongs,
They all took a drive in the Park;
And they each sang a song, ding-a-dong, ding-a-dong!
Before they went back in the dark.
Mr. Poker he sate quite upright in the coach;
Mr. Tongs made a clatter and clash;
Miss Shovel was dressed all in black (with a brooch);
Mrs. Broom was in blue (with a sash).
And they all sang a song.
Stevie Smith tends to remind people of Edward Lear. It’s easy to see why. Both use unlikely events and sing-song language (‘Ding-a-dong!’ ‘Sing tirry lirry lirry’); both illustrate their poetry with frivolous-seeming sketches.
So is it helpful to treat Smith along the same lines, as a “nonsense poet”? I have some qualms. Hilbert describes an experiment which gave university students an impossible (nonsensical) assignment. Concluding that it was nonsense, many students didn’t attempt it. Hilbert deduces that we tend to believe:
‘It is not only unreasonable to consider solving a nonsensical task, but it is reasonable, rational, and in every way justifiable to ignore it completely.’ (Hilbert, 30)
Labelling something ‘nonsense’ entails an end to analysis: a dismissal. And Stevie Smith is much-dismissed. Implicitly, where her work is ignored or brushed over. Explicitly, where it’s described in patronising terms: ‘charming’, ‘childlike’. Arthur Rankin subtitled his book-length study of Smith ‘Little Girl Lost’, which says it all. In this context, treating Smith’s work as “nonsense poetry” feels like yet another act of relegation.
But the alternative – trying to uncover “meaning” in Smith’s evidently polyvocal, self-undermining poetry – feels no better. Just as reading Lear’s ‘There was an old man whose despair’ as a ‘suicide limerick’ (see Dilworth, ‘Edward Lear’s Suicide Limerick’) feels implausible, I’m highly averse to critiques which find a sociopolitical ideology in Smith’s work. It would be easy to see ‘The Songster’, above, as a commentary on spinsterhood (Miss Pauncefort sings, but no one hears her! Her voice is silenced!). But doing that means we miss a substantial part of the point: Smith’s multiple linguistic sleights-of-hand.
Smith might, in this very localised point of her poetic output, be hinting at how society undermines Miss Pauncefort, but she’s also participating in this undermining – the speaker’s own singing cuts off the spinster’s story. At the same time, Smith’s undercutting poetic structure, narrative and conclusion. The ending, ‘Sing tirra-lirra-lirra all the same’ is interpolated filler, repeated in a parody of narrative progression, but it gets the status of valid “conclusion” to this poem because its rhyme confers a sense of closure.
Above all, Smith’s rewriting – maybe even parodying – the norms of nonsense poetry itself. Phrases like ‘eena, meena, mina, mo’ have, Dolinksy suggests, an ‘appeal [which]…is more of a musical nature than a literary one’ (Dolitsky, 6). True of Lear, perhaps, but not Smith. Smith’s musical interludes have a definite literary effect. The ending ‘Sing tirra-lirra-lirra all the same’ is cruelly knowing in its timing. It’s the moment in which the poem’s speaker nearly reaches a conclusion – we can see everything building to that point – and then chooses not to. She opts out. That act of opting-out is very Stevie Smith, both her style and her subject, and I’ll write more about that another time.
So: Stevie Smith the nonsense poet? I’d argue: don’t use critical terminology which places her as nonsense poetry: read her against those terms.