Anne Katherine Stevenson: poet, biographer, bookseller

Born: January 3, 1933;

Died: September 14, 2020.

THE irony of Anne Stevenson’s long, eventful and productive life is that her own considerable achievement was overshadowed by a book she wrote about a fellow poet. Bitter Fame, her revelatory biography of Sylvia Plath, was published in 1989 when Stevenson was living in Scotland.

It divided critics, especially those who believed Plath’s suicide in 1963 was a consequence of the infidelity of her husband, Ted Hughes. This was not how Stevenson saw it. “Any biography of Sylvia Plath,” she said in her preface, “written during the lifetimes of her family and friends must take their vulnerability into consideration, even if completeness suffers from it.” Such an admission was tantamount to breaking the biographers’ oath of impartiality.

While Plath’s admirers fulminated and continued to hound Hughes, and dismissed Bitter Fame as a “bad” book, the passage of time has been more appreciative of Stevenson’s work.

Among those sympathetic to it is the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm. For her, it was by far the best book produced on its subject, not least because it was nuanced and allowed Hughes, through “the contributions to the text” of his sister, Olwyn, to present his side of the story.

What to Stevenson’s detractors was a failing was for Malcolm a reason to cheer: “In Bitter Fame...Anne Stevenson draws a portrait of Plath as a highly self-involved and confused, unstable, driven, perfectionistic, rather humorless young woman, whose suicide remains a mystery, as does the source of her art, and who doesn’t add up.”

Stevenson, born in Cambridge, in 1933, a year after Plath, was the daughter of a renowned, if rather otherworldly, philosopher, and a mother who treated her three daughters as blank canvases on which to create great works of art.

At the time her father, Charles Stevenson, known as Steve, was studying under Wittgenstein and

GE Moore. Within a few months, however, the family returned to America, where Steve took up a lecturing post at Yale. On Anne’s first day at school, the class was asked what their fathers did for a living. All the other children said “policeman”, “businessman”, “lawyer”. Anne said “philosopher”. “My class instructor looked a bit taken aback, and asked if I meant he was a teacher. So I puffed myself up and said: ‘No – he’s a heterologician’.”

Her first ambition, she shared with her father, was to become a famous musician but that idea was usurped at the University of Michigan by poetry. Malcolm was in the year below her and remembered her as “a girl who was arty”. Stevenson wrote poems that were published in a campus magazine and she won a prestigious prize.

“She had once been pointed out to me on the street,” recalled Malcolm, “thin and pretty, with an atmosphere of awkward intensity and passion about her, gesticulating, surrounded by interesting-looking boys.”

Like Plath, Stevenson married an Englishman and crossed the Atlantic, one of countless such trips. “Looking back at it now,” she told the Guardian in 2004, “any objective account of my life is bound to read like a cross between The Wife Of Bath’s Tale and a travel brochure.”

The marriage soon faltered. She married thrice more and had three children and moved around like a travelling salesmen, living variously in Cambridge, Glasgow, Dundee (where she was writer-in-residence), Oxford and the Welsh Borders before dividing her time between North Wales and Durham.

With her second husband, Michael Farley, who was 15 years younger, she ran a poetry bookshop in a former morgue in Hay-on-Wye. It was not a success. With a government grant they invited poets from the warring ethnic factions in Yugoslavia – Serbs, Croats, Bosnians. It was not a meeting of minds; all they could agree on was the brandy of which they all drank copiously.

Throughout her personal turmoil Stevenson never lost sight of her calling as a poet, which on occasion led to the fracture of relationships. By her own admission, she was

not always easy to live with and disinclined domestically.

Her poems are remarkable for her penetrating questioning of the way we see things and her interpretation of the world around us. She was an outsider, as the best poets are, and decried the posturing of younger poets who appeared more interesting in their public performance than what they produced for the page.

Her loss of hearing in the 1990s, which emphasised her isolation, was accepted with stoicism, a tart sense of humour and poems such as On Going Deaf: “I’ve lost a sense. Why should I care?/ Searching myself I find a spare./ I keep that sixth sense in repair/ And deftly set it like a snare.”

Earlier this year she published Completing The Circle, her 16th collection, which she rightly predicted would be her “swansong”. She was the recipient of many prizes, including the $200,000 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award and a Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation of Chicago.

Her sojourns in Scotland resulted in a number of poems, such as The Miracle Of Camp 60, inspired by the chapel built by Italian prisoners-of-war on the Orkney island of Lamb Holm, With My Sons At Boarhills and North Sea Off Carnoustie.

Inevitably, she also wrote poems about Plath, with whom her youthful work was sometimes compared, but that was a passing phase and she soon developed her own inimitable and clear voice.

Stevenson died after a short illness, leaving husband Peter Lucas, daughter Caroline and sons John and Charles, and six grandchildren.