115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Frank Stanford's Barbaric South

Leo Dunsker, University of California, Berkeley

Frank Stanford’s poetry garnered praise from John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, and others within his lifetime, but it has failed following his death to attract enduring critical attention. Stanford’s poetry represents the mid-century agrarian US South as a zone of uneven development in which the twin threats of social and natural violence jar with ideas of culture and civilization; it is from this barbaric interstice that the poetry lights out in search of new conditions of imaginative experience.


During Frank Stanford’s brief life (1948-78), his work was met with praise from poets as prominent as John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, and James Wright; champions of his work have also been found in poets as diverse as Ishmael Reed, Alan Dugan, and C. D. Wright. While the recent return of much of Stanford’s poetry to mainstream print circulation (owing in large part to Copper Canyon Press’s What About This, 2015) has brought some critical attention to his work, Stanford’s continued absence from studies and anthologies focusing on Mid-Twentieth Century US poetry remains an important context for his work and the horizons of its reception.

An examination of Stanford’s life and work reveals that, despite the regional specificity of his work and his own geographical isolation from many contemporary coteries, he is in fact deeply concerned with the poet’s participation in a broader public life. His representations of the agrarian US South, while never polemical, nonetheless constitute a politically salient portrait of a culture plagued by both social iniquities and inexorable natural violence— on the one hand the virulent racism of the Mississippi Delta and on the other the irrepressible volatility of the rural Southern landscape and its native fauna.

In Stanford’s first published collection, The Singing Knives (Mill Mountain, 1971), both of the aforementioned forms of violence are probed deeply; poems from this collection such as “The Blood Brothers” and “The Singing Knives” represent the potential of imaginative experience (often in the form of dreams) to respond to these forms of violence. Crucially, the imaginative responses dramatized in the poems emerge from the consciousness of a child-narrator whose age creates a distance between his own consciousness and the customs of his flawed society in a manner reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. At the same time, the child-narrator’s own immersion in the savagery of rural Southern society and landscape precludes the critical distance from his society necessary to judge it “grotesque”— while he can imagine alternatives, he cannot experience them except through imagination. The poems respond to the savagery of the agrarian South with their own barbarism, in Lyn Hejinian’s terms a “barbarism of strangeness” in which the similetic imagination of the poetry and its use of dreams locates the material it represents beyond the limits of the “Southern grotesque”; instead, the poetry locates itself in what Stanford himself refers to as a “different and strange country” altogether.

References to unpublished documents and manuscripts by Stanford and his associates from the collection of his papers housed at the Beinecke Library will serve to situate Stanford’s poetry within a broader scene of cultural production by creating the sense of a network predicated on correspondence and collaboration. In doing so, Stanford’s poetry can be understood as self-avowedly part of a larger milieu even as its setting in a zone of uneven development locates it at the fringes of this same milieu.