Who Was the Poet Frank Stanford?

With the recently released What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanfordthe work of a brilliant, difficult, much-mythologized and little-known American poet is finally widely available.

Frank Stanford’s short life was a study in contradictions: his childhood was divided between the privilege of an upper-crust Memphis family and summers deep in the Mississippi Delta; he was a backwoods outsider who maintained correspondence with poets ranging from Thomas Lux to Allen Ginsberg; and posthumously, he is both little-known and a cult figure in American letters. He was a “swamprat Rimbaud,” “one of the great voices of death,” and “sensitive, death-haunted, surreal, carnal, dirt-flecked and deeply Southern.” He shot himself in 1978, just shy of his 30th birthday. Reviewing the new collection for the New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote about the enigmatic nature of Stanford himself, as well as why his work has been so difficult to find:

Even before his death, Mr. Stanford was an emerging cult figure among Southern writers, the kind of man whose life is difficult to untangle from his work. He was charismatic — “as beautiful as the sun,” in the words of the Arkansas poet Carolyn (C. D.) Wright, who was also among his lovers. He was prolific, writing 11 books before his death, one of them a 450-page narrative poem, and leaving behind a steep pile of unpublished work.

He was enigmatic in a hundred ways. He didn’t do readings. He didn’t teach. He didn’t like big cities. As a baby, he’d been abandoned at the Emery Home for Unwed Mothers near Hattiesburg, Miss. His well-to-do adoptive father built levees along the Mississippi River’s tributaries. When [Lucinda] Williams met Mr. Stanford, he was working as a land surveyor.

Since Mr. Stanford’s death, his cult has grown, but it’s never come close to metastasizing. In large part, that’s because his work has been hard to find, issued by tiny presses and often out of print. The long-awaited publication this month of “What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford” gives us a chance to see him whole.

Several years ago, Ben Ehrenreich wrote about Stanford for Poetry Magazine. His searching and searing 6,000-word piece is both a profile of Stanford and the story of Ehrenreich’s own quest to unravel the man behind the myth. Not only is it a beautiful read but it also offers the most comprehensive portrait of Stanford’s life available online. Below is a short excerpt:

Some lives are too easy to read backward. Frank Stanford’s is one of those: the last page is now read as the first page—sometimes as the only page—and the first becomes illegible without the last. You may already know how Stanford’s story ends; I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t. Let it suffice to say that a literary reputation once glittering with promise has faded into a myth that grew larger than the man himself—the hard-living, fast-loving Ozark sage, spawn of Lao-Tzu and Whitman by way of Vallejo and Breton.

What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanfordedited by Michael Wiegers and with an introduction from former Texas Poet Laureate Dean Young—was published by Copper Canyon Press on April 14. NPR described the release as “the big event in poetry for 2015.”

See the sources:
1. “The Long Goodbye” (Ben Ehrenreich, Poetry Magazine, January 2008)
2. “Review: ‘What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford’” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times, April 2015)