Blue Yodel of those Who Were Always Telling Me
by Frank Stanford
You look like you just woke up
What did you do last night
sleep in the fields
Now all ofyou who ride the schoolbus
during deer season be sure
and duck down on the backroads
Get on out of here
Honey Mama Julinda gone fix your eye
Sign my yearbook Don’t
write anything like you did in Beth’s
You know you can’t come in my theatre
unless you got shoes on
Bait my hook that’s what I’m paying you for
Why don’t you go to Memphis
and buy your clothes
Take it from me
I ever catch you talking like that with my wife
I’ll kill you you little shit
Frankie I love you really I do
with all my heart Do you
Quit drinking son
You talk like a river boat gambler
You look like one
You talk like a queer
Let me smell your fingers
Did you and one Billy Richard Willet
steal the undertaker’s pick-up
break into the Junior Prom drunk
and thereby commence to dance together
like Russians on the gymnasium floor
boots and all or not
Can’t you run over one measly guard
Put your heart in it
Say the five Sorrowful Mysteries
O come ye sons and daughters of art
Is she stumpbroke yet
The language he loves best is the silent . . .
Do you want me to tell her father
about you two and the Drive Inn
Had enough yet
You’re no more eighteen than the man
in the moon
I just felt sorry for you
because you didn’t have any folks
Over my dead body
In what year did Lord Byron write
Fare Thee Well
Go in peace
Shape up or ship out
Get off your high horse
Now get up
I say together we stand
divided we fall
You know what this means
You can bury my body down by the side
of the highway Lord my old spirit
can flag a Trailways bus and ride
Did you actually read this poem? I thought not. I don’t usually post such long poems for that very reason. But do yourself a favor when you’re done with my musings, and go back and read “Blue Yodel.”
It’s a breezy read, but the poem does make demands of its readers. Stanford has drawn a self-portrait using only what other people “were always telling” him, and it’s the reader’s job to fill in the lines and connect the dots. Kind of like detective work.
“You are what you hear” is an interesting idea (but in my case would create a dull poem. Who wants to read Can I have a ride home now? and Why aren’t there ever any clean towels in this house?)
So what can we deduce about Stanford? The diction and proper nouns in the poem suggest he’s from the south. He lost his parents at a young enough age that all the other adults in his life feel justified in endlessly giving him directives. He was raised Catholic, but preferred art as his religion. (Notice the juxtaposition of the joyful O come ye sons and daughters of art with the droning Say the five Sorrowful Mysteries/every night.)
He’s a rake, a ladies’ man, a hellraiser, a drinker and a smoker. One of the funniest lines of the poem comes after an adult asks him if he stole a hearse to go to the junior prom, and then adds or not. Another amusing bit is Let me smell your fingers, a line parents of teens might want to co-opt. He gets in fights, but that aggression doesn’t carry over to the football field (can’t you run over one measly guard).
Only twice in the poem are the words he hears soothing or celebratory. Mama Julinda tenderly cares for his bruised eye, and an unknown voice calls him to the artistic life. Every other voice is badgering, needling, and buzz-killing. Depending on your point of view, he’s either a rebel without a cause or a young man with a persecution complex. He perceives adults as having the wrong priorities. They worry about appearances—his clothes, his hair, his bare feet—while they crush his soul. Even his English teacher, usually a sympathetic figure for burgeoning artists, is clueless about what’s important. The teacher focuses on the date Byron’s “Fare Thee Well” was written rather than the poem itself. This is a bit of genius on Stanford’s part. “Fare Thee Well” was addressed to Byron’s young wife when he left her. Left her forever. Just after she gave birth. The reference pulls in callous behavior, fatherless children, and tone-deaf adults in one full sweep.
Even the blessing at the end of mass, “Go in peace,” comes off as one more annoying thing he’s supposed to do. Stanford is able to upend the meaning of those words, go in peace, by placing them next to a lot of militaristic barking.
There are a few obscure references in the poem, some personal (what’s the missing noun in the language he loves best is the silent . . . ?) and some regional (are clothes from Memphis worse or better than what he wears?). But not fully understanding the references doesn’t take away from an understanding of what it feels like to be a young man besieged by commands, demands and insults. And here’s the rub for all us nagging parents: whatever is asked and however often, this kid is not complying.
The nagging becomes wordless noise, like the sound of adults in Charlie Brown movies, like the blue yodel of the title. A blue yodel is just what it sounds like. Jimmie Rodgers, considered the Father of Country Music, popularized the Blue Yodel in the 30’s, borrowing the style from Swiss and black singers. (You can hear it here.) In the poem, the blue yodel is a keening sound, a ululation that punctuates the life it sucks away.
List poems like this seem easy to write. We write lists all the time, with no more effort than it takes to remember that the orange juice is running low. But the effortlessness is deceiving. Stanford is more like a composer of orchestral music, bringing in different voices, blending them, highlighting one against the other. The voices seem to direct themselves. The poet seems invisible. And yet there is structure, movement and meaning in the poem. “Blue Yodel” spans the arc of a day, from morning to night, opening and closing with a trip on a bus. The announcement about the school bus begins the ride towards death that ends the poem:
Lord my old spirit/can flag a Trailways bus and ride
Now for the facts. Stanford was born in 1948 in Mississippi but spent most of his life in Arkansas. He was adopted at birth in strange circumstances. (His single biological mother, Dorothy Smith, shared a first name with his single adoptive mother. How often did single mothers adopt in the 40’s? Was the adoption a ruse to save face for his mother? The orphanage burned to the ground in 1964, so we’ll never know.) His adoptive mother later married, but his stepfather died when he was a teen.
Stanford played football, went to boarding school at a Benedictine monastery, and studied civil engineering at the University of Arkansas. A professor there pulled him out of an undergraduate poetry class into a graduate level one. He was a wonder boy, earning praise from established poets, but he dropped out before he got a degree. He worked as a land surveyor while writing poems and stories, and having love affairs and several marriages. Women flocked to him. Looking at photographs of him, I can see the appeal. Mark Ruffalo could play him in a bio-pic. If you like your poets full of whiskey, charm, and angst, he’s your man.
I left “Blue Yodel” in a quiet quad at University of Michigan on a spectacular fall day. At the time I knew nothing of Stanford’s life. I only saw the humor in the poem and thought college students could relate to this litany of annoying authoritarian voices.
But then I read about Stanford’s death. Now the poem reads very differently.
Stanford committed suicide when he was 29 years old. After confessing to his wife that he was having an affair, he went into the bedroom and shot himself three times in the heart. (How do you shoot yourself in the chest three times? Wouldn’t you be dead or fainting after the first shot? Anyway, there’s such a story here that I’m going to write about it my next post.)
This poem was published posthumously, under what circumstances I don’t know. But publication seems to have given Stanford the last word. He finally silenced the blue yodel. (Finally silenced the blue yodel seems a little heavy-handed, I know. Halloween season must be affecting me. Beware the blue yodel!)