Archive for February 7th, 2010

Ann Stanford, photograph on back of above book

Dear friends and readers,

What an adventure I’ve had this week: in my local physical place and then on Wompo in cyberspace.

On Thursday this past week (before the world turned into unpassable hills and meadows of snow and thick thick ice), I had the stunning good luck to come upon a new great poet — yet whose work or at least name has been long familiar to me without my realizing this: Ann Stanford. Now I have another voice to add to my favorite women poets: Fleur Adcock, Anne Stevenson, Stevie Smith, Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Judith Wright.

We had stumbled upon the kind of bookstore I was beginning to assume doesn’t exist anymore (see below) and in a “poetry” (!) section came across Holding our Own: The Selected Poems of Ann Stanford, edd. Maxine Scate and David Trinidad. I was attracted to the title (as in “holding out”) and began to read …

As I usually at least begin a book by reading the introduction, this poem quoted in Scates’s introduction was the first that riveted me — with its living things under our cement world growing on and up still, hitting against the now walled-down existence they must endure. From The Descent, 1960, ought to be (and for all I know) famous:

Done With

My house is torn down —
Plaster sifting, the pillars broken,
Beams jagged, the wall crushed by the bulldozer.
The whole roof has fallen
On the hall and the kitchen
The bedrooms, the parlor.

They are trampling the garden –
My mother’s lilac, my father’s grapevine,
The freesias, the jonquils, the grasses.
Hot asphalt goes down
Over the torn stems, and hardens.

What will they do in springtime
Those bulbs and stems groping upward
That drown in earth under the paving,
Thick with sap, pale in the dark
As they try the unrolling of green.

May they double themselves
Pushing together up to the sunlight,
May they break through the seal stretched above them
Open and flower and cry we are living.

Jane Fruilicher (born 1924), Casement Windows (1974)

Her poetry is visionary. From An American Gallery:

To Her Spirit at Winter Solstice

Now the year ends darkly.
The sun drifts in the south.
Will it ever return?

And you force me in the cold to gather red berries
Up early in mist, breaking the branches —
The musky smell of the toyon —
Will this be enough?

Look down, spirit, from your height of fire,
Look from the skiff crossing the black river.
Call back the sun that lingers.

Shall I bring only remembering
Who cannot bring flowers? for the cold
Grows deep and dark where you linger.

And the ship of fire goes farther
Toward some chill cape of waves and darkness.
Hold fast in the rough riding.

o blown spirit, do not draw me
To those chill tides
Where I too cast my offerings
In darkness.

John Everett Millias (1829-96), Blow, blow, thou winter wind … (1890s)

She puts women at the center as often as men. The next is from The women of Perseus:


I am terrified
marooned on a rock with a gale
freshening and the waves already
spatter me with spindrift.

What could my father be thinking of!
Listening to a two-faced oracle,
chaining me like a dog in this gnashing water.
It is low tide now – high tide will be the end of me.

I will either drown struggling against water
or be caught here by the monster from the sea
the claws searing me along the bone
the teeth quick cutting through flesh and nerve.

It is grim being a sacrifice.
The garlands, the watching crowds, cannot make me heroic.
My legs tremble and fire streaks across my brain
the roots of my hair are daggers.

If this were a story there would be a hero
to swim through the impossible waves, a sword at his belt.
He would cast off my chains, kill the monster,
take me
out of this country mad with fear and riddles.

But all I am sure of is the explosion of waves,
my mother crying from the shore, the seething
of a large invisible bird circling the rock,
and the head of the monster coming up over the horizon.

Nell Blaine (1922-96), Two Trees, Mykonoes

This last shows her strong impulse to make splendid landscapes from memories of landscape gardens in her reading

The Fountain

You must remember never to offend the gods
by being too sure of anything.
Think of Niobe, how she grew in pride
watching her seven tall sons and seven fair daughters.

Who would not? Having created such
superb heads set on the pure column
of the neck, the long hair glistening in the sun
and their voices musical as water

in a bright stream rippling over rocks —
­the archer, the runner, the studious,
the orator, the weaver, the gatherer of garlands,
one with his horse, another at the lyre.

Wherever she looked she saw the gold
limbs of her children, strong
in the sun, their laughter
beyond the sounds of the strings, even the chords

Orpheus struck before he lost his bride
before he disobeyed the charge of Hades
and looked back into the dark
where Arachne in a still corner wove

over and over the stories of the gods
and their offenses, how Hades caught
Persephone, and Leto’s son
killed one by one the children of Niobe.

She has a three part poem which is the closest I’ve ever seen to Anthony Hecht’s supreme masterpiece, Venetian Vespers: Stanford’s Dreaming the Garden. It is an ironic recreation of Virgil’s Georgics,on memories of literary figures, landscapes redolent of 18th century ