The Light The Dead See
June 3, 2008 10:03 AM   Subscribe

30 years ago today, Frank Stanford, a young Arkansaw poet shot himself three times in the heart with a 22-caliber pistol. He was 29. By then he had become a powerful and unique voice in the American poetry landscape, dubbed "a swamprat Rimbaud" by Lorenzo Thomas and "one of the great voices of death" by Franz Wright. He left behind a strong (though often hard to find and/or unrecognized) body of work, most notably his immense epic The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You, a 15,280 line poem with no punctuation or stanzas.

The first link is to great resource with selections of poems from many of his unpublished books. It also contains a haunting essay by his wife, Ginny Stanford, that recounts Frank's death - “Death in the Cool Evening.”

A well written article on Frank Stanford at the Poetry Foundation.

Bill Willet (a friend of Frank Stanford) reads “The Singing Knives” (YT)

posted by troubles (42 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine wrote the Wiki entry - he did a ton of research and even conducted interviews with a lot of the people around Stanford.

The one thing that everyone knows about but never brings up is that the circumstances surrounding his death are suspicious. Stanford, his wife, and his lover were all in the house when he was shot. It came down to he said she said, and may never be revealed. Easier to chalk it up as a suicide because, you know, mad geniuses do that kind of thing.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 10:14 AM on June 3, 2008

posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:15 AM on June 3, 2008

I did not know that you could shoot yourself in the heart three times.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:18 AM on June 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Sad. Tragic, really. I read an article in the Sciences magazine (written by a coroner) about how difficult it can be to kill someone. She said it is possible for the heart to take a .45 caliber slug and seal itself enough to keep pumping blood.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:22 AM on June 3, 2008

I'm with you, weapons-grade pandemonium...Arkansan?

I guess this is along the lines of Eliot Smith stabbing himself 40+ times.
posted by nevercalm at 10:25 AM on June 3, 2008

infinite, your friend did a great a job. I had in my mind a long while ago to do a wiki for Stanford, but never would have been able to do something so comprehensive.

damn typo. Is there some way I can get it corrected at this point? I don't want to offend the lovely people of that state. (first post, sorry)
posted by troubles at 10:32 AM on June 3, 2008

Thanks for the post. First I've heard of him, and I intend to return to his work. Browsing his poems online, I came across a few I really liked--including this:

Humming This Song Trying to Remember the Way Another One Goes

Frank Stanford

For a moment the hour is two mad doves
For the rest of your life
Your blood is a sketch
I have drawn from memory
Like a missing deck of cards
Under the bed's ditch
A gardenia turning brown when you touch it
Or a stone
Sinking in the low pond's mud
It all seems
To swarm obediently
As a fugue
I am going to dream
I hear the sleep of figs and bulls
Pollinating the next second
Like a scar with no wound
There is a lightning before death
Without thunder and melody
A taproot disheveled as a shadow
And the boats remain
Waiting to be launched
A dead reckoning of birds
Flying at ninety degrees
Like lost gloves
The bodies forbear
The bodies
Burning the pillows of the sick
That have written the last lines of songs
Sores down on their knees
Begging to be marooned
The horsefly's legs the lady's cameo
A close brush with the ancients
The other one
Went like this
Night and her moon
Like a widow with child
The wood of a wild cherry will kill you
And the barefoot gypsy slicing her melon
Will kiss the ground you walk on
The rest of your life
posted by ornate insect at 10:33 AM on June 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

I wish I'd heard of Stanford before. He's great! Thanks a lot for this.
posted by Shepherd at 10:40 AM on June 3, 2008


Wow - thanks for this post. I can't believe I've never heard of him (former Arkansan here).
posted by Kloryne at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2008

I did not know that you could shoot yourself in the heart three times.

