There is no one like Stanford in modern poetry. The triumph and beauty is in the work, more than many us could have imagined forty years ago when we searched out his poems in a few small editions and poetry magazines. And as Stanford said near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this/ is magic against death.” —Allan Cooper
If we’re lucky, once or twice in a generation an artist comes along who changes the complexion of our entire landscape and gives us a way of seeing the world as we have never experienced it before. Often these artists receive little or no recognition in their lifetimes, and it takes years–sometimes generations–for their genius to be acknowledged. I think of the work of William Blake and John Clare, Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh, Paula Modersohn-Becker and the haunting, other-worldly poems of Frank Stanford.
Frank Stanford’s creative life spanned a little more than ten years. During that period he wrote the nearly 700 pages of poetry collected in What About This, and the epic poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (over 500 pages when it was first published in 1977, 15,283 lines of poetry. A little over 600 lines are printed in What About This). Other uncollected poems will surely come to light with time.
Stanford corresponded with a number of poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Thomas Lux, and Alan Dugan, who served as a sounding board, confidante, advocate and friend. It was Dugan who urged him to publish Battlefield without further revision: “Received your blockbuster of a ms. and am reading it. It’s wonderful so far, and I think that it should be published as it is in a small edition of books: it could sleep for a number of years and then explode.”
Among the many fine poems in What About This one poem in particular has stood out for me for nearly forty years, a modern masterpiece as poignant as Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The poem lives somewhere between the domestic and the wild, between what we know and what we don’t know. It transforms the earthly and familiar into something else:
Place on a Grave
It’s not hard to forget what they ate
Every winter, when the father
And the oldest brother went back to do time,
Cowpeas and smoked goat, all winter
The same muddy supper, their voices
Thick as pan bread, the hollering
At dawn when the mother went out
To the pens in cowboy boots
With a bucket of feed and a roll
Of toilet paper, finding a swatch
Of her daughter’s nightgown
Fluttering on the barbed wire,
The hollering and calling
The rest of them did when they
Raised up from their cold beds
And went out searching at first light
For their crippled sister, who dreamed
Walking over the mountains
In the dead of winter, the smell
Of cooking in her hair, believing
She was gone from there, dignified
Like a wooden figure on the prow
Of a ship with no horizon.
There’s no other poem in the immense body of Stanford’s work that better contains the haunting beauty that is the trademark of his writing and of his life.
Frank Stanford was born Francis Gildart Smith on August 1, 1948 to a single mother. He was given up by his birth mother, and soon after was adopted by Dorothy Gilbert Alter, who became the first female manager of Firestone. She married Albert Franklin Stanford, a levee engineer, in 1952. By all accounts Frank Stanford had a comfortable middle class childhood. In the summer his father took the family with him when he worked:
“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.” (C. D. Wright, The Poet Frank Stanford, Between Love and Death, from American Poets Magazine. Posted April 1, 2015, poets.org)
The men, women and children he met there populated his poems from the beginning. Many of their names are real. Here’s a small list from “The Blood Brothers”, the first poem in his first book The Singing Knives, published in 1971 by Irv Broughton, editor and publisher of Mill Mountain Press, and Stanford’s lone publisher throughout his life:
Born In The Camp With Six Toes
Charlie B. Lemon
Some of these are nicknames, but many recur throughout his body of work, especially in The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. It’s as if his themes, his images, and his concerns were formed at a very early age. Stanford himself claimed that there were poems in his early collections that were written when he was ten years old. This may seem preposterous to us–and Stanford could be a teller of tall tales–but at least one of the poems in What About This was written when he was seventeen years old. It’s feasible that his dreamlike poetic landscape came to him during those childhood summers on the levees, and provided the directive for his entire body of work.
It’s imperative that a poet find his or her external landscape, the touchstone or cornerstone from which the poems flow and grow. For Stanford it was Arkansas.
That was his home, his place of living, where he worked as an unlicensed land surveyor to support himself. Many of his best poems are narratives, and Stanford was an acute listener of stories and voices and a watcher of people. Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Irv Broughton in What About This:
I B: You’re a great observer–delaying trips at bus stations.
F S: Not so much just to observe. I did it so I could meet a person; I wanted to talk. Not just to meet but I wanted there to be words, too…. I’m sad when I see really indigent people, people that are down in their heart and their soul. I wanted to help them, but I don’t know how I can.
I B: Have you ever felt that by talking to people you were actually helping them?
F S: If they thought they could truthfully confide in me, if I took a load off by maybe saying a few kind words, maybe so…. But I just helped because I talked to them. Maybe anybody could have talked to them.
