Stevie Smith and Sylvia Plath: A Fan-Letter

Collected poems of Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith
My sleek new Plath nuzzling my already-quite-battered Smith.

Monday: November 19 [1962]

Dear Stevie Smith,

I have been having a lovely time this week listening to some recordings of you reading your poems for the British Council, and Peter Orr has been kind enough to give me your address. I better say straight out that I am an addict of your poetry, a desperate Smith-addict. I have wanted for ages to get hold of ‘A Novel on Yellow Paper’ (I am jealous of that title, it is beautiful, I’ve just finished my first, on pink, but that’s no help to the title I fear) and rooted as I have been in Devon for the last year bee-keeping and apple growing I never see a book or bookseller. Could you tell me where I could write to get a copy?

Also, I am hoping, by a work of magic, to get myself and the babies to a flat in London by the New Year and would be very grateful in advance to hear if you might be able to come to tea or coffee when I manage my move – to cheer me on a bit. I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.

Sincerely,

Sylvia Plath

From her ‘Girl who wanted to be God’ entry in her early diary, to ‘Lady Lazarus’ four months before her death, Sylvia Plath role-plays constantly in her writing. So does Stevie Smith.

Plath had listened to a British Council tape which Smith recorded on 6 December 1961. Smith read twenty-five poems, and in those she assumed almost as many masks. In ‘Croft’, she selects a small ‘soft’ man huddled in the attic as one of her alter egos; ‘Infelice’ parrots a deluded lover unable to see her darling’s unfaithfulness; in ‘The Roman Road’, she becomes the Christian begging the Roman lion to eat him up.

So Plath had a lot to live up to when she wrote her fan-letter to Smith, and she wasted no time. Two sentences in, she lays dramatic claim to her chosen role:

I am an addict of your poetry, a desperate Smith-addict.

Smith critics quote this line all the time. Not just, I think, because it represents an endorsement from Sylvia Plath. Plath has picked up something crucial about the experience of reading Smith’s work: that it leaves us both delighted and dissatisfied. Addiction is the experience of something which both meets our needs utterly, in the moment of consumption, but at the same time creates a need for its own repetition. So Smith encourages us, wryly, to reread her poems:

You say I must write another book? But I’ve just written this one.
You liked it so much that’s the reason? Read it again then.

In ‘To An American Publisher’, Smith acknowledges, with a performance of airy indifference, how her work creates a desire for more of itself. Instead of writing another book, Smith sends her readers back to repeat the experience they enjoyed: ‘Read it again then’.

Anyway. Back to Plath. Smith is the addictive substance; Plath is the ‘desperate’ addict. The phrase echoes the declaration of Smith’s protagonist in Novel on Yellow Paper. ‘I am a desperate character’, Pompey announces, straight-faced. Smith is being wry here. Of course Plath is too – even if, as we are always reminded, she wrote this letter three months before her suicide.

If Plath plays the part of addict, she steers Smith immediately into the role of confessor: ‘I better say straight out’, she admits. Plath can withhold nothing, she signals; she flings herself vulnerable at Smith’s feet. Smith is instantly implicated in a very intimate relationship.

Plath’s Smith is also witch or magician. Plath hopes that Smith will participate in a ‘work of magic’ and transplant – or at least witness or collude in the transportation of – her and the babies direct to London. Finally, Smith is cast as cheerleader. Plath begs her to come and ‘cheer me on’ over a cup of tea or coffee. Not ‘cheer me’. Stevie Smith becomes an encourager, a mentor – someone to ‘root’ for Plath, propel her forward in a situation where, Plath suggests, she has become overly rooted in babies and bee-keeping.

Confessor, witch, cheerleader…but Plath also calls on Smith to be just herself, or at least to be the comfortable Smith who emerges when we take her at face value. Plath has had ‘a lovely time this week’ listening to Smith’s recordings. We might not tell many other writers that their poems represented ‘a lovely time’, except perhaps a poet who had the gall to write – with barely-inflected irony – a debut collection called A Good Time Was Had By All. Plath veers towards reading Smith straight; she slips up here, slightly, in the game of masks she has initiated.

Or does she? It can be hard to tell with Smith. Tomorrow I’ll look at her reply…

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