I’ve been reading the collected works, published and unpublished, of Frank Stanford, in a book called What About This. He is a voice from the 70s, one cut short by his suicide at age 29.
The tome, over 700 pages long, is evidence that Stanford wrote a lot in his abbreviated life. A lot. As you know, productivity on that scale could be good and it could be bad. Reading the poems of this man I’d never heard of (I simply pulled it off the library shelf out of curiosity), I was intrigued by the thin line between good and bad he walked. I also appreciated how his work developed over time.
Here’s a short poem from his first book, The Singing Knives, that intrigued me:
The Minnows by Frank Stanford
If I press
on its head,
will come out
In short order, you see Stanford’s raw skills for imagery and metaphor. You don’t have to be a Southern boy (Stanford was born in Mississippi and grew up in Arkansas) to recall the effect of pressing your thumb on a minnow’s head before placing it on a hook. And the image, reminiscent of the ancient Chinese poets, of the moon moving on the water like a shimmering white thread is lovely.
Here’s another, from his book, Shade:
This Conflict by Frank Stanford
A body with very few clothes
An old radio
You get to eat
as many slices of bacon as you want
the morning of a home game
The way his sweater smells
It gets so hot it smokes
just when Sam Cooke’s new song
Worms and a homely girl from Texas
who can read quicker than you
and a lost crop
like a whole season
that passed without a letter
from my brother
Stanford’s poems are choppy and often have a dream-like quality. He often dispenses with punctuation. That said, you can learn from him. Even if the poems are difficult to interpret, they never lack for concrete images. If these be dreams, they are sharply-drawn dreams, dreams we can see and smell, touch and taste, listen to at our leisure.
Like many artistic talents, Stanford was dogged by depression, it would seem. Death is a recurring presence, often personified, in his poetry. Stanford thought a lot about the hooded one before taking a gun to himself in 1978. Here’s an example from 1975’s Arkansas Bench Stone:
Shed by Frank Stanford
The old woman washed my socks
Light went through my hair
Like a school of minnows
Death had a socket wrench
That’d fit any nut
He knows a little tune
You can’t carry
Death say he give you credit
You better not sign
A journey is just like a journey
The so-called mystery of death
Will run you about an even seven bucks
Go ahead and see
This includes a washtub of beer
Advice on love
Snake oil on your tally-whacker
Wind blows over our plots
Whistling up the butt of our deaths
I could be anywhere
Wind on the island at night
Not the schoolbell full of mud
Another trait of Stanford is the mystery of connection between titles and poems. More often than not, the poem’s title provided little guidance—at least that I could see, especially as Stanford developed as a poet.
Reading his collected work, good or bad, mysterious or commonplace, is instructive. Stanford is different, and every difference teaches you something if you are willing to learn and not judge.
Reading Frank Stanford’s poetry, like reading so many others’ poetry, is truly like panning for gold—labor-intensive, but worth your time.