In many cases, dying young grants many artists a type of sainthood, forever shrouding them in mystery, and protecting their profile from the inevitable creative and stylistic ravages of age. Some famous examples are Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Belushi, Kurt Cobain, and poet Frank Stanford.
For the Poetry Foundation, writer Ben Ehrenreich sifts through Stanford’s papers at Yale, gives his work a close read and travels to Arkansas where Stanford grew up and eventually met his end in 1978. Best known for the 500-page poetic magnum opus The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, unanswered questions still swirl around the young poet, questions about what parts of his mythology were self-made or true. Called “a swamprat Rimbaud,” Stanford had a strong relationship with death, both on and off the page, and the pages he left behind continue to inspire and tantalize readers, as new generations discover his dense, singular, ethereal work.
Death is everywhere in Stanford’s poetry, and it often drives a Cadillac. It’s there—he’s there, I should say—in the first lines of The Battlefield, which begins with the funeral of young Francis’ nanny: “well that black Cadillac drove right up to your front door / and the chauffeur was death / he knocked on the screen he said come on woman let’s take a ride.”
In much of the work Stanford published in the mid-1970s—presumably written in the poet’s early and mid-20s, around the time he bid academia goodbye—death took center stage. As time passed, death gradually pushed everything else to the sidelines, everything but love, which grew more pained and brittle as the years went by. Stanford’s “biggest love affair,” C.D. Wright told me with a tired smile, “was with death.” And he was not a man known for being stingy with love.