The Great Poet Stevie Smith

Stevie SmithOn this day in 1902, the great poet Stevie Smith was born. I could easily have used today to talk about Jay Ward, the producer of such important works of my childhood such as Rocky & Bullwinkle. But I think I have written enough about him over the years. He even shows up in my first novel. And my second novel is still unfinished, so he may end up in that one too. But the thing is that there is a very good reason for highlighting Stevie Smith today, which I will get to soon enough.

Smith published three novels and nine books of poetry during her life. Her work epitomizes what I refer to as “idiosyncratic art.” But most such art is not very good in a purely technical sense. That was not true of Smith’s work. I’ve never read any of her novels, but I plan to rectify that situation by next year. I’m especially interested in reading her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper. For one thing, I have a special fondness for writer’s first novels. There is something special about reading them while they are still finding a voice. But also, the novel was published in 1936, and deals with antisemitism and involves a trip the main character takes to Nazi Germany at that time. That just sounds too fascinating not to read.

But the special reason for discussing Stevie Smith today is that in 1978, there was a film about her named Stevie starring one of my many childhood crushes, Glenda Jackson. As is typical of great and unique films, it is not available on DVD. In fact, I can’t even find it of VHS. It may never have been released. I only ever remember seeing the film when it played at the great old Plaza Theater in Petaluma when I was a teen. The Plaza was one of those theaters that played a different double feature every night. There really is nothing our culture has produced since to make up for the absence of those theaters.

Anyway, someone did us the great favor of putting all of Stevie on YouTube in 11 parts. And it is well done, not just cut randomly by YouTube. I’ve put it into a playlist for ease of watching. You really should take the time to watch it because it may be taken down at any time. I’m always interested in that: copyright holders who don’t care enough to make a work available for sale, but still don’t want anyone watching it for free. I’m not saying that will happen here, but it does happen all the time so you are best to watch now just to be safe.

The film is based upon the play Stevie by Hugh Whitemore. And the film definitely has a play feel to it. But it is somehow vibrant. I know that film lovers tend to disregard these kinds of films because they aren’t “cinematic.” But I think the use of film to tell a story well is always worth the effort. I think the film works beautifully. It succeeds completely on its own terms. Just accept it and follow where it takes you. It is very much like Stevie Smith’s work: charming, funny, smart, dark, heartbreaking. It is a loving and fitting tribute to a great artist.

Happy birthday Stevie Smith!

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