Stanford found his influences wherever he could. There’s a whole chapbook of previously unpublished improvisations and versions of the poems of Jean Follain called Plainsongs in this collected, echoing and expanding Follain, set in Stanford’s Arkansas landscape. Here’s one poem from that manuscript, “The Dream Near The Witness Tree”:
Death uses a beautiful rock as its perch
you don’t know what it feels like
how cold and bright it is
until it snows and a blackbird leaves there
the wind blows through its crag
and holds up a branch in the night
like the last peach on the tree
or a woman who has lost a breast
and thinks she will lose you too
Death makes a point of saying I will lose you
We can feel Stanford’s empathy near the end of this poem, and sense that there’s a much larger story behind figure of the woman–the single peach leading to the single breast. Stanford listens and watches, and then selects and amplifies details like a painter. He’s a master of what should be kept and what should be left out.
A poem from One-Finger Zen, another previously unpublished manuscript shows just how much he learned from Follain:
a man by himself in a bar
feels a shadow behind him
thinks of his wife eating
hears the rain by the sea
tries to forget his day laid out like dresses for the dead
he knows his heart is closed up for the night
and the people
who are poor and cannot sleep look through the blinds
Stanford’s empathy was immense. He postponed bus trips to listen to others. He cared about the lost and forgotten, the poor and afraid. And he brought them into his poems where their despair and hopelessness could shine clearly, “cold and bright.” His poems should be a wake up call for all of us.
Franz Wright has called Stanford “one of the great voices of death.” I think that’s fair. But the myths and misinformation that grow up around poets who die young—Frank Stanford, John Thompson, Sylvia Plath—rarely do the poets justice. In fact their death, in many ways, tends to be a mirror reflecting the reader away from the work. There’s the urge to look for all the sordid details in the poems, and if they’re not there, we seem to have many curious ways of trying to convince ourselves that they are.
While a poet’s work is always more important than the details of his life, sometimes a few details are helpful. Stanford once said “Let’s put on a pot of coffee and write all night.” While he was at the University of Arkansas (he never completed a degree) he was probably writing The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You late at night in his room. He could write anywhere, but he had his favourite places. Again, from the interview with Irv Broughton:
I B: Talk about the ideal writing environment.
F S: During my college days, it seems the best circumstances were for me to spend long periods of time in a given place that I felt some affinity for, that I’d gotten used to, like this cabin. This cabin had a lot of magic feeling to it. I could get up any time of the day, any time of the night, and I could write in it. I felt so at home in this place. It was so strange, when I think of it now, getting up in the winter, building a fire at three o’clock in the morning, making coffee, going down there and writing or reading. It’s a strange feeling. I really became one with that place. It wasn’t a possession. It was just a place you could exist in. It was my place, where I spent all of my time.
I want to return briefly to the Follain influence. At his best, Stanford could write a small poem that had the power and depth of a good short story. Again, as in Follain’s work, only a few crucial details are there–a hint of dialogue, three or four condensed images, but they are enough. This poem is from his collection You, published posthumously in 1979:
At the end of the war there weren’t many
So the widows traveled
To the gallows on hanging days
To look for a blindfolded man.
Any woman could save a bandit then,
And maybe two
If she had a thousand acres or a daughter.
All she had to do was bring another horse
And tell the sheriff, him.
I keep thinking about the rhythms of Stanford’s lines, their sway and lilt. They’ve always reminded me of blues and jazz rhythms, the leaps of jazz, the smoke of the blues, especially in the long Whitman-like lines of The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You:
I said I love you in the field of honour
and she was like a colt
and she was water I held in my hands
and she was the canoe I worked through the river
and she was the flash at two-thirty in the morning of the suicidal knife
and she was a fire of pine cones who ran like a deer
and she was a butterfly that lit on the float of my pole
and she was the night herself
In Hidden Water (Third Man Books, Nashville, Tennessee, 2015), a companion book to What About This, there are further unpublished poems, facsimiles of letters and photographs, hand written notes, and a partial list of Stanford’s record collection: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Roland Kirk, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed–over 120 records, and the list goes on and on. Stanford wrote several poems which touch on the blues. Part of it might have been due to his feeling of having lost that Edenic world of his childhood, those summers spent near the levees with his family. Here’s a poem from his first book, The Singing Knives:
I had my quiet time early in the morning
Eating Almond Joys with Mother.
We’d sit on the back porch and talk to God.
We really had a good time.
I’d sort baseball cards
Or look for bottles.
In the afternoon I’d shoot blackbirds.
Jimmy would go by the house for ice water
And make the truck backfire.
Oh, I really liked that.
That was the reason he did it.
In the evenings the cottontails ran across the groves.
I shot one and put him in the backseat.
He went to the bathroom.
Jimmy said I knocked the shit out of him.
At night we would listen to the ballgame.
Then to the Hoss Man.
Jimmy liked “Take Some Insurance On Me Baby” by Jimmy Reed.
By the time Stanford wrote the following lines from a longer uncollected poem, perhaps a fragment itself, there was no more talking to God, no more good time. The poem begins with night and shadows:
Night is nothing
but the small shadow a woman-child’s foot casts
when she puts on her boots
when the taichi lesson is over.
As you can see
I have the blues.
I believe the farmer who stays awake all night,
sacking his mind like oats
for a name for his farm,
is more of a poet than most.
