We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Two Poems to Keep us Sane: "Keeping on Top of Things" and Stevie Smith's "Phèdre" · 18 April 05

My dear Fanny,

My mind is so tired I’m taking a break. I have read and graded too many student papers in which they observed some natural phenomena (relatively) untransformed by people. Now before I go on to read papers comparing 3 different texts to 3 different film adaptations, I need some recreation.

So here are two funny poems a day ahead of time.

by Connie Bensley:

"Keeping on top of things"

I want to be alone. But I have to see
the chiropodist, the dentist,
the car mechanic, the ear-syringer,
the roofer, the window cleaner,
and a man to cut back the creeper
which is forcing its way in
through the bedroom window.

Thank goodness I don’t have to see
the manicurist, the otologist
the arboriculturalist,
the reflexologist, the phrenologist
the hypnotherapist, the gynaecologist
the Chinese herbalist, or the psychiatrist –
at least not this week.

and by one of my favorite 20th century women poets, Stevie Smith:


I wonder why Proust should have thought
The lines from Racine’s Phèdre
Depuis que sur ces bords les deux ont envoyé
La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé to be
Entirely devoid of meaning,
To me they seem
As lucid as they are alarming.
I wonder why
The actresses I’ve seen
Playing Phèdre
Always indulge
In such mature agonising.
Phèdre was young,
(This is as clear in Racine as Euripides)
She was young,
A girl caught in a trap, a girl
Under the enforcement
Of a goddess.
I dare say Phèdre
In fact I’m sure of it
Was by nature
As prim as Hippolytus,
Poor girl, poor girl, what could she do
But be ashamed and hang herself,
Poor girl.

How awful the French actess
Marie Bell
Made her appear.
Poor Phèdre,
Not only to be shamed by her own behaviour
Encorced by that disgusting goddess,
Ancient enemy
Of her family,
But nowadays to have played
By actresses like Marie Bell
In awful ancient agonising, something painful

Now if I
Had been writing this story
I should have arranged for Theseus
To die,
(Well he was old)
And then I should have let
Phèdre and Hippolytus
Find Aricie out
In some small meanness,
Eating up somebody else’s chocolates,
Half a pound of them, soft-centred,
Secretly in bed at night, alone
One after another
Positively wolfing them down.
This would have put Hip off,
and Phaedra would be there too
and he would turn and see
That she was pretty disgusted , too
so then they would have got married
and everything would have been respectable
and the wretched Venus could have lumped it,
Lumped I mean Phèdre
Being the only respectable member
Of her awful family
And being happy.

I should have liked one member
of that awful family
To be happy.
What with Ariadne auf Naxos,
and Pasiphaé and that awful animal
and Minos sitting judging the Dead
In those awful dark halls.
Yes, I should like poor honoraable simple sweet prim Phèdre
to be happy. One would have to be pretty simple
to be happy with a prig like Hippolytus
But she was simple
I think it might have bene a go
If I were writing the story
I should have made it a go.

How I loved the film about Stevie Smith with Glenda Jackson in the starring role. I recommend it, recommend it, recommend it.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Why does everyone always forget about Araidne’s marrying a god, who probably was a better husband to her than Theseus would have been? Not dramatically convenient?
    Isobel    Apr 19, 6:28am    #
  2. Married to Dionysus? That’s not what I’d call it. Ariadne was apotheosized, which presumably means happiness ever after, as a constellation, which sounds chilly. Dionysus was certainly unfaithful, no?
    R J Keefe    Apr 19, 2:06pm    #
  3. Meant to add: thanks for the Stevie Smith.
    R J Keefe    Apr 19, 2:06pm    #
  4. Dear Izzy,

    It’s no good being married to an alcoholic (joke alert). Perhaps people forget because it is dramatically inconvenient. There are so many versions of these characters in different tales. We have a wonderful book in the house which entwines all the different stories in to patterns: Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.

    Chava    Apr 19, 5:19pm    #
  5. Dear RJ,

    I love Stevie Smith’s poetry. It not only debunks, it’s witty, poignant, common sensical and desperate too. This one of Phedre is genuinely woman-centered.

    Other women poets I’m into just now: Fleur Adcock, Judith Wright, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood.

    Chava    Apr 19, 5:20pm    #
  6. I had a cat called Stevie Smith, born in London and died in Sydney aged almost-17. She was named after SS’s book, ‘Some are More Human than Others’.
    susoz    Apr 27, 10:18pm    #
  7. Dear Sue in Oz (Australia?),

    Thank you for your reply. Maybe I should put more poems by Stevie Smith on Jim and my blog.

    Chava    Apr 29, 2:37pm    #

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