This Old Poem #105:
Stevie Smith’s I Do Not Speak
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/24/04

  In many ways Stevie Smith was just about all any lover of poetry could want from a poet who was good but made no claims to true greatness. She was a fine poet, whose innovations & unpretentious comic style led her to both critical & popular acclaim. Best of all it was her very lack of affectations & delusions to grandeur that allowed her to niche into a role as a poetic ‘perennial’- a poet who will be read again & again through the generations.
  Here is a typical online ‘bio’: 

  Florence Margaret "Stevie" Smith was born in 1902 in Yorkshire, England. Her father left the family to join the North Sea Patrol when she was very young. At age three she moved with her sister and mother to the northern London suburb Palmers Green. This was her home until her death in 1971. Her mother died when she was a teenager and she and her sister lived with their spinster aunt, an important figure throughout her life, known as "The Lion." After high school she attended North London Collegiate School for Girls. She began as a secretary with the magazine publisher George Newnes and went on to be the private secretary to Sir Nevill Pearson and Sir Frank Newnes. She began writing poetry in her twenties while working at George Newnes. Her first book, Novel on Yellow Paper, was published in 1936 and drew heavily on her own life experience, examining the unrest in England during World War I. Her first collection of verse, A Good Time Was Had By All (1937), also contained rough sketches or doodles, which became characteristic of her work. These drawings have both a feeling of caprice and doom, and the poetry in the collection is stylistically typical of Smith as it conveys serious themes in a nursery rhyme structure.

  While Smith's volatile attachment to the Church of England is evident in her poetry, death, her "gentle friend," is perhaps her most popular subject. Much of her inspiration came from theology and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. She enjoyed reading Tennyson and Browning and read few contemporary poets in an attempt to keep her voice original and pure. Her style is unique in its combination of seemingly prosaic statements, variety of voices, playful meter, and deep sense of irony. Smith was officially recognized with the Chomondeley Award for Poetry in 1966 and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. Smith died of a brain tumor in 1971.

  While SS has always been considered a comic or light, & occasionally a ‘children’s’ poet that does not mean that all of her poems were void of any deeper meaning. Read this brief poetic colloquy with self:

The Reason

My life is vile
I hate it so
I'll wait awhile
And then I'll go.

Why wait at all?
Hope springs alive,
Good may befall
I yet may thrive.

It is because I can't make up my mind
If God is good, impotent or unkind.

 The 1st 2 quatrains set the reader up into believing that the poem is just a light dalliance & play off of banalities such as ‘Hope springs eternal’ & suicide poems, yet the quatrains merely serve as the setup to put the reader off balance for the couplet’s powerful wallop. Not only is the speaker musing on the nature of God, but on its very relation to the speaker- in fact that God does not exist without the speaker. Read 1 way the couplet is the former- a simple musing- but read a bit more deeply we see that the speaker has made God in his or her own image, & the problem lies not in an external deity but the internal workings of the speaker.
  Of course, not all SS poems are as disarmingly complex as that- some are what they seem- like this shirt bucolic:

Pad, Pad

I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.

  Whereas the 1st poem’s longer-lined couplets seem a natural deeper response to the whimsy of the opening quatrains the longer-lined 2nd stanza of this poem does not. The 1st stanza is almost a limerick- a form that like quatrains suggests lightness of being. But the 2nd stanza’s longer lines are not as musical as the 1st poem’s. Furthermore they lack the resonance of the 1st poem’s sharp veer away from whimsy. This poem’s 2nd stanza merely sort of peters out into disrhythmic & odorless flatulence.
  Let’s look at another poem:

Drugs Made Pauline Vague

Drugs made Pauline vague.
She sat one day at the breakfast table
Fingering in a baffled way
The fronds of the maidenhair plant.

Was it the salt you were looking for dear?
said Dulcie, exchanging a glance with the Brigadier.

Chuff chuff Pauline what's the matter?
Said the Brigadier to his wife
Who did not even notice
What a handsome couple they made.

  Whereas the 1st poem was a success, & the 2nd a poem with potential that fizzled, this poem simply goes nowhere. Is it supposed to be humorous? A love jingle? A social commentary? The problems only get worse with the very abruptive rhythms of the poem.
  Let’s now hit the poem in question- a poem more like the 2nd poem- 1 with potential.

I Do Not Speak

I do not ask for mercy for understanding for peace
And in these heavy days I do not ask for release
I do not ask that suffering shall cease.

I do not pray to God to let me die
To give an ear attentive to my cry
To pause in his marching and not hurry by.

I do not ask for anything I do not speak
I do not question and I do not seek
I used to in the day when I was weak.

Now I am strong and lapped in sorrow
As in a coat of magic mail and borrow
From Time today and care not for tomorrow.

  The good: the music of the poem is smooth & what it says, while not deep, with some tweaking it can be cranked up.
  The bad: the 1st 2 stanzas veer into bathos & the poem never fully recovers.
  The solution: trim the stanzas from tercets to couplets to combine the best imagery & ideas from the 3 lines into 2.

I Do Not Speak
And in these heavy days of understanding for peace
I do not ask that suffering shall cease.

I do not pray to God to let me die
To pause his ear attentive to my cry.

I do not ask for anything I do not seek
In questioning that I do not speak.

As I am strong, care not for tomorrow
Time today is magic mail and borrowed.

  Is this as memorable as the 1st poem we saw? No. But it’s better than the original. The bathos is snipped & instead of a pointless admonition that segues into a declamation we have a poem that starts as a declamation & ends with an internal reflection whose provenance is of an unknown source- perhaps something intuitive? The speaker is stronger, the phrasing & imagery more unique, & the ending lends itself to the poem’s rereading- something the original’s patness does not encourage. Tally ho!

Final Score: (1-100):

Stevie Smith’s I Do Not Speak: 70
TOP’s I Do Not Speak: 85

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