Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Frank Stanford’ Category

Stanford's 15,000-line epic poem

My last post on poet Frank Stanford (I just typed in “Frank Suicide,” which shows you where my head is) was overly long for a blog entry, so I cut myself off before I finished exploring his life.  I’ll finish today and hopefully will put him and his dark charms behind me because this guy has a grip on me.  No wonder he’s a cult figure.  Not only is his poetry arresting and fresh even 33 years after his death, his life is just waiting for a movie script.

 

I can’t say that I would have liked him—a guy whose idea of party fun is to point at each person in a circle saying, “I like you,” and “I don’t like you,” is someone I would avoid.  But I feel the pull. The restless energy behind his good looks comes through in the few available photographs of him.  Stanford was “handsome as the sun,” poet C.D. Wright said of him.  Poet (and Stanford mentor) Miller Williams said he looked like a young Charlton Heston.  And Stanford’s friend novelist Ellen Gilchrist has said that to know him was to understand how Jesus got his followers.

 

(Confession:  I’ve spent much more time digging into his life than reading his poems.  As I keep saying, I’m not an academic, I just dress like one.)

 

Actually, the lives surrounding Stanford fascinate me as much as his own, and those are the lives I’m going to write about today.

 

Stanford’s suicide was precipitated by a confrontation with his wife, painter Ginny Stanford (Crouch) and his lover, poet C.D. Wright.  He lived with Wright even as he visited his wife every week, promising they’d get back together.  After an argument with Crouch and possibly with Wright (she was in the house but it’s unclear to me whether she was part of the fight), Stanford walked back into his bedroom, closed the door, unbuttoned his shirt and shot himself three times in the heart.

 

Shooting oneself three times in the heart when just one would do speaks of an outsized passion and ambition.  That passion and ambition extended to his love life.  Stanford was more than a mere two-timing husband.  At the time of his death he was juggling at least six women.  One of them, I’ve discovered, was the great singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams.   (My husband has long been a huge fan of Lucinda Williams.  I’m just getting to know her and have found that her life and talent seem as big and colorful as Stanford’s.)

 

Williams’ relationship with Stanford was just a fling, she said in an interview I read.  She seemed ashamed of it, ashamed of being taken in by his charm.   She wrote a beautiful song, “Pineola,” about hearing the news of Stanford’s suicide from her father Miller Williams.  (Miller Williams, by the way, delivered the poem at Clinton’s second inauguration.)  A sampling of the lyrics (listen to the song here) gives an idea of the numbness that follows such news:

I could not speak a single word

No tears streamed down my face

I just sat there on the living room couch

Starin’ off into space

 

and later at the cemetery:

 

Some of us, we stood in silence

Some bowed their heads and prayed

I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust

And let it fall over his grave

 

Stanford’s philandering is not to his credit, but the type of women he pursued is.  Unlike another notorious womanizer, Tiger Williams, he seems to have liked the company of equals, artists and creative types.  His wife Ginny Crouch, an Arkansas native as was he, is a painter of note.  She painted the official portrait of another one-time Arkansas resident, Hillary Clinton, and several of one of my favorite writers, M.F.K. Fisher. Clinton’s portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and Fisher’s in the Smithsonian.

Senator Hillary Clinton by sftrajanM.F.K. Fisher, 1991 by Maulleigh

Crouch has also illustrated book covers for writer Ellen Gilchrist, a close friend of Frank Stanford’s and someone he mentored.  Gilchrist has written extensively about a character who strongly resembles Stanford.

C.D. Wright by anthologist

 

His lover of the last three years of his life, C.D. Wright, yet another Arkansian, is a poet in her own right.  She and Stanford started Lost Roads Publishing, and she continued to direct it after his death.  I like her poetry more and more.  Here’s an excerpt from Wright’s “Our Dust,” a poem that gives a strong sense of the place all these Arkansas characters come from:

 

 

 

 

I was the poet

of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch

phone books, of failed

roadside zoos. The poet of yard eggs and

sharpening shops,

jobs at the weapons plant and the Maybelline

factory on the penitentiary road.

 

Lucinda Williams, Ginny Stanford, C.D. Wright, Ellen Gilchrist—these women’s careers have outlasted Stanford’s, and dare I say outshined it.  At least for the moment.  A biography, a re-issue of his books, more work printed in anthologies, and hopefully a movie someday will give him the cultural presence he deserves.  Meanwhile he waits in relative obscurity to be resurrected as the women in his life continue creating.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

poem is on concrete wall in foreground

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

love me

 

Quit drinking son

 

You talk like a river boat gambler

You look like one

 

You talk like a queer

sometimes

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

every night

 

O come ye sons and daughters of art

 

Bull

 

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!)

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »