Anne Stevenson, a hugely influential poet, penetrating critic and passionate presence in British and American poetry and letters, died on 14 September 2020, at the age of 87. She had a rich life. Though born in Cambridge, England, of American parents, Stevenson’s earliest years were spent in the States where her father, a philosopher, taught at Yale and the University of Michigan. She was intensely musical, telling The Guardian‘s Alfred Hickling in 2004, “Every house I can remember living in had two pianos and no furniture… I can’t recall my father ever entering the house without immediately sitting down to the piano. We always played chamber music as a family.” Only at university, did she decide to focus on literature and her own writing, rather than music. Her mother was a strong influence: “My mother always read to us – Dickens, Dumas, Scott, Hugo – and I believed in them so intensely that by the time I went to school I had little idea where make-believe ended and real life began,” she told The Guardian.
Stevenson’s marriage to the Englishman Robin Hitchcock in 1955 brought her back to Cambridge, England, where she would encounter Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Her 1989 study of Plath, Bitter Fame, was to prove controversial. When this marriage ended, she returned to the US to study English at the University of Michigan where Donald Hall introduced her to the work of Elizabeth Bishop. She went on to correspond with Bishop in the course of writing the first study of her poetry, published in 1966. Stevenson’s second marriage brought her back to England (she was married four times) and further moves took her to Glasgow and Oxford. In 1973 was made Literary Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall. At Oxford, she met a younger generation of poets, including Andrew Motion, and ran regular poetry readings at the Old Fire Station. Later, with third husband Michael Farley, she founded The Poetry Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye, in a former morgue, as well as Taxvs Press. In 1981, she was awarded a Northern Arts Literary Fellowship; this took her to the North East, where she remained, resident in Durham with her husband Peter Lucas, until her death.
Stevenson began to publish her poetry in the 1960s: Living in America: Poems was published in 1965 and Reversals in 1969. Her Collected Poems, 1955-1995, was published by Oxford University Press in 1996; Poems 1955-2005 was published by Bloodaxe, her publisher for the past two decades, in 2005.
Neil Astley, her editor and publisher at Bloodaxe, writes:
“I first met Anne in 1976 when I stayed with her in Oxford: I was then working for Stand magazine, selling it around the colleges, and she supported the magazine by giving its editors a place to stay. We quickly became friends and I started producing books and pamphlets for two small press imprints she was running. When I later set up Bloodaxe she recommended several fine poets and translators I went on to publish. Our friendship continued over the years, and we were both delighted when she was able to move her publishing to Bloodaxe in 2000 following the demise of the OUP poetry list.”
Bloodaxe published Stevenson’s sixteenth collection, Completing the Circle, earlier this year. Her other publications included a book of essays, Between the Iceberg and the Ship (1998), and a second critical study of Elizabeth Bishop: Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop (Bloodaxe, 2006). In 2016 she gave the Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures, published by Bloodaxe in 2017 as About Poems and how poems are not about, drawing on lectures given at both Newcastle and Durham universities. Stevenson’s work appeared regularly in The Poetry Review and she was for many years a Vice-President of the Society. Her wonderful poem, ‘Ragwort’, features on a Poetry Society poster for schools (see below). Her many prizes included the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award for Poetry and the Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Masters Award.
Angela Leighton writes:
“I have known Anne Stevenson for some twenty-five years, during which time we have corresponded, met many times (in Hull, Durham, Cambridge), and exchanged innumerable poems-in-the-making for comment, criticism and advice. Always one to speak her mind, Anne could be a ferocious critic, sparing no feelings, but it’s actually that ferocity in our many email exchanges that I know I will most miss. It was a sharpness that led to revision and growth, in my case, and I hope I sometimes gave as good as I got.
“But if I have lost a true and feisty friend, we have all lost a poet of great integrity, wit, and above all, in my opinion, music. Her best poems sing in the ear long after they have spoken to the intelligence (which they also do), and it is that attention to the tune in the words, the song in the rosebay, which will be, I think, her enduring legacy.”
Angela Leighton is Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Her new collection One, Two will be published by Carcanet in 2021.
Deryn Rees-Jones writes:
“I first met Anne Stevenson through our mutual friend the poet Matt Simpson in the mid 1990s. She visited Liverpool a few times, and I was later privileged to spent a little time with her at her homes in Durham and in Wales. Over the years we corresponded. Spending time with Anne was to be aware of a deep intellect, and a liveliness that was also a hallmark of the deeply musical quality of her writing. She could be outrageously funny, playful, and deeply kind. She was also a wonderful storyteller. We did not always see eye to eye but it didn’t seem to matter, and what I think of now, hearing of her death, is of her passion and conviction, as well as her sense that poetry had important work to do that reached beyond the individual poet.”
Deryn Rees-Jones is Professor of English at the University of Liverpool. Her latest collection, Erato (Seren, 2019), was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.
To discover more about Anne Stevenson as a poet and critic, see the book of critical essays Voyages over Voices ed. Angela Leighton (Liverpool University Press, 2013).