A critical appreciation of Stevie Smith No Categories
The poem lacks a setting and therefore one might see it as a general comment on religion rather than a reference to a particular event. There is no specific voice mentioned in the poem but one may assume it is Smith as she was renowned for being disgruntled with the inaccessible language of the New Testament and often wrote poems that would lampoon religion, or rather the picture of religious characters. In No Categories!, it is the angels that she upbraids, calling them “severe” and frustrating. The voice actually addresses the angels, asking them to let her speak “To God who created [her]”.
One might think this is a gibe at organized religion that puts obstacles between the devotee and their god, not just angels but priests serve to do this as well. To consider imagery in detail the reader is pleasantly surprised at the idea of a jolly god, rather than the solemn, vengeful figure one is usually presented with. It is unusual to be offered a picture of God laughing. Smith refers to it three times in the piece including “laughed to see them” and “laugh not too much”.
One gets the sense from the context in which these phrases are set that Smith does not see her Creator as the sombre figure of the Bible but as a happy creature who “made this and that” and enjoyed watching “them grow fat”, as if the Earth was a frivolity to entertain a bored super-being. Conversely the angels are frowned upon by Smith, one might say she sees them as disciplinarians with their “scholarly grimaces”.
One may wonder if these celestial beings are interchangeable with priests Smith remembers that taught her the New Testament with all its restrictive language that she dislikes so much. One is given the impression that the angels have a very high self-opinion and look down on other forms of life, especially when they say, “one day you may be like us”, as if their state is one to aspire to. The opening line involves repetition that gives a sense of urgency, the speaker’s desperation to converse with her god. It should also be noted that Smith’s use of punctuation is spurious, one might expect to see a comma separating the repeated phrase, but it is missing, as if the persona was to emotional to bother with the constraints of ordinary sentence structure.
However, the next line see “To God” sectioned off in its own clause, as if to emphasize that importance of that being. Then Smith compares the role of God in her life, “who created me”, to the role of the angels, “who frustrated me”. One may note how the penultimate words of each line are half-rhyming perhaps showing how the two have likewise effected her life, one positively, the other negatively. Smith also implies internal rhyme, “Let me fly, let me die”, and the caesura adding weight to the whimsical nature of subjunctive phrases. There is also the repeated use of “let me” that gives the impression that Smith is restricted, perhaps by the angels as she has already said that they frustrate her. Smith always prefixes her address of the angels with the word “you”, as if she is spitting the term in a derogatory manner.
She also repeats the phrase “Not to you Angels” twice, as if punctuating that she does not want anything to do with them. Then the word “your” recurs as the second word of the four central lines of the second stanza, also three of the lines begin with “And”, which gives the impression of an extensive list, and the monotony of the angels’ routine with their “do this and that”. Smith notes their “exasperating pit-pat”, an expression that belittles their practices further as it is so vague. She also employs alliteration with “appropriate admonishment”, this is again disparaging because it shows the moderation of the angels in contrast to the impassioned speech of Smith.
The primary line of the third stanza is an end-stopped statement; unusual in a poem that largely ignores punctuation. “That is not what the Creator meant” is stated as a fact, Smith is in no doubt that her God did not mean for the angels to be so righteous. One could also see this as an attack on the priesthood that imposes strict regimes on people’s belief structures. It has been argued that Heaven and Hell were created by man to keep the lower classes in order by threatening them that if they did not do as they were told they would go to Hell. If Smith shares this view it stands to reason that she would use her poetry to express her feelings on the subject. One may find the expression “gusty creation” amusing because it seems to trivialize the formation of the world, which must have been a mammoth task.
Smith then goes onto to say “He made this and that”, a direct link to the preceding stanza where she talks of the angels’ “do this and that”, this may be included to illustrate that no matter how elevated the angels consider themselves, they were still created by God like everyone else. The subject now moves to the angels ridiculing Smith’s position in the order of beings.
The phrase “Plod on”, with its almost onomatopoeic sound, has a patronizing quality, then “you Angels say” is marked off in its own clause. Yet one might expect “do better” to be likewise separate but Smith chooses to leave the comma out so this makes the previous clause more poignant. Also the last two words of the line rhyme so it draws the reader’s attention to them. The repetition of the word “or” emphasizes the decreasing status of the beings because it indicates the move from one level to the other.
One can also notice that Smith’s form is erratic, the second line of the stanza incorporates two of these levels but the next two levels are given a line each, the contrast between the length of the second and the third lines illustrates the dramatic fall in status from “those next below” angels (the beings nearest to God) and “nearer the lowest”. Then one considers that the angels are telling Smith to aspire to be as good as the “lowest” and therefore that they deem her to be lower than them currently. This could be a comment on the way the church makes people feel inadequate if they do not follow a strict religious schedule. The last three stanzas all begin with the exclamation “Oh”, making the poem take on the style of an apostrophe, a prime example of elevated speech, thus elevating the poem to the status of biblical language or at least high poetry. The fifth stanza sees the appearance of the word “no” three times and so stresses Smith’s feelings against the angels and their imposition of “hierarchies” on religion. This shortest of verses thus far is the most formerly poetic of the piece, all necessary punctuation is included, the lines are of a similar length and rhyme.
It is also interesting to note that Smith says, “I pray” in reference to rebelling against organized religion. “Oh God” is both an address to the Creator and an exclamation of frustration. Smith makes it clear that she thinks God will not think her situation important by asking him to “laugh not too much aside/Say not, it is a small matter”. She also reminds God that he was the one who created the angels by using the word “your”, and she asks him to “scatter/their pride”.
If one sees the angels as a metaphor for the priesthood it can be seen that Smith considers the clergy to value their pride and status above their dedication to the church, this is controversial because pride is one of the seven deadly sins, which the church is obviously opposed to. She then asks God to “laugh them away”, reiterating the image of a jolly Maker. The final line is set on its own, even though it rhymes with the line before it. One can also see that the title of the poem is not mentioned until the very end.
Also, just as the poem begins with an exclamation of desperation so it ends with one. One might say that the last line epitomizes the poem because it picks up on the apostrophe style used in the two preceding stanzas, includes the title and restates the “I pray” that could be seen as a contradiction because it is praying against religious restrictions.
This poem can be seen as a comment on the fact that religion should be a personal doctrine of faith and a person’s beliefs should not dictated to them by an organization. Smith seems to want to cut out the middlemen and arguably uses angels as a metaphor for the priesthood. This is not an idea that is peculiar to Smith, it was recently the topic of the Hollywood film, Stigmata, thus illustrating that the poet is dealing with issues considered by many people in recent times. The erratic rhyme and meter may be seen as a further rebellion against restrictions of the norm, that is to say that she resists engaging in recognized poetic styles.
I find the poem to be effective and thought provoking.
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About The Author
I am a Shakespeare fanatic with six years` classroom experience. I enjoy reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction and became a teacher to share my passion for language. Now that I have a young family, I have decided to indulge my love of teaching outside the classroom to fit arou.... Read More