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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Number 236: Stevie Smith "Thoughts About The Person From Porlock"

Thoughts About The Person From Porlock

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock
And ever after called him a curse,
Then why did he hurry to let him in?
He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.

He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.

It was not right, it was wrong,
But often we all do wrong.


May we inquire the name of the Person from Porlock?
Why, Porson, didn’t you know?
He lived at the bottom of Porlock Hill
So had a long way to go,

He wasn’t much in the social sense
Though his grandmother was a Warlock,
One of the Rutlandshire ones I fancy
And nothing to do with Porlock,

And he lived at the bottom of the hill as I said
And had a cat named Flo,
And had a cat named Flo.

I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend,

Often I look out of the window
Often I run to the gate
I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.

I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.


I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock
To break up everything and throw it away
Because then there will be nothing to keep them
And they need not stay.


Why do they grumble so much?
He comes like a benison
They should be glad he has not forgotten them
They might have had to go on.


These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing,
I wish I was more cheerful, it is more pleasant,
Also it is a duty, we should smile as well as submitting
To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting
With various mixtures of human character which goes best,
All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us.
There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

-- Stevie Smith

Hap Notes: This poem will make a lot more sense if you know the story behind Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" which we already discussed here: I'll wait while you go read it.

Done? Okay, so Smith is being very clever and amusing here but as with all Stevie Smith (1902-1971) poems it eventually leads to ruminations, a bit of sadness and loneliness. Smith has a very piquant somewhat naive and whimsical way of writing about the disturbing topics of death, loneliness and fear. In this poem, as she muses about Coleridge's "person" she makes up stories and nursery rhymes about it and finally alights on the loneliness of creativity, the idea of a creator (in several senses), and death. Not bad for something that starts out as an amusing little riff on Coleridge. A benison, by the way, is a blessing or benediction.

Smith was raised by a very independent minded aunt (her "lion Aunt" she called her). Smith's father left her mother and went to sea and her mother moved in with her sister, Madge. After her mother's death, Madge took care of Smith (her mother died of a heart-attack with Stevie was 16). Smith was born with the name "Florence Margaret" but was called "Stevie" in school, named for the jockey Steve Donaghue, because Smith was a good rider.

Smith went to a secretarial college and became a secretary, writing her first novel on the yellow paper of the firm (hence its name Novel On Yellow Paper.) She wrote poems and a couple of more novels as well. Smith's very personal, deceptively child-like viewpoint often flummoxed critics who could not decide whether to take her seriously or not. One of her books of poetry was published with sketches she'd drawn. Poet Phillip Larkin called this "the hallmark of frivolity" although one wonders, after reading Larkin's poems if he actually knew what frivolity was (he's a good poet but gloomily serious about every little thing.)

Smith won many awards (most of them later in life) and never married (although she'd had some relationships with men) and lived most of her life in the London Suburb in which she was raised, Palmer's Green.

Smith is very famous for one poem "Not Waving But Drowning." It's wonderful. Here it is so we don't have to do it again (EVERYBODY who reads it has an opinion on it):

Not Waving But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

-- Stevie Smith

Smith is always a surprise to read with flashes of droll humor, myths, depression, death, fantasy and whimsy in almost every poem. We will do more Smith this year.

Here's a good Smith quote: "I used to have very complicated feelings about not being able to cook, supposing I ever had to, and not being able to keep house, and wonder if it might not be better being dead than not being capable. Now I cook and I do not worry. I like food, I like stripping vegetables of their skins, I like to have a slim young parsnip under my knife. I like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen."

And another

You can find more Smith here:

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