While the 1976 Oxford University Press edition of Stevie Smith’s Collected Poems is an exceptionally handsome book, and probably sufficient for many readers, those crazy about this wonderful and strange poet will obviously want Will May’s splendid All the Poems. It includes not only much hitherto uncollected material but also pages of concise bibliographical notes.
“All the Poems is admirably professional and thorough, from its formal, scholarly introduction to its four appendixes to its two indexes, and it is almost disconcerting to see this poet of radical whimsy so coolly annotated. Yet it is also completely appropriate. As May notes in the first sentence of his preface, Smith is a “great poet.” She is a great poet because almost half a century after her death, her poems are more startling and bizarre than those of many poets who deliberately set out, as one suspects Smith never did, to be startling and bizarre.
...an invaluable and complete collection of her poems and drawings ... Will May opts for Stevie Smith’s final versions, notes earlier variants, provides brief but helpful notes to her wide and eclectic variety of sources and allusions, and gives clues to some of the characters in the poems. Though consistency must be the best editorial policy, occasionally I regret his commitment to her final choices.
Smith confronted the collective political suffering of her people, and while she was often unlucky in romantic love, she was publicly admired. She was fearless about saying she was afraid, and that helped her make fear tolerable, as it surely must have for her audience ... Smith is at her best when she revisits the countless ways an aching, lonely heart can connect in spite of itself.
What might appear as frivolity is actually Smith’s extraordinary gift for wordplay and her delight in linguistic acrobatics of every sort. Beneath that surface is a harsh, dark vision, which verges on tragedy, and a romantic obsession with death, the most frequent theme — and character — in her poems ... Nonetheless the poems are everywhere brimming with life and wit, and delight the ear with their changeable rhythms, their juxtaposition of high and low diction, their odd characters and often sinister fables ... Happily, the gems in this volume far outweigh the lesser poems. It has the added advantage of laying bare their author, who was known to be secretive.