Although I did not know Anne Stevenson well, I feel I must pay tribute to her, one small voice among the many tributes which will be written to say farewell to this fine poet and generous encourager of other poets.
I met her, as I met the late-lamented U. A . Fanthorpe, through my beloved friend Matt Simpson (1936-2009). He and Anne were of an age, and she was saddened by his death, like all his friends. For her 70th birthday, Matt Simpson and his friend John Lucas (Shoestring Press and also a fine poet, Jazz player and lecturer) created a marvellous festschrift, The Way You Say the World, with a large number of well-known poets as contributors. I was delighted to be asked to send a poem, and even more so to be asked to read it on the night of her party. Matt and I trundled up to Durham for it on a long train journey, meeting on route (and amongst many changes) with Roger Garfitt, whom we both knew.
The party was a marvellous event. All the great and good of the poetry world attended, and John Lucas’ jazz band provided the entertainment. Anne did one of her wonderful readings, and Neil Astley gave every attendee a copy of her poetry book, whose launch had been the smokescreen for the party. Anne was happy, frank and energetic as always, telling us how she was learning to hear again with her cochlear implant.
Anne was always a kind correspondent, always willing to offer critique as friend to friend, never compromising her high standards. Letter exchanges were replaced by emails over time, and if they were sporadic, it was my fault, not hers. I wanted to include one of her poems in my Austen anthology, Advice on Proposals, (Like this Press 2014), and not only did she allow me to do so, but said if there was a fee owning to Bloodaxe, she would pay it herself. This is typical of her kindness – and she also wasn’t too cross when there were lots of errors at the proofing stage, because I’d been lazy and picked it up from a website. As a result, she had the incorrect website copy altered, and even said she was grateful to me for the chance to sort it out.
She wanted to see some poems from my latest book, which came out from Red Squirrel in 2016, and wrote back with perceptive advice about one 12 line formal poem, which I had struggled to get right – she was very strict and told me I couldn’t rhyme’ bones’ with ‘alone’, because it was unprofessional. Not only this, but she also came up with a suggestion to fix it, which I was delighted to accept. She thought this book, when I sent it to her, my best to date, and said I’d really ‘come on’ in my work. Praise from Anne was always hard-earned but she meant it – no easy flatterer.
In many ways, she has been a role model to me, in the way she treated fellow poets. Her own work so mind-blowingly good, at one time I was planning to read for a PhD about her work, though that idea fell by the wayside when I moved jobs and simply had no time to study for further degrees. I have and often read, many of her books, but I need to complete my collection by buying the most recent. At least we still have her poetry books to read, as well as her essays, her work on Elizabeth Bishop and still the best biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame. Anne’s philosophy was not to seek fame and success, but to write the best poems one could. For such an accomplished poet, she was modest about her many successes and awards. I think there are many in today’s poetry world who could learn from that. Poetry is a service, a common humanity and a way of understanding the world. Anne Stevenson certainly managed all of that, with grace and humour, and a passion for the best poetry, wherever she could encourage it. I will miss her tremendously, as will all her friends and acquaintances, her partner Peter, and her family. I urge everyone to go forth and reread her work, aloud, as she was the most marvellous reader!