Questions of suicide vs. "suicide" aside, the body has a bit of momentum going for it. If your heart stops (or just gets poked full of holes and stops doing it's job effectively), it's not a binary killswitch. You're gonna die, and it's gonna be soon, but you're not dead yet. The idea that someone could have a couple more trigger pulls in 'em isn't so crazy, especially compared to aiming the gun and pulling the trigger the first time.
posted by cortex at 10:45 AM on June 3, 2008

I had in my mind a long while ago to do a wiki for Stanford, but never would have been able to do something so comprehensive.

No one has as much free time as the unemployed young poet.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 10:54 AM on June 3, 2008

Nice post -- thanks, troubles. I'd never heard of Frank Stanford before, either. Great stuff!
posted by scody at 10:56 AM on June 3, 2008

The second and third shots show a fierce determination if anything.
posted by bz at 11:03 AM on June 3, 2008

a 15,280 line poem with no punctuation or stanzas.

He sounds like the godfather of LiveJournal posters everywhere.

looks interesting. I will read later.
posted by gc at 11:15 AM on June 3, 2008

Thanks so much for this fascinating post; put me on the list of lit majors who've never seen Stanford anthologized before or even heard of him. It's odd that some of my 1980s erstwhile-hippie profs didn't mention him, but they weren't all that up on their recent Southern writers.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:21 AM on June 3, 2008

Thanks, it's always good to read good poetry.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:39 AM on June 3, 2008

Nice post. My brother gave me a copy of The Light The Dead See years ago; it's not my favorite kind of poetry, but I like the guy's writing. Here's a short one:


Sometimes in our sleep we touch
The body of another woman
And we wake up
And we know the first nights
With summer visitors
In the three storied house of our childhood.
Whatever we remember,
The darkest hair being brushed
In front of the darkest mirror
In the darkest room.

And here's the reminiscence by his lover, C.D. Wright; I don't like it nearly as well as Ginny's "Death in the Cool Evening," it strikes me as self-indulgent and a tad evasive, but there it is.
posted by languagehat at 11:45 AM on June 3, 2008

Wow! There are some wonderful poems there. I'd never heard of him, so thank you for brining him to my attention.
posted by ob at 12:06 PM on June 3, 2008

Christ. In general and with few exceptions, I hate poetry, but this hits me the way Nick Cave does. I am going to really like working my way through it all.
posted by padraigin at 12:40 PM on June 3, 2008

Really interesting. The first thing I noticed was how well annotated and full of original content the wiki page was. Stands out a mile.
posted by fire&wings at 12:50 PM on June 3, 2008

Fascinating! Count me as another poetry buff that had never heard of him. I'm going to read plenty more. I've ordered The Light the Dead See from my local library.
posted by Kattullus at 1:40 PM on June 3, 2008

Thomas Lux, who corresponded with Stanford, wrote a brilliant poem called "Elegy For Frank Stanford," found in his book Sunday. I read it at the funeral of someone who committed suicide, and it brought many to tears.
posted by Lucy2Times at 3:23 PM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

As far as the Arkansawyer vs. Arkansan debate...I grew up in Missouri fifteen miles north of the Arkansas state line and attended the University of Arkansas. Arkansawyer is the original label given to and used by natives of Arkansas. Arkansan is a much more recent term that has come into vogue within the last two or three decades. It is often used most often by non-native Arkansans. If you live in the hills of Madison County, you'll use Arkansawyer. If you're a newly arrived transplant in Bentonville, you'll use Arkansan. For more, look at the work of Vance Randolph and Ernest Otto Rayburn.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 3:25 PM on June 3, 2008

I like Stanford's poetry a whole lot, and that's what he mostly wrote, but I'm REALLY crazy about a collection of short stories of his called "Conditions Uncertain & Likely To Pass Away". It's the perfect swirling blend of Southern Gothic and surrealist. And Death is generally lurking, somehow, somewhere, in the shadows. I've reread some of those stories several times, for general delight and inspiration.

It is indeed a damn shame Stanford's work is largely out-of-print.

