Voice, it is called: that quality of certain poets’ accumulated poems which stamps their singular metrics or syntax or vocabulary onto our personal sound system. Voice makes us unconsciously imitate the music of a good poet we’ve been studying. Voice lets us recognize the author without peeking at the cover.

Now, it’s true that every second slim little poetry volume on the “márket” today carries, zipped up snug in its jacket, a blurb by some other famous or infamous poet who claims that this new poet possesses a “tremendous sense of voice.” In this usage, voice means . . . well, I’m not sure. I would challenge all such jacket-quoted literati to identify other, unsigned poems by their protégés from a pile of similar—and equally insignificant—others. It should be worth a hefty grant if they can do it.

But the voice in Stevie Smith’s poetry is genuine. So, too, is the intelligence, grand and pointed enough to under stand human vulnerability to arrogance, cruelty, doubt, sin. Together, these two gifts should be enough to overcome the sometime disapproval of strict formalists (Smith is shocking and relentlessly playful and quite sacrilegious—one might even say capitalistic, she uses them so—toward the twin gods of meter and rhyme) or strict free-versifiers (even her prosier poems and prose works are far from prosaic, which must distress devotees of the cult of Just Write What You Feel). In fact, Smith, a student of classical English poetry and a highly talented metricist with a faultless ear, is “strict” about little else but making us see ourselves as we are. Only she does it with vastly more wit and affection than your basic modern clergyperson.

Smith felt driven, in many of her poems, to expose the ridiculous, complacent, snobbish, unduly complicated side of modern established Christianity, the side that is highly fortified not against the Devil, but against newcomers to the communion. “Was He Married?” is a cynical, wistful litany of the ways in which Christ did not share in the earthly sorrows of real humans; yet the poem’s ending hints at Smith’s philosophy: “To choose a God of love, as [Man] did and does,/ ls a little move then? // Yes, it is. // A larger one will be when men / Love love and hate hate but do not deify them? // It will be a larger one.” “The Airy Christ” couches in its charming musicality some bull’s eye theology: “Whatever foolish men may do the song is cried/ For those who hear, and the sweet singer does not care that he was crucified. // For he does not wish that men should love him more than anything / Because he died; he only wishes they would hear him sing.”

“The Airy Christ” and “The River Deben” (which, like many of Smith’s poems, explores a longing for death) are as organic as any poems in modern English literature—perfect, memorable matings of content and form. Songs as poetry is meant to be song, they speak of humankind’s oldest and deepest sorrows. Yet this organic quality is present in nearly all Smith’s poems, even the silly ones. Her rhyme is at once artificial (like Ogden Nash, she sometimes goes to great lengths to get there from here) and absolutely natural (her lines are seldom unconversationally metered, which only shows how metrical human conversations really are). Nothing could be more “natural” than the half-rhymes, internal rhymes, alliteration, and tight metrics crammed into the inconspicuous two line “To an American Publisher”: “You say I must write another book? But I’ve just written this one. / You liked it so much that that’s the reason? Read it again then.” Her rueful recipe for ceasing to long for death, stated in “Thoughts About the Persons From Porlock,” is, “Smile, smile, and get some work to do / Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.” Robert Lowell had it right when he wrote about Smith’s “cheerfully gruesome voice”; her poems are dark as Charles Addams’ cartoons, but softened with a tenderness lacking there.

The poems in Stevie Smith: A Selection were picked from The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, published in England in 1976 and in the U.S. in 1983 (Smith died in 1971). The prose was extracted mainly from Smith’s novels and other works. If, as Lee says, “The suspicion that [Smith] is an overrated minor English comic writer is likely to persist,” what has she done to alleviate the problem? How, for instance, does Lee’s Selection stand up against the Selected Poems compiled by Smith herself and published in 1962?

Very well, thank you. There are a few small poems in Smith’s selection which perhaps should have been included in Lee’s, but the omissions are not grave, and all the best poems in the former—50 or so of them—appear in the latter. In addition, of course, the best of the poems Smith published between 1962 and her death, and representative excerpts from her equally highly voiced prose, are offered in this new selection. Hermione Lee’s book, “designed especially for students but also for the general reader,” is slender and strong enough to astonish a few Lit. 202 classes and, together with Smith’s original kinky drawings, leads provocatively to the larger, complete works of this underrated poet.

Stevie Smith: A Selection; Edited by Hermione Lee; Faber and Faber; London and Boston; $16.95.