Anne Stevenson obituary

Jay Parini
·5-min read

Anne Stevenson, the poet and biographer of Sylvia Plath, has died aged 87 from heart failure. From the appearance of her first book of poems, Living in America, in 1965, her voice was distinct and clear. There was a wry tone in those poems, one of detachment and bemusement, with a tinge of social critique, as in The Dear Ladies of Cincinnati (1969), which summons these middle-class women who found husbands “who, liking their women gay, / preserve them in an air-tight empire made of soap / and mattresses”.

Her second book, published in 1966, was literary criticism: one of the first full-length studies of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose meticulous style influenced her own poetry, which often focused on landscapes that soon became psychological and moral landscapes, symbolic in their resonances.

Throughout her life Stevenson would occasionally write critical pieces, and in 1989 she published a controversial life of Sylvia Plath called Bitter Fame. Many readers at the time complained that Stevenson had less reverence for Plath than was usually required, with perhaps too much sympathy for her husband, Ted Hughes. The Plath of Bitter Fame is intensely difficult, vindictive and wildly neurotic, if lavishly talented. This remains an important biographical milestone in Plath studies.

But Stevenson was primarily a poet, publishing 16 collections, including various selected volumes and two versions of collected poems (1996, 2005). In all, she made a deep impression on the landscape of postwar British and American poetry (although her work was less well-known in the US). An important poet by any measure, she nevertheless had less attention than she deserved. Writing an introduction to a 2010 book of essays on her poetry, Angela Leighton noted that Stevenson had, “like many poets writing in the last 40 or 50 years … been in and out of critical fashion.” And yet she remained true “to her own voice and her own sense of what constitutes poetry”.

That sense is broadly on display in poem after poem, each of them distinct, all of them training a critical eye on the world before her, which she illuminates and dissects with a distinctive shrewdness and affection, as in the 1975 poem With My Sons at Boarhills, where she summons a vision of nature that is impeccably concrete:

The mussel flats ooze out,
And now the barnacles, embossed,
stacked rocks are pedestals for strangers,
For my own strange sons,
scraping in the pools,
Imperiling their pure reflections.

The strangeness of her sons has something to do with their liminality, as they hover between real and imagined worlds – a dream-state that is not uncommon in Stevenson’s poems.

Her sequence of epistolary poems, Correspondences (1974), stands apart from her other books, as its interlocking parts form a complex narrative that follows the imaginary Chandler family of New England from 1829 until 1972. Many of the poems stun with their immediacy, as when a strict minister from Vermont writes to his daughter who has lost her husband in a shipwreck:

My wretched daughter,

I have studied your letter with exacting and impartial attention.
What shall I say?
Except that I suffer, as you, too must suffer
Increasingly from a sense of the justice of your bereavement.

He says “justice” and not “injustice,” as his daughter seems to have preferred “the precarious apartments of the world / to the safer premises of the spirit”.

Stevenson’s accomplishments as a poet are nothing short of vast. Her work is by turns tender-hearted, funny, argumentative and lyrical. Her sense of place is exquisitely refined, and place in her poems becomes a moral stance, a place to stand and regard the world.

Although influenced by Robert Frost, Bishop, Wallace Stevens, her poems are recognisably her own, defiantly independent and yet deeply connected to the literary traditions of the US of her forefathers and of Britain, where she long made her home. She moves easily between free verse and formal poetry, always looking around her at nature with a sharp eye. In her world, “The sea swell rises and spills, / rises and spills, tumbling its load of crockery / without breakage” (Journal Entry: Impromptu in C Minor, 1988).

Born in Cambridge, to American parents, Anne was the eldest of three daughters of Louise (nee Destler) and CL (Charles Leslie) Stevenson. Her father was a well-known analytic philosopher who was studying at Cambridge University with Wittgenstein and GE Moore at the time of Anne’s birth, and soon afterwards returned to PhD studies at Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a poet, Stevenson would share her father’s passion for scrupulous thinking, using language to explore a wide world of thought and deep feeling.

Her mother was an unpublished writer and gifted storyteller, and she passed these talents to her daughter, who imagined rather that she might become a pianist or cellist, as she excelled at both instruments. But she chose a career in poetry quite early, winning the Hopwood award for poetry in 1955.

Raised in New England, Stevenson studied first music, then literature and European history, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where by then her father was a professor of philosophy. Soon after graduation, she returned to Britain, where she spent the rest of her life, settling in Durham in 1982, after three divorces, with Peter Lucas, her fourth husband.

Stevenson was not an academic, but she held various posts in creative writing at the University of Dundee (where I met her in the late 1960s, beginning half a century of friendship), Oxford and elsewhere. She was a frequent guest at writers’ festivals and workshops.

She was a passionate person, and this energy permeates her poems, while a sturdy intelligence anchors them. As a poet, she identifies with the blackbird of In the Orchard (1977), where the blackbird becomes a “black voice, / almost in the shadow of a voice, / so kind to this tired summer sky”. That poem ends with three haunting lines that summarise her life as a poet:

Blackbird, so old, so young, so
Happy to be stricken with a song
You can never choose away from.

Stevenson is survived by Peter, whom she married in 1987, by two sons, John and Charles, from her second marriage, to Mark Elvin, and a daughter, Caroline, from her first, to Robin Hitchcock, and by six grandchildren.

• Anne Katherine Stevenson, poet and writer, born 3 January 1933; died 14 September 2020