It’s about time the white men
got wise to blue guitars
of the delta.
I’m a two-timer and a drifter
so I won’t ask you to stay very long with me.
I don’t want anyone else to get
two steps from the blues.
Closer is a word the wise and foolish lovers use.
The incestuous roosters of dawn
are all of the time tracking it down.
The ones who follow wicked routine
are always saying, “Make ends meet.”
If we have to meet, then I want to
meet you like smoke. Yes, I’d like
to chop the kindling of my childhood once more,
we’re the same there. But those days are gone,
for better or worse. So, if we meet at all,
whoever you are, let us meet like horses
smelling one another out
before they mate.
All great poets go deep into their own inner landscapes, and that journey can be dangerous, sometimes fatal. Theodore Roethke wrote in one of his notebooks, ” To write poetry: you have to be prepared to die.” The old saying “he wrote with his blood” isn’t just some romantic aphorism. How far did Stanford go? Was he dogged, as the delta blues musician Robert Johnson was when he wrote “Hellhound on My Trail”?
I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail…
Stanford didn’t write a lot about his poetics. He made a short autobiographical documentary film with the help of Irv Broughton titled It Wasn’t a Dream, It Was a Flood. Some of his ideas about poetry are found in two short pieces in What About This: the interview with Broughton, and six pages of prose that first appeared in Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process. An excerpt from that piece, “With the Approach of the Oak the Axeman Quakes,” is printed below:
I don’t believe in a tame poetry. When poetry hears its own name, it runs, flies, swims off for fear of its own life. You can bet your boots on that. Jean Cocteau said a poet rarely bothers about poetry. Does a gardener perfume his roses?
Truthfully, it is the lure of the other fields, of other forces which draw me into a poem, not the techniques of a self-conscious poetics. A book like The Secret Life of Plants would have more influence on my poetry, add more in explaining and understanding the other systems of poetry, than would certain texts.
Every poet has a field of force not presently understood.
Stanford wrote a few poems from his experience as a land surveyor. To me it seems his physical work laid a grid or template over his poems, and showed him the boundaries in which his poems could percolate and grow, like the frame around a painting. In this previously uncollected poem, we sense how deeply he had gone into his psychic landscape near the end of his life:
How I Showed the Men No-Man’s-Land
The party of lost surveyors
Gathered at my fire
Dead and weary
While I cleaned my fish
“See this creek” the field chief
Told his chainmen
“It doesn’t appear on the map”
It was dusk
And my fire was going down
Like the sun on the ridge
They looked in the sky
For a star to follow
The wind blew
But the branches were still
“It’s odd here men
There must be something underground
The compass won’t work
The needle’s still
As a ship in dead calm”
I came out of the dark with my deaf dog
I asked them wouldn’t they
Take their rest
They whispered among themselves
I offered them biscuits and liquor
“Stranger all we want to know
Is where we are”
So I drew them a map in the dirt
Quietly with my knife
And when they understood
How deep they’d traversed
They looked one another in the eye
And parted company
That night every man looked for his own stone
To lie down beside and die alone
And in the background of the poem, that “ship in dead calm” rocks slowly like Charon’s boat on the bayou.
Poets of Stanford’s generation were nurtured by older poets who believed that another aspect of a poet’s work was to start a magazine, or a small poetry publishing house, or translate from other languages—all a part of giving back to the gene pool of poetry. Part of this process is to search out new and overlooked voices and give their work a place to be.
Stanford understood this, and established his poetry publishing house, Lost Roads in 1977. The first title from the press was well-known American poet C.D. Wright’s first collection of poems, Room Rented by A Single Woman. Stanford and Wright had a relationship for most of the last three years of his life.
Shortly before his death, Stanford prepared his will. He had reportedly visited his mother more frequently than usual in the weeks leading up to his death. On the evening of June 3, 1978 he returned to his home and took his own life.
His wife, Ginny Crouch Stanford, and C. D. Wright were in the house at the time of his death. What is perhaps most remarkable is that Wright and Crouch Stanford became co-executors of Frank Stanford’s estate and carefully preserved his many manuscripts over the last four decades. This story is not unlike that of Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who preserved many of his famous paintings that we cherish today.
I find a commingling of many of the themes in Frank Stanford’s poems in this previously unpublished fragment:
The night, the child, the moon, the drunken sailor,
the woman who wears through her ring like
a pair of Levis that last and last,
the blind Negro who taught me how to strut
when I was six, the look you gave me
the other day, whoever you are, the brave
and the lonely, the animals that see us,
a long time before we shoot them, the bank robber,
the drifter, all of us drink
from the same pool. So, when we meet,
let’s float down together, sane,
stoned, drunk, whatever, like those indigo
dragonflies of spring that will be here
There is no one like Stanford in modern poetry. The triumph and beauty is in the work, more than many us could have imagined forty years ago when we searched out his poems in a few small editions and poetry magazines. And as Stanford said near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this/ is magic against death.”
Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.