Saturday, February 6, 2010

“The Bereaved Swan”

It’s February, the month of St Valentine’s, & yet I’ve chosen one of the least romantic poets I can think of to feature this month in the Weekly Poem series. Who might that be? The great Stevie Smith.

Ms Smith, who has appeared on Robert Frost’s Banjo a couple of times in the past, was British & wrote from the mid 1930s until her death in the early 1970s. Her poetry defies easy categorization—a sort of very much female, very much mid 20th century Alexander Pope might give the uninitiated some sense of her technique & vision.

But Smith was not a “mere” formalist, tho she wrote during a period in which formalism reared its head quite virulently with the work of the “New Critical” poets—writers like John Crowe Ransom, William Empson & Yvor Winters, among many others. Her dark vision didn’t spring from the ivied halls of the academy—for starters
—but rather from feeling & experience, even when it can hardly be called “autobiographical” at all (witness today’s poem). Still, some call her work confessional—interestingly enough, the most famous “confessional poet” of all, Sylvia Plath, was a big fan of Smith’s work—but if she is, she takes the art of confession from the landscapes inhabited by Plath or Sexton, or Lowell or Berryman, & makes of it an opportunity for serious play.

In fact, this gift for play—even in the midst of a sometimes mordant darkness—is one of Smith’s great strengths & something that sets her apart from many of the other formal poets of her era. William Carlos Williams once famously attacked the sonnet (& by extension, poem in strict form) as a “fascist” construct. As someone who has written in form myself—even if often reconfigured rather drastically—I’ve thought a lot about that statement since I first heard it quoted by poet Greg Orr around 25 years ago. From my viewpoint, a “form” of poetry—whether “formal” in the usual sense or partaking of the typical constructs of English language free verse as practiced over the past 100 years—becomes “reactionary” when it abandons play. This Smith never does.

“The Bereaved Swan” is an early poem—it comes from Stevie Smith’s A Good Time Was Had By All, published in 1937. Hope you enjoy it!

The Bereaved Swan

On the lake
Like a cake
Of soap
Why is the swan
On the lake?
He has abandoned hope.

On the lake afloat
Bows his head:
O would that I were dead
For her sake that lies
Wrapped from my eyes
In a mantle of death,
The swan saith.

Stevie Smith


  1. I love the work of Stevie Smith! This one is deceptively simple yet full with meaning. I'm glad she's your featured poet.

    Interestingly, I've just posted a sonnet. I didn't know WCW made that comment. Guess he wouldn't love me today!

  2. This seems to inhabit a no-man's land between Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell and I warm to it more than I do to either of them.

    "From my viewpoint, a “form” ...becomes “reactionary” when it abandons play."

    What you say about poetry here is true for life, I think.

  3. The effect is cumulative. I do know her work, though I had not known this one.
    On the lake
    Like a cake
    Of soap

    almost caused me to give up hope, yet by the time I had reached the end I was completely won over. In the hands of a lesser poet, though...
    Fine post.

  4. I can just imagine how this came to be—a picnic perhaps, by a pond and the dark thoughts come tumbling in, despite the loveliness of the day and the camaraderie...perhaps.
    I was amazed to learn that Stevie Smith had thoughts of suicide even in her childhood—that she was comforted by the knowledge that her own death was in her power.
    I love the simplicity of this poem and the natural element that belies its true meaning. That word "wan" is so perfect, isn't it? When everyone is exclaiming about the beauty of a swan's whiteness, she sees the pale and death.

    Thanks for this, John! You were right; I really like this.


  5. Hi Karen, Dominic, Dave & Kat

    Karen: Glad you like Stevie Smith! I'll look forward to checking out your sonnet later today--will be traveling this morning. Personally, I have a kind of love-hate relationship with WCW.

    Dominic: Those are interesting comparisons--Sitwell is pretty clear in this one, Stein a bit more subtle, but accurate I think in a deeper way. Yes: let us all be safe from taking things too seriously!

    Dave: Agreed--glad you stuck with it!

    Kat: So glad you liked this & that it touched your imagination!

  6. Hmm. At first I didn't like it...then I reached 'On the lake? He has abandoned hope,' and I did like it...but by the time I reached the end, I disliked it again.


    I guess I'm just not into 'female' poetry.

    Sylvia Plath is especially Blah.

    -- Give me Kenneth Patchen, or give me death! ;)

    I'll go marching down the street with my roses, and Plath can go stick her head in the oven.

    What in the world does 'The swan saith' mean? The Swan said?? Says??

    Oh baloney. I miss Patchen month already. ;)

  7. Hi Ginger: Ah well, S Smith may not be everyone's cup of tea. I actually agree with you on Plath--I'm pretty lukewarm about a lot of her poetry. It's possible you might like a couple of the upcoming Stevie Smith poems better.


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