Following on from my last post: Sylvia Plath thought Smith’s reply to her 1962 fan letter was ‘deliciously Smithish’. Perhaps it is.
Dear Sylvia Plath,
Thank you so much for your letter – I was glad to hear from you & glad you enjoyed the Harvard record.
I’m afraid I really dont know where you would find a copy of Novel on Y.P. now. It did go into a Penguins (in 1950, I think it was) but that sold out & they did not reprint. When I go downstairs – I camp upstairs most of the time with my aged Aunt, she is 90!) – I will look out the address of a man who sometimes manages to track down books for me. He lives in this neighbourhood oddly enough but is very shy – just sends the book & the a/c – wh. after all is what one wants.
I do hope your novel goes well & I do hope the move in the New Year goes well too – if only as you suggest, so that we can meet some time.
I feel awfully lazy most of the time, even the idea of writing a novel makes me feel rather faint! And as for poetry, I am a real humbug, just write it(?) sometimes but practically never read a word. That makes me feel pretty mean spirited when poets like you write such nice letters.
Sunday Looks as if I’d been for days upstairs – but it’s just the Oblomov in us all!
I wrote about how Plath’s letter, at points, incorporated Smith into a particular identity: comfortable, spinsterish, her writing reliably and untroublingly enjoyable. I think Smith’s reply plays up to this, a little. Her niceties are almost exaggeratedly bland:
I was glad to hear from you & glad you enjoyed the Harvard record.
I do hope your novel goes well & I do hope the move in the New Year goes well too.
Her repetitions – ‘glad’, ‘I do hope’ – flag up their own banality. This is the voice of someone who might write in the church newsletter – or, indeed, title her poetry collection – A Good Time Was Had By All.
Which isn’t to say Smith is being insincere. I think she means her good wishes – but she’s also enjoying meaning them, meaning them all over the place.
The repetition hardens the good wishes into a kind of opacity: a social front which is hard to penetrate. For much about this letter reads as Smith detaching herself from Plath, from the urgency with which the younger poet attempted to cast Smith as confessor, cheerleader, life-saver. Smith’s language refuses to get involved. It disclaims responsibility for Novel on Yellow Paper – ‘I really dont know where you would find a copy’ – and seems indifferent at their decision not to reprint.
Where Plath’s letter has her striving at the ‘roots’ which keep her fixed in Devon – bees, apples, babies – Smith embeds herself cosily in one place. Even going downstairs becomes an undertaking. When she does do so, Smith still confines her sphere of influence to her ‘neighbourhood’. We suspect that, like her book-finding agent, Smith may also be hinting that she is ‘very shy‘.
I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson. In her letters, she too plays the role of homebody with gusto. Compare Smith’s diction with, for instance, the famous line from Dickinson’s letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, where the American poet stakes her claim to solitude with dramatic, almost mystical emphasis:
You speak kindly of seeing me; could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst, I should be very glad, but I do not cross my father’s ground to any house or town.
We know Dickinson is playing a role – that this hinges to an extent on an act of self-styling. Even as Stevie Smith disentangles herself from Plath’s proposed roleplay – refuses to involve herself in the intensely performed dynamics which are implicit in Plath’s letter – she substitutes a performance of her own.