Saturday, March 21, 2009

“The River Humber”

Believe it or not, I do get stumped sometimes about what poem to post for the Weekly Poem. Such was the case yesterday: nothing I could think of seemed quite right. So I asked Eberle: “What poem would you like to see?” & she said, “You said you were going to post more Stevie Smith.”

This is true. One of the first poems in the Weekly Poem series was “Not Waving But Drowning,” & in that post I promised to post poems by this unique &, I think, under-valued poet. For those of you who don’t know, Ms Smith was a British poet & novelist whose writing career began in the 1930s & continued until her death in 1971. Smith’s work is extremely hard to categorize—her poems have a deceptively simple surface, but a deep pattern of poetical thinking flows consistently below. For those unfamiliar with her work, it’s a bit like Ogden Nash meets Thomas Hardy, with some other very individual elements thrown in.

Today’s poem, “The River Humber,” seems like a piece of rhyming description on the surface. As is often the case with Smith’s poems, the lines are metrically irregular & the rhymes are “slant” or “off-rhymes.” But Smith’s poem is like a landscape painting that invites us in to meditate on the “why” of a natural setting. This subject is fascinating to me—I often like to meditate on poet W.D. Snodgrass’ line: “We need the landscape to repeat us.” Smith’s poem takes a “poetical” observation & examines the questions posed by that observation. In a certain way this reminds me of a very favorite poem of mine by Wallace Stevens, “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” Although Stevens’ poems registers high on the rhetoric scale & Smith’s poem is under-stated, both draw us in to a transformative watery landscape, & there’s a sonorousness in both poems that very much rises to the level of meaning in sound.

Speaking of meaning in sound, I learned yesterday that this poem, (along with several others, including “Not Waving, But Drowning”) has been set to music by composer Simon Rowland Jones. Smith herself used to sing her poems to old Anglican hymn settings—more grist for the “poetry & music” series, whenever I get around to writing same.

Hope you enjoy the poem, & that some of you may be inspired to seek out more work by this intriguing writer.

The River Humber

No wonder
The river Humber
Lies in a silken slumber.

For it is dawn
And over the newly warm
Earth the mists turn,

Wrapping their gentle fringes
Upon the river where it hinges
Upon the perfect sleep of perfected images.

Quiet in the thought of its felicity
A graven monument of sufficiency
Beautiful in every line the river sleeps complacently.

And hardly the dawn distinguishes
Where a miasma languishes
Upon the waters’ farther reaches.

Lapped in the sleeping consciousness
Of its waves’ happiness
Upon the mudbanks of its approaches,

The river Humber
Turns again to deeper slumber,
Deeper than deeps in joys without number.

Stevie Smith


  1. What a comfortable river. After I read "The River Humber", I - 1. looked up Humber River (there are three of them, but I presume Smith was writing about the one in England) 2. looked up a biography of Stevie Smith, and 3. Went to and checked out the list of 30 Smith poems they provide. I clicked on "Deeply Morbid" (because who could resist?) and read that.

    I'm glad you post poems, because they always send me off on delightful journeys.

  2. Thanks a lot Sandra-- your response of looking into things further means a lot to both Eberle & me. Glad you enjoyed this.

  3. I'm going to have to keep an eye out for some Stevie Smith books. When I was in 1st year University, my professor, Rosemary Sullivan mentioned her. In fact, I believe she went on to write a highly acclaimed book about her.
    Ogden Nash meets Thomas Hardy - sounds like someone whose work I could really get into.

    Thanks for this post.


  4. Hi Kat:

    Yes, I thought about you when I posted this-- I think you'd really like Stevie Smith. Her work is pretty widely available I believe. Glad you liked it.

  5. I must correct myself. It seems she may have mentioned Stevie Smith, but it is in fact, Elizabeth Smart of whom she wrote. I don't want to mislead anyone.

    In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the Smith poem and will be looking out for her work.


  6. I'm intrigued by her success in deploying polysyllabic and Latinate words in the service of simplicity. One doesn't see that often.

  7. Hi K:

    That is a really good point-- she not only deploys them, but even stresses them by making them rhyming words. She's an extremely interesting writer from so many perspectives.

  8. Hey John ,I'm goin off track here playing catch-up but I'm enjoying some of your old poetry and was wondering if it was ever published in book form?Also I have a recording of Yeats on a CD called'Now and in time to be'with himself sounding very old and grand reciting inishfree and many other artists using his words ,like the cranberries ,Shane MacGowan (with my favourite'An Irish airman forsees his death')World party,The Waterboys,Christy Moore and others.It's from '97 on the Grapevine label(GRACD219)

  9. Hi TFE:

    Yeats & MacGowan is a sort of "wow" combination; that sounds intriguing.

    Long story short on my old poetry (as well as the half dozen or so from last year): A fair swath of it was published in totally obscure & now-defunct journals, but never in book form. The good news: I have serious plans for self-publishing thru later this spring (am hoping by May). The collection I've put together has a generous selection of the San Francisco (& newer poems) & a few of the old Charlottesville ones I thought fit. I'd like to also self-publish a collection of the Charlottesville ones separately, probably in 2010. The collection will be called "The Days of Wine & Roses" after my poem of the same name; right now it's being proofread in preparation for getting it done thru lulu. I'll certainly post more on RFB as things become a bit more "real." Thanks a lot for looking those poems over-- it is much appreciated.

  10. Oh yeah, you and Eberle nailed this one! Bravo!!

  11. I am late to your party again. I enjoyed this as well as the equinox below. Thanks for the updates!

  12. Hi JT's Tale: Always good to see you, late or early. I'll be stopping by your place in the near future to give a good listen to the latest video. Really looking forward to that.

  13. Thanks for posting this poem: I didn't know it. I've never paid much attention to the Humber, even though it's not too far from here. I now feel moved to go and have a look at it.

    Thank you, too, for following my blog.

  14. Good choice. Sometime since I read any Stevie Smith, and so time I put that right. Not easy, choosing a weekly poem, but they are very much appreciated. Thanks for that one.


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