The Poet Frank Stanford Between Love and Death
I would like to sketch out the noncareer of an American poet.
Noncareer not just because his life was cut dramatically, tragically, deliberately short, but also because Frank Stanford did not participate in or partake of poetry as a career. He was born in Richton, Mississippi, on August 1, 1948, at a home for unwed mothers, and died in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on June 3, 1978. Being a poet was an identity rather than a career to him. I suspect this singling out came to him in his Memphis elementary school when he earned his first award in poetry, receiving fourth place. Let’s say that event made it official.
Much of what I have to say is autobiographical. I know his poetry well, but I am not a critic or a scholar—though I think much of what I can tell you will direct you toward the depth and scope of his work in an insightful way.
Stanford pursued, but did not finish his undergraduate degree. I have never looked into how many credits he completed. He enrolled as an engineering student to honor his adoptive father, Albert Franklin Stanford, but I do not think he pursued that line of study with any significant intentions. He married very young (twice) and, if he is to be believed (a big if), three times—the first having been when he was underage; it was later annulled. I have never explored the truth of this. I am not his biographer. My life intersected with Frank Stanford’s from the fall of 1975 until his death in the summer of 1978.
But regarding the career, not only was there no career to be had then and there in the Arkansas Ozarks, but Stanford did not express any interest in relocating to pursue one. And although the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville had an established program in creative writing, and he, as an errant undergraduate, was in the graduate workshop for one or more semesters and edited an issue of the university’s literary magazine, Preview (which caused a hoo-ha because he included too few poets in the issue—eight, as I recall), and though he knew poets and corresponded with them, I would say the very idea that poet and position might be in tandem was never in his head.
Stanford did attend a summer session at Hollins College in Virginia, where, at twenty-two, he met his original publisher, Irv Broughton, who put out all of Stanford’s titles up until the time of his death, beginning with The Singing Knives (1971), then Ladies from Hell (1974), Shade (1975), Field Talk (1975), Arkansas Bench Stone (1975), and concluding with Constant Stranger (1976).
With Broughton, Stanford also traveled the East Coast, filming senior writers such as Richard Eberhart and Malcolm Cowley (also the revered editor of Faulkner), and other éminences grises. Those were 16mm films intended for the likes of PBS, but I do not know when or where they were aired. Broughton also contributed to making a short Cocteau-style autobiographical film about Stanford, titled It Wasn’t a Dream, It Was a Flood. It was part of the 1975 Northwest Film and Video Festival in Portland, Oregon. The title inscribes Stanford’s headstone in Subiaco, Arkansas, where a Benedictine monastery and boys school, Subiaco Academy, is situated, at which he attended his last years of high school (the monks were critical to Stanford’s education, also helping fill a paternal role in his life during those moody teenage years following his father’s death).
Michael Cuddihy of Ironwood Press in Tucson, Arizona, was another supporter of Stanford’s and posthumously published his collection of poems Crib Death (1978). Cuddihy was one of the early champions of the poems, and because he was known to be a very independent, if unsparing editor, it was notable that he so unequivocally supported Stanford’s work. He even initiated an award in his name, the first beneficiary being the poet Linda Gregg. In terms of journals and magazines, to give you an idea of where Stanford was publishing, the editors of the American Poetry Review, Field, Iowa Review, Mill Mountain Review, Poetry Now, raccoon, Stinktree, The Little Review, and others were well aware of and eagerly publishing his poems. And further, to give you an idea of the poets he was in contact with, the most visible and those with whom he had a substantial correspondence were Alan Dugan, Allen Ginsberg, and Thomas Lux.
