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  • The “Higher Doodling” of Stevie Smith
  • Kristen Marangoni (bio)

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English poet and novelist Stevie Smith, 1954, Leslie Davis. Getty Images.

[End Page 71]

Most published authors have some kind of plan for dealing with writer’s block; various tactics might involve taking a break, freewriting, listening to music, or even drawing. As Dave Williams and Chris Taylor suggest, “When composition falters, [a] writer may turn from the verbal to the visual, and instead of continuing the linear flow of words, may start creating pictures—in short, to doodle” (“Peripheral Expressions,” Journal of Beckett Studies 29). Stevie Smith was one writer who often employed this strategy. But unlike other writers who doodled only in private notebooks, Smith published many of her doodles next to her poems, insisting to a friend that they were “so much a part of the verses that they must be published with them” (letter to Naomi Replansky, 30 May 1954). In addition to revising her doodles (as indicated by various erasure marks), Smith once even returned an advance check to an editor who wanted to publish the poems without the doodles (letter to Diana Athill, 16 May 1955). Smith’s crude sketches, most of which are nothing more than slightly developed stick figures, have become one of the defining features of her poetry.

Smith retained some insecurity about her abilities, however. When asked to comment on the artistic merit of the drawings, she referred to them as “higher doodling, or perhaps doodling without the higher” (interview with Peter Orr, In Search of Stevie Smith 35). She also gave up control over her doodles at times, as when she was asked by Kathleen Farrell to draw a doodle for a specific poem. Smith gave Farrell not one but fifty doodles to choose from (letter to Farrell, undated). When given the opportunity to draw a picture for a specific poem, Smith felt uncomfortable, seeing her images not as illustrations for her poems but rather as objects that were drawn separately from the poems and then paired and pasted in later. She told Jonathan Williams that she had a “whole collection [of drawings] in boxes” (46). After writing a poem, she would sort through this box, looking for a drawing that she felt represented “the spirit or the idea of the poem” (46).

There is a contradiction in the way Smith saw her drawings. On the one hand, they are very intentionally drawn for a public audience; yet on the other hand, they are capriciously paired with their corresponding poems. Smith was no stranger to contradiction, however, and a certain level of ambiguity followed her throughout her entire career.

Stevie Smith was born Florence Margaret Smith on September 20, 1902, to Charles and Ethel Smith. Her father left the family when Smith was young, leaving Smith, her mother, her aunt, and her sister to fend [End Page 72] for themselves. Female independence became a central theme in Smith’s later work and is particularly prevalent in her poem “A House of Mercy.” Smith’s family affectionately called her Peggy, but she later acquired the nickname Stevie after some acquaintances claimed she resembled the jockey Steve Donoghue.


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Doodle of man carrying a tray.

Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of James MacGibbon. Stevie Smith papers, 1924–1970. Coll. No. 1976.012. McFarlin Library. Department of Special Collections and University Archives. The University of Tulsa.

Smith’s early education included exposure to many great writers; her personal library, on permanent display at the University of Tulsa, is [End Page 73]


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Doodle of woman holding a balloon.

Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of James MacGibbon. Stevie Smith papers, 1924–1970. Coll. No. 1976.012. McFarlin Library. Department of Special Collections and University Archives. The University of Tulsa.

filled with childhood classics—works by Lewis Carroll and the Grimm Brothers—as well as more heavyweight literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, and Tennyson. This blend of childhood whimsy and gravity characterizes much of her later writing. Despite her exposure to great literature, Smith performed with mediocrity at North London Collegiate and was...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 71-79
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-02
Open Access
No
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