I've thought from time to time that I'd like to put some of Stanford's writings to music, but I've yet to undertake that particular project. He moves me, though, I feel a connection, and I think I could somehow do his work justice, in musical form. Maybe someday.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:16 PM on June 3, 2008

Cosmopolitan aesthetes are suckers for the perfect Southern literary storm. Its easy as pie. Just grow up in the backwoods and shoot yourself three times in the heart after writing a lot of poetry with spotty syntax and you can be a cliche on an elitist web site.

Still, I would like to read his prose.
posted by Huplescat at 6:53 PM on June 3, 2008

flapjax - I recently finished "Conditions Uncertain..." quite a brilliant and strange collection. Worth a re-read definitely.

Musically.. Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse has said in an interview that Frank Stanford's writing was a large inspiration for the album "Its a Wonderful Life." Which makes sense. and Bonnie "Prince" Billy has written a song called "The Sun Highlights the Lack in Each"(link to where you can download it) which he says is paraphrased from a book by Stanford.

You should give it a go! I think his writing would lend well to music. Spoken or sung, really.
posted by troubles at 7:06 PM on June 3, 2008

huplescat--why do you assume we're cosmopolitan aesthetes? Spotty syntax is an advantage in poetry: look at Emily Dickinson or Jonathan Williams. Stanford definitely seems like he was a bit of a nostalgic romantic, but that's not always a bad thing in a poet. I found the imagery, the juxtapositions, and the riskiness of the rambling tone are what gave the poems I read (and I only read a handful) their oomph. They had a quality and voice that was simultaneously careful and nonchalant. I used to read a lot of poetry (southern and otherwise), and I realize Stanford was likely not an unschooled savant, but his poems have a fresh immediacy that struck me. I may feel differently after reading him more, but being from the south originally I did not think the guy was a fake. So maybe it is you who is assuming here.
posted by ornate insect at 7:06 PM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Huplescat, your comment is contemptible for a number of reasons: blanket characterization of MeFiers as "cosmopolitan aesthetes" is stupid, inaccurate and mean-spirited. Your use of the word "Southern", in this context, is way-too-easy and ultimately meaningless: the South is a big place, lot of variety, lot of aspects. And making light of the tortured act of suicide and implying that said suicide is some sort of attractive feature for the people here who've said they enjoy Stanford's work, is, well, fairly execrable. Finally, calling this an "elitist website" is just laughable. Makes me wonder though, if your opinion of MetaFilter is so low, why do you bother with reading and commenting here?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:37 PM on June 3, 2008

Thanks for the nice considered response Ornate. I was going after something in that post and I’m not sure I got it, but I had to try. I never meant to imply that Stanford was a fake.
posted by Huplescat at 7:45 PM on June 3, 2008

You’re one of my favorite posters, Flapjax, and you’ve got me wrong. Have you ever been to Chapel Hill? We’re all Southern cosmopolitan elitist aesthetes around here... jeez.
posted by Huplescat at 8:05 PM on June 3, 2008

And you live in Japan?
posted by Huplescat at 8:42 PM on June 3, 2008

As long as we're talking Arkansas and poetry, mention might be made of both Miller Williams and John Gould Fletcher (also, the poet Derek Walcott has a book called "The Arkansas Testament," but that's not much of a connection).
posted by ornate insect at 9:11 PM on June 3, 2008

Well, speaking of Arkansas, and things Arkansan (Coyote, I'm an Arkansan. Born in Arkansas. An Arkansan. Not an Arkansawyer. ), I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Frank lived. It's funny how these things go in circles. About ten years ago the local Ozark Poets and Writers Collective had a Frank Stanford evening. Well, lo and behold, a few days ago, I saw a writer friend who recently returned from New York, and it seems that they're planning a similar sort of celebration of Frank's work this summer.

