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The Raw Epic Poetry of the South's Forgotten Genius Is Ready for a Comeback

Copper Canyon Press

On June 3, 1978, Frank Stanford died of three self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the heart at his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Over the course of his life, he had published seven collections of poems and had written, but not published, perhaps a dozen more, to say nothing of his translations, his short fiction, his films. He also founded a publishing press and composed a 15,000-line epic poem detailing the adventures of an eleven-year-old boy called The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Such an expansive body of work would be impressive from any person of letters in their seventh decade. Stanford, however, accomplished it in less than ten years. At his death, he was 29.

Stanford’s is a poetry of id and raw emotion, turning up all forms of male lust and violence: “I don’t believe love is for chickenshits. / It’s low, dark, and cold-blooded, like a cottonmouth.” His poems are powerfully rooted in the South, especially the levee camps along the Mississippi where he spent summers as a boy. He makes a romance of “the strange country of childhood, / Like a dragonfly on a long dog chain.” The language is soaked in a rustic Southern vernacular and full of bravado, spinning fantastical and sinister visions that achieve surprising beauty. But above all else, the obsession in his work is death. For Stanford, death is less an abstraction than a continual companion.

When the rain hits the snake in the head,
he closes his eyes and wishes he were
asleep in a tire on the side of the road,
so boys could roll him over, forever.

It is difficult to fully grasp where Stanford’s orphic power came from. The adopted son of a levee engineer, his youth was spent in Memphis and the Ozarks; he attended a prep school in a Benedictine monastery in Subiaco, Arkansas. But by his early teens, he had already developed a voice pitched to his surroundings and to the heritage of poet-storytellers. The writer Lorenzo Thomas called Stanford “a dadgum redneck Surrealist” and “a swamprat Rimbaud.” James Wright, when blurbing Stanford’s first collection, couldn’t get over his own shock: “It is astonishing to me that I was not even aware of this superbly accomplished and moving poet.”

If the poetry was met with awe by those who read it, the man himself seems to have had a similar effect. “He was as handsome as the sun,” said C.D. Wright, the poet who co-founded Lost Roads Publishers with Stanford and was also his lover for several years. “A big head of girly curls, a long torso and short legs,” she wrote, “the intimation of a satyr.” “To know Frank then was to see how Jesus got his followers,” said the novelist Ellen Gilchrist. “Everybody worshipped him.” Stanford didn’t complete his undergraduate studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville but developed a group of friends and advocates among the writers of the region. Many —C.D. Wright chief among them—continued to preach the gospel of Stanford well after his death.

But in spite of this, Stanford slipped from view. He has been almost entirely absent from anthologies over the past 35 years; although he published in many of the major literary journals of his day, no lasting critical reception developed. Perhaps because tastes change from generation to generation, perhaps because different parties held the rights to his various works, Stanford never got a real audience. A small cadre of loyal fans sought out his extremely rare books, but most readers of poetry have never heard his name and far fewer have read him. A towering figure by all accounts, Frank Stanford fell into literary obscurity.

Until now. This month, Copper Canyon Press brings out What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, a 700-page volume that includes ample selections from all of Stanford’s previously published poetry (save The Battlefield, which it excerpts) and a large amount of unpublished material held at Yale’s Beinecke Library. The tome shows the prolific Stanford on a scale that is appropriate to the work. More importantly, What About This marks a rare moment, when a critical and completely original American voice is recovered after decades and takes its rightful place in the canon.

Stanford is principally a poet of magnitude. He is most himself when at great length, when he can stretch out with a Whitmanic, all-encompassing breadth. (Ironically, the Academy of American Poets refused to consider a Stanford manuscript for the Walt Whitman Award, a prestigious first-book prize, because of its length.) Although many of the poems in What About This are very short, they are better understood as details of a larger tableau, than as wholly individuated miniatures. In fact, the greatest strength of What About This is its very size. A briefer selection might have eased a reader into Stanford without tiring the bicep, but it would have completely ignored the fact that scale is as integral of an instrument for Stanford as rhyme and meter are to other poets.