A few years back, there was a Festschrift for Stanford’s work in Fayetteville at the public library organized primarily by a young poet, Matthew Henriksen. I did not attend, but people flew, drove, and walked to participate or be in the audience. For whatever reason, the University of Arkansas did not host this celebration but was a sponsor. I think this bears saying because I cannot underscore enough how unofficial this poet’s standing was and is. This does not mean he does not have an audience. He does, and for me, personally, the saddest aspect of this constituency is that there is a cultish air about an element of this audience, due no doubt in part to his premature death, the no-holds-barred romanticism of the writing itself, and to his own remove (prior to his death) from any public arena. He did not give readings, bestowing an extra frisson to his reputation. (There is a voice recording of Stanford reading the poem “Linger” in It Wasn’t a Dream, It Was a Flood.) At any rate, the gratifying aspect to his readership is that there was a very ample print record of this prodigious poet’s work, and advocates of the writing, skipping a generation, have reemerged with a great deal of vigor. I think this is simply because of the way reception to cultural production cycles. The strongest writing comes in, goes out, comes back, but has close to zero chance of coming back if it never entered into the record to begin with.
Thirty-six years after his death, his primary materials are at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the collected poems, What About This, are being published by Copper Canyon Press this April. So for the first time, a great swath of the work is available. Bravo for us and for poetry. This inaugurates a future for Stanford’s legacy and long may it wave, unofficially. Here was a poet from the Arkansas Ozarks, born in an unlicensed home for unwed mothers in Richton, Mississippi, adopted by Dorothy Gilbert Alter, who then married a friend of her father’s, A. F. Stanford, an engineer who built levees on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in Arkansas. Here was this gifted poet, raised until middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, then in Mountain Home, Arkansas (the town where, coincidentally, I was born), who finished high school in a Benedictine monastery and school for boys in the Ouachita Mountains outside Paris, Arkansas, and then lived in other Ozark towns, mainly Eureka Springs, near Beaver Lake, and in Fayetteville, Arkansas, as well as on the family farm of his wife, Ginny Crouch Stanford, in southwest Missouri. He was a young man who wrote reams upon reams of poetry and prose, who claimed the landscape of this country we call poetry with a deluge of language very particular to a region and an era (the latter, closer to his elderly father’s time than his own), and whose grand imagination has flared in the imagination of a new generation of readers and writers.
Regarding the poems, I can tell you, most of the names he uses are real names or actual monikers for the kindred people of his childhood. His book-length poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, describes in detail his reading (voluminous) of American and world literature. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You was copublished as a book in 1977 by Broughton’s press Mill Mountain Press and Lost Roads Publishers, which Stanford had started before his death. He was a film lover and a filmmaker, thus the cinematic quality of the work. His short collection Constant Stranger (Mill Mountain Press, 1976), (probably my favorite) consists of twelve poems, about half of which are written after the oeuvre of auteur filmmakers—Bertolucci, Pasolini, Prévert, and Cocteau. Elsewhere there are poems attributed to be after artists: Dalí, Picasso, Kokoschka, Man Ray, Dziga Vertov (specifically his film Man with a Movie Camera), the Dadaist Julien Torma, “pataphysicist” René Daumal and the poets Artaud, Follain, Goll, Lautréamont, Lorca, Parra, Radiguet, Vallejo, and others. And while he spoke and read only English, he found people to do transliterations for him—at least one monk at Subiaco provided the Italian transliterations.
Stanford had perfect pitch. I can vouch for that, and that is why his ear is so unfailingly true to a nearly vanished vernacular. He could walk out of a Bergman movie, speaking “Swedish.” Heads would swivel. He was steeped in down-home blues, work songs, gospel, jazz of the sixties and seventies. He listened to symphonies and operas. He did not play an instrument or read music. He read contemporary poetry. He was probably keenest on Merwin, saying to me once that Merwin put a face on contemporary poetry. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were just beginning to break out of their clandestine league, and he was vaguely aware of them but his sensibility was not tuned in that direction. I received the first issue of the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E from a friend from Arkansas who was living in New York City, and I read excerpts aloud to Stanford. He was amused, maybe felt some tension stirring, but he was only at home on the lost roads.
