Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Stevie Smith and 'Pretty'
'Pretty' is a poem that entertains and puzzles at the same time. It focuses on the use of the word pretty and explores the implications of its meaning particularly with regard to nature.
The reader is taken along on a guided tour through natural scenery, following certain animals, having to adjust to the speaker's whims and folk philosophy as the poem progresses.
Repeated use of the word pretty means that the reader never loses touch with the central theme: the relationship between specific language used by humans (in this case, the word pretty) and the natural world.
Stevie Smith, in typical fashion, uses an idiosyncratic and ironic tone with which to explore the idea of prettiness within nature. With powerful imagery, ambiguous language and surreal hints, she attempts to answer her own opening question in the first line:
Why is the word pretty so underrated?
- Following this initial question, with accompanying autumnal scenes, the speaker then goes on to introduce different animals, expanding all the time on the meaning of what it is to be pretty. Eventually, pretty ends up in an existential vacuum, along with humanity. Fascinating. Disturbing.
Published in 1972 in New Selected Poems, 'Pretty' is a poem that challenges our notions of what is pretty, whether or not what we experience in nature is reality or a tainted version, altered by our human emotion and cultural values.
Novelist, cartoonist and poet, Stevie Smith worked for most of her adult life in a magazine publishing office in London. She gained popularity as the decades passed, despite a reputation as an outsider, and was well known for her curious live readings on radio and in the flesh. She died in 1971, aged 69.
Her poetry reflects her rather quirky, outsider's world view, being humble, comic, despairing, dark and ironic.
Why is the word pretty so underrated?
In November the leaf is pretty when it falls
The stream grows deep in the woods after rain
And in the pretty pool the pike stalks
He stalks his prey, and this is pretty too,
The prey escapes with an underwater flash
But not for long, the great fish has him now
The pike is a fish who always has his prey
And this is pretty. The water rat is pretty
His paws are not webbed, he cannot shut his nostrils
As the otter can and the beaver, he is torn between
The land and water. Not ‘torn’, he does not mind.
The owl hunts in the evening and it is pretty
The lake water below him rustles with ice
There is frost coming from the ground, in the air mist
All this is pretty, it could not be prettier.
Yes, it could always be prettier, the eye abashes
It is becoming an eye that cannot see enough,
Out of the wood the eye climbs. This is prettier
A field in the evening, tilting up.
The field tilts to the sky. Though it is late
The sky is lighter than the hill field
All this looks easy but really it is extraordinary
Well, it is extraordinary to be so pretty.
And it is careless, and that is always pretty
This field, this owl, this pike, this pool are careless,
As Nature is always careless and indifferent
Who sees, who steps, means nothing, and this is pretty.
So a person can come along like a thief—pretty!—
Stealing a look, pinching the sound and feel,
Lick the icicle broken from the bank
And still say nothing at all, only cry pretty.
Cry pretty, pretty, pretty and you’ll be able
Very soon not even to cry pretty
And so be delivered entirely from humanity
This is prettiest of all, it is very pretty.
Analysis of the Poem
'Pretty' is an unusual poem by Stevie Smith not only because it features the word pretty itself 18 times but also due to the idiosyncratic way the speaker explores the notion of prettiness within nature.
Each stanza has its syntactical oddities - unpunctuated lines with no enjambment - commas galore, dashes and exclamation marks, caesura that needn't be there - in particular stanza 4 which has no line end punctuation but is in effect four separate sentences. And stanza 5 likewise.
All of this places extra weight on the role of the reader, who is given a certain amount of freedom when it comes to pace, pause and delivery but may experience some unease as they make their way through this paradoxical poem.
- There is repetition, contradiction and an alternative investigation of certain natural phenomena - primarily focusing on animals. As the poem progresses it shifts from an ideal aspect of the natural world - leaves falling, which most see as pretty - to the predatory world of the pike and the owl.
Towards the middle of the poem the human eye is introduced - the eye abashes (is embarrassed) - the way it sees things, wants to take in everything. As humans we see nature's prettier side but is it really pretty?
The poem becomes a little surreal as the disembodied eye rises above the wood in a cinematic fashion, giving an overview of the countryside, fields, hills and sky.
The way humans experience the natural world is brought into question, deemed extraordinary because it is pretty. Nature is subject to our value systems being imposed upon it, whilst it remains careless and indifferent and someone being there and stealing a look and demanding that it be pretty, pretty, pretty....is misuse of the language.
This misuse of the language, this repetition of pretty eventually becomes futile because either it negates the true meaning of the word pretty (whatever that meaning is) or the person dies figuratively - delivered entirely from humanity - which becomes a sort of ultimate prettiness.
Rhyme and Metre
'Pretty' is a free verse poem of 9 stanzas, quatrains, making a total of 36 lines. On the page, it appears formal and balanced, with all lines between nine and thirteen syllables, medium length.
So there is no set regular rhyme scheme, only occasional perfect rhyme line endings with the word pretty in stanzas 7,8 and 9. This rhyming has more to do with an emphasis on the word pretty rather than any ulterior motive such as keeping lines tight with similar sounds.
There is no regular steady beat or metric pattern, which means that the lines vary with their stresses. Iambic feet tend to dominate (daDUM daDUM) but there are also trochees, anapaests and spondees to mix up the stress points. So the first stanza looks like this:
Why is / the word / pretty / so und /erra / ted? (trochee+iamb+trochee+2 iambs)
In No / vember / the leaf / is pre / tty when / it falls (2 trochees+4 iambs)
The stream / grows deep / in the woods / after / rain (2 iambs+anapaest+trochee)
And in / the pre / tty pool / the pike / stalks (4 iambs)
- This opening stanza is typical of the varied and complex metric system employed, which gives the majority of lines a natural conversational feel, unpredictable and full of cadence (a dropping away, as with the trochee DUMda).
The syllable count per line is between 9 and 12, iambics dominate but there is no consistent steady beat because of the mix of other feet. Interesting lines to look out for include:
All this / looks ea / sy but real / ly it / is ex / traor / dinar / y (2iambs+anapaest+4 iambs)
Like the / icic / le bro / ken from / the bank (trochee+4 iambs)
These two lines are good examples of the complex and the simple within the poem - the former is a little clunky with its long vowels and adverbs, whilst the latter is more rhythmical in spite of its consonance and alliteration.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on May 05, 2018:
Appreciate the visit. Stevie Smith wrote many strange poems - Not Waving But Drowning being the best known - Pretty is a curious novelty.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 05, 2018:
I was unfamiliar with that particular poem and the poet for that matter. The word "pretty" certainly takes some twists and turns in this poem as to meaning.