What About This presents the published poetry manuscripts in order, but chronology doesn’t do much to explain Stanford’s aesthetic. Indeed, the unpublished manuscripts in the second half of the volume—which includes some of this juvenilia—reveal that Stanford’s voice was already almost entirely formed at the age of ten. Instead of exhibiting the poet’s development as a through-line, editor Michael Wiegers has wisely interspersed short excerpts from The Battlefield between the manuscripts. This tells a more accurate story of Stanford’s work: It’s carried along on the hum of his epic production, and, since The Battlefield was allegedly written when he was a teenager, we can see the continual flow of his work out of the same childhood wellspring.

As a naturally epic writer, Stanford favors the catalog as form. Once a poem gains some momentum, it will often take off in a list of images that draws equally from the Homeric epics and from the cinematic montage of Stanford’s era:

I am not asleep, but I see
a limb, the fingers of death, the ghost
of an anonymous painter
leaving the prints of death
on the wall; the bright feathers
of soft birds blowing
away in the forest;
the bones of fish and
the white backs of strange women;
your breathing
like the slow thunder
on the other side of some river
as you sleep beside me; old
dancing teachers weeping in their offices;
toads with bellies as quiet
as girls asleep in mansions, dreaming
of saddles and pulling the sheets
between their legs…

The excitement of a Stanford poem lies in its inventive fury—the way in which it evolves beyond the catalog, able to shoot off in an unexpected direction at any point, sketching a complete story in just a few unpunctuated lines. A gutted fish morphs into the spine of a woman, who then becomes the beloved; but the vision of “old dancing teachers weeping in their offices” is completely unforeseen and makes its own exquisite tableau.

Stanford also has a distinctive mastery of simile; the hinge of “like” pushes him into strange and new territory. In some cases, the figurative element he turns to is a clearer image than what it parallels: In “The little winds that came up / Like a child soaping a saddle,” the simile improves upon the generic “little winds.” In other cases, the simile escapes from its own clear logic, disorienting the reader into a greater sense of possibility:

When he cut a throat
It was like Abednego’s guitar
And the blood
Flew out like a quail

At these moments, when a Surrealist quasi-logic infiltrates the poem, Stanford’s debt to European and Latin American poetry is especially palpable. What About This also includes Stanford’s adaptations of poems by a host of forebears, including Jean Follain, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and César Vallejo. Stanford also shows a particular attachment to the Chilean avant-gardist Nicanor Parra, whose “antipoems” paved the way for much of Stanford’s use of the scatological and an adversarial stance toward the reader. Stanford’s originality and iconoclasm can at times feel like the signs of a poet fully disconnected from the canonical poetic tradition, but this is not the case. Stanford knew the canon as well as anyone and names major influences as divergent as William Blake and W.S. Merwin.

It should come as little surprise that, among 700 pages of poems, there are a few clunkers. But they are precious few. What About This exhibits a great consistency of tone, and the scope of Stanford’s bardic energy is something to behold. It is a truism that poets write the same poem, repeatedly, throughout their careers. In Stanford’s case, one gets the sense that he intended the entirety of his oeuvre to feel like a single poem—a rush of imagery and feverish intensity, always with death in mind.

Now that the work is finally available, the real risk is that Stanford’s poetic legacy will play second fiddle to the myth of his life and death. The beautiful young suicide is a hard narrative to shake. There is still very little known about the causes of Stanford’s death—depression, mental instability, and a lover’s spat have all been suggested, but none has been truly substantiated. With such a lack of information, it becomes easy—too easy—to gloss him as a tragic figure and forget about the astounding work he made. As Stanford, hopefully, earns the popularity he deserves, he could easily slip into the same reputational rut as Sylvia Plath, who has become an emblem of a certain kind of artistic personality, rather than of a stunning control over form and sound. After all, it is easier to memorialize an icon than to invest attention in an intense body of work, and Stanford the man lends himself to encomia. But What About This offers the fullness of both the work and the image, and leaves it to readers to decide what they will value most.