Stevie Smith and Sylvia Plath: Smith’s Reply

Stevie Smith's first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper

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.

Yours ever,

Stevie Smith

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.

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7 thoughts on “Stevie Smith and Sylvia Plath: Smith’s Reply

  1. hullconference May 15, 2016 / 8:51 am

    I wonder how aware Smith was of Plath at this time? Colossus was only published in 1960. Other things were in periodicals, and as Smith indicates, she doesn’t read much. Maybe she thought there was an implicit request for comment/advice from a hopeful poet/novelist but didn’t have time or inclination to respond with any thought, busy as she was with the Lion Aunt? Wonder too whether Smith felt any regret? Doubt it ….

    Like

    • masudnoreen May 16, 2016 / 6:52 pm

      It’s a good question! Smith insisted that her poem ‘Pearl: to an American lady poet committing suicide because of not being appreciated enough’ was not a reference to Sylvia Plath, but – hmmm…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. camilledefleurville May 15, 2016 / 12:38 pm

    Thank you for these two entries that I have posted on my FB page. If you allow me, as assistant editor to the Alliance of British Literary Societies (ALS), I will post them both on the Alliance FB page and tweet them.

    Like

    • camilledefleurville May 15, 2016 / 2:53 pm

      Published on the ALS page on Facebook and on my blogger page Camille de Fleurville-Malaret.

      Like

      • masudnoreen May 16, 2016 / 6:49 pm

        Thank you so much! You are welcome to publicise this post wherever you like – how kind of you!

        Liked by 1 person

      • camilledefleurville May 16, 2016 / 7:33 pm

        Why not? I know by internet and FB some participants to the conference you attended at Jesus College, and although neither Sylvia Plath nor Stevie Smith belong to “our authors”, I as a person and a blogger and I as assistant editor to the ALS wish authors and literature to be promoted. The idea behind the Alliance of British Societies is to help literary societies to be known and their authors publicised. Stevie Smith does not belong to these authors but she is a famous British writer – and your blog shows her importance through your work!
        Let me know if there are other events, works, facts, that you think it would be interesting for the reading people to be aware of.
        I follow your blog and had already published before this morning the letter written by Sylvia Plath to Stevie Smith on my FB page. I shall do this again very gladly. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • masudnoreen May 16, 2016 / 10:37 pm

        I am warmed by your kind words! I will certainly let you know of any upcoming events or points of interest around Stevie Smith. The ALS does great work and we were very grateful for its assistance in helping to publicise the Smith conference!

        Liked by 1 person

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