Miller Williams comes into the bookstore where I work sometimes. Which is nice.
posted by geekhorde at 10:49 PM on June 3, 2008

Oh yeah. And I meant to add, Coyote, that you Missourians can call yourselves whatever you want.
posted by geekhorde at 10:50 PM on June 3, 2008

As a (very recently) former and native Arkansan, we're usually Arkansans, not Arkansawyers. And the hills of Madison County haven't been populated by mostly natives since 1965. You'd be surprised how many back to the land hippies settled there, back when the land was 10 bucks an acre.

As my (much older) friend tells the story, when he moved out there in the 70s, land was a hundred dollars an acre. His native neighbor once asked him how much he paid for his farm. He answered "about $10 an acre." My friend asked why he didn't buy more land when it was so cheap. The neighbor responded "It seemed like a lot at the time." Now my friend feels the same way.

Rural northern Arkansas is still fun in its way, but even Newton County is being overrun, although obviously to a much lesser degree. ;)

And OP: I don't have any sort of issue with you having written "Arkansaw," it was after all formerly a common spelling of the state's name. Of course that's been 150 years, but still.
posted by wierdo at 3:32 AM on June 4, 2008

Hi Huplescat. Sorry if I got you wrong. And yep, I live in Tokyo. Loooong way from Alabam!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:33 AM on June 4, 2008

I was going after something in that post and I’m not sure I got it, but I had to try.

Not to dump on you, since you later clarified, but just as a data point: your initial comment came off to me as incredibly assholish, and I'm still not sure how you can make a silk purse out of "Cosmopolitan aesthetes ... on an elitist web site," so you might want to try a little harder next time.

Also, my dad's people are from Arkansas (my brother went to the university at Fayetteville), and I join the "Arkansan" crowd.
posted by languagehat at 1:15 PM on June 4, 2008

I must be moving up as a Mefite... first Flapjax, now Launguagehat! I would like to assume that I struck a nerve. But who am I to say?

Just for the record, as perspective counts for a lot... I lived in an old farmhouse on a dirt road in central North Carolina from 1973 to 2000. We had cows and goats and dogs and chickens, and bees in the walls, and spring water gravity fed to the sink, with a pitcher pump to keep the siphon going.

Just before I moved out the bees in the walls died off from varroa mites or whatever. Then, whenever the weather got hot, with no bees to fan the combs, the beeswax in the honeycombs melted and honey started leaking into the house thru the walls.

I loved that place.
posted by Huplescat at 5:44 PM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

It looks like I’m an asshole after all. I suspected myself all along.
posted by Huplescat at 7:10 PM on June 5, 2008

Arkansawyer is the old term for someone from Arkansas, rarely heard or mentioned anymore in present day Arkansas (at least in NW Arkansas, where I've lived for four of the last five years). I doubt many who live there know of it, but it probably relates to one of the original spellings of the state name, as mentioned above.

Last year the issue was brought up by the Democrat-Gazette, and Paul Greenberg, a writer for the Dem-Gazette,weighed in on his opinion, preferring Arkansawyer, while a blogger in NW Arkansas preferred the now more common Arkansan.

I think its a wonderful term and far better than calling one's self an individual from the state of R Kansas. Course, I'm not a native, just an outside observer.
posted by Atreides at 8:38 AM on June 6, 2008

Just to be clear, Huplescat, I don't think you're an asshole (and I loved your honeycomb story); I just thought you might want to know it wasn't just Flapjax who read your comment that way.
posted by languagehat at 8:54 AM on June 6, 2008

Yeah, Huplescat, I certainly didn't call you an "asshole", or anything like it, either. I said your comment was contemptible, which I thought it was, for the reasons I spelled out above. I took your later insistence that I'd misinterpreted you at face value, though, essentially accepted it, and figured the case was more or less closed. Not a big deal!

But I'd also like to say thanks to languagehat for his comment: it was good for me, too, to see that I wasn't the only one to interpret your meaning the way I did.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:19 PM on June 6, 2008

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