There is something discomfiting and even improbable about the English poet Stevie Smith. "Who and what is Stevie Smith?" Ogden Nash asked in a Dorothy Parkeresque moment: "Is she woman? Is she myth?" Wearing a childlike pinafore and white lace stockings, telling a puzzled reporter "I'm probably a couple of sherries below par most of the time," chanting or singing her poems in a high, off-pitch voice at poetry gatherings in the 1960s ("She chanted her poems artfully off-key," Seamus Heaney once said, "in a beautifully flawed plainsong that suggested two kinds of auditory experience: an embarrassed party-piece by a child halfway between giggles and tears, and a deliberate faux-naif rendition by a virtuoso"), she seems so unlikely and, in retrospect, necessary -- a welcome tonic, a heartbreaking brightness we needed all along.

We still need this figure who arrived like a Blakean thunderclap with all the freshness, frivolity and forthrightness of childhood, with all the sad and caustic insights of long experience. Thinking about her elemental poems, which are so cheeky and rash, so antic and fausse-naif (to employ the phrase that Philip Larkin devised for her), so stingingly honest, impertinent and deathward-leaning, so filled with mordant wit and comic desperation ("learn too that being comical," she explains in a poem about Jesus, "does not ameliorate the desperation"), I keep wanting to adapt something Randall Jarrell once said about Walt Whitman. Someone might have put on her tombstone "STEVIE SMITH: SHE HAD HER NERVE."

The idea of Death (Smith always capitalized the word, as if it were a proper noun) as a devoted servant, a god one can call on to terminate suffering at any time, is one of her recurrent motifs. Here are two Virgilian lines she invented for her adaptation of "Dido's Farewell to Aeneas": "Come Death, you know you must come when you're called/ Although you're a god. And this way, and this way, I call you." Smith was always prepared to call on the proud, tarrying, slippery figure of Death to carry her away in his arms. She did so in a jaunty, colloquial style that was part Mother Goose, part John Donne, and has archaic roots in the oldest pagan-Christian English poetry.

Smith once said that she got the idea for her most famous poem from a newspaper report about a man drowning. She turned it into a little lethal masterpiece.

Not Waving but Drowning Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he's dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

Whenever I read this poem aloud, I am struck anew by its comic awfulness, by the spooky fact that the narrator is already dead but still moaning, still suffering. The speaker in the second stanza takes on an ordinary social voice, what a couple of people might say about someone while drinking beer in a pub ("Poor chap . . . "). The cliche{acute}s are wide of the mark, and there's an iron shock in the foreshortened eighth line ("They said"). This turns into the startled contradicting voice of the drowned one himself, who gives a haunted explanation in the last stanza. Listen closely, and you'll hear the grave submarine laughter and plunging depths beneath Smith's poem of fatal misunderstanding.

(All quotations from Stevie Smith appear in "The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith." Oxford University Press. © Stevie Smith 1937, 1938, 1942, 1950, 1957, 1962, 1966, 1971, 1972.)