While he made a living as a land surveyor, Stanford was not credentialed, so he worked for an engineer who was. He used a transit, tripod, level, and plumb bob and chained the line with measuring tape. Stanford could do the geometry and drew up the plats himself. He had just started using a theodolite (a laser instrument) at the time of his death—which is just to say—the poet was not without practical skills. It is barely feasible for him to have learned some of this from his father, but it was at the hand of another writer at the University of Arkansas who had hired him that he picked up the basic training.
Stanford never had need of a passport. He did not travel much, and everything in the writing covers a territory no larger than Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi (as Faulkner remarked on leaving a film set in Los Angeles where he was writing scripts for hire, “no mare of mine is going to throw a foal in California”). New York City, Memphis, and New Orleans were his foreign ports of call.
As a reader you’ll find every one of his pages overpopulated with similes, metaphors, and conceits, but it is his metaphors that yield more pleasure than anyone’s I know—so distinct, so secure, so peculiar. He came by idiom and argot quite honestly. Unlike most levee contractors, his adoptive father lived in the levee camps with his family during the summer months, and this is the speech Stanford imbibed as a child. It saturated his long, hot, and humid days and his radiant, lunar dreams. He was one serious dreamer. (And while on the subject of speech and idiom, when I met Ishmael Reed he was clearly disappointed to learn that Stanford was not black, but it did not keep him from bestowing on The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You the only award it won, from the American Book Awards, then in their nascence.)
Stanford is a narrative poet. Narratives proliferate within narratives throughout his work: In the stories the voice can come from different ages, different genders, but in the poems it is usually the voice of a young man or a youth, often inflated or inflected to the level of a persona (the protagonist of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is eleven years old), but otherwise the speaker is just the authorial voice, not bothering to adopt the mantle of a “character.” That is an understatement, for the voice is decidedly Southern, male, young. The tones come from the lower register, dark and deep in the diaphragm.
There is an epic and mythic quality to much of Stanford’s work (except for the more distilled later collections). I suspect that comes from cutting his eyeteeth on foundational literature and it dovetailing with the scope and scape of his own mind. Two dissertations about his work were completed (I suspect one is not available).
One of them, by Murray Shugars, completed at Purdue University under the direction of Marianne Boruch, I have read an excerpt of. At this point in time a single-author dissertation would not pass through the gates of many universities, and it is amazing one ever did considering the outlier position of this poet. There is, however, thoughtful work to be done in mining the poems, and Shugars broke the ground. Recall Henry Miller’s homage to Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins (except for the fact that he obnoxiously overinserts himself), a delicious example of a way to write about a writer who simply thrills you down to your toe jam without having to turn yourself into a full-scale biographer, a job also there to be done. I have seen many poets abandon those projects or else find they were not so optimally equipped for the task. (I could fall into both categories).
The pronounced Southern diction; the irreverent wit with which he was naturally endowed; the gory, barbaric boyness; the fiery (symbolic) appetite for revenge; the knack for dialogue; the passion that propels the narratives; the velocity of the delivery; the love of water; the love of women; the love of animals; the religious undertones; religious overtones; the predilection for mythmaking and what else—these are all part of and in Stanford’s work. Readers will see
things I am no longer seeing.
If there were a single poet to whom I would compare Frank Stanford—not in terms of the work per se, but of the precocity of the talent and the short life of its expression, when it kicked in and when the clock stopped: the temporal compression, the artful elaboration, the qualitative splendor of it, and the literariness in its ground—it would be Rimbaud. The mighty, muddy river and the mighty, mean tongue he shared with Twain. If there is a body of work Stanford’s seems to resemble—in its deployment of repetition, assonance, cadence, scale of vision (again I am thinking of The Battlefield); its overall locatedness, the casual colloquial voice (almost always in the lower register of a Southern male), the omnivorous excesses—it probably resembles Whitman, though Stanford’s poetry is Stygian, wilder; more inflammatory, more insurgent, catastrophic, so I am brought back to Rimbaud. At least at this moment on this occasion, I make the claim for Frank Stanford as our Rimbaud.
But you, you can dream forever,
And still not remember who I was.