Stevie Smith and Nonsense: Some Thoughts

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).
Ding-a-dong, ding-a-dong!
And they all sang a song.

(Edward Lear, ‘The Broom, the Shovel, the Poker and the Tongs.’)

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.

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3 thoughts on “Stevie Smith and Nonsense: Some Thoughts

  1. bryananne June 2, 2015 / 6:53 pm

    I agree that Smith is not a nonsense poet though she often writes nonsense. I find her absurd poems quite complex and thought provoking. In the poem ‘Girls!’ she rails against the ‘awful balsy nonsense’ of ‘not letting down the side.’because she doesn’t want to be in the team that takes pride in remaining in the 6th form. I imagine that Smith’s nonsense is a form of rebellion against the status quo and that she plays seriously anarchic games in a bold effort to get beyond the accepted way of seeing things..

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    • masudnoreen June 2, 2015 / 8:05 pm

      I love ‘Girls!’. It’s one of the poems I like to read out to myself and laugh at just for the pleasure of it. The rebellion argument is interesting. A lot of Smith’s critics feel she is trying to rebel against the status quo, but it’s harder for them to identify what that rebellion is for, or even find any kind of consistent rebellion across her poems. I feel that Smith does like to resist accepted patterns of behaviour sometimes, but she makes it very hard to identify exactly what this resistance amounts to. Lots of critics read her as very feminist, for instance, but I don’t think she’s consistently ‘feminist’ in the ways that they think she is…

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      • bryananne June 10, 2015 / 2:18 pm

        I agree that Smith is not much of a feminist. ‘Girls!’ begins as though it might be a rallying call to the sisterhood but Stevie (true to form) immediately undermines it with: ‘although I am a woman/ I always try to appear human’ ,This suggests to me that she does not want to take being a woman too seriously as it might make her less human: she might forget that men and children too suffer from being human. i think the whole poem speaks against the excesses of extreme feminism.

        As far as the general rebellion is concerned, I think that Smith rebels against the certainties of feminism and other isms or ideological postilions because she sees the world as in a constant state of flux and uncertainty. Instead of trying to anchor herself to a political or religious certainty she accepts the fluidity of the world and her feelings. There is therefore no consistent rebellion, she rebels against any position as soon as she finds herself beginning to accept it, as in God the Eater ‘There is a god in whom I do not believe / Yet to this god my love stretches.’, Like Harold in Harold’s Leap when she finds herself on a promontory she is impelled to try to leap to another one, even if she risks drowning in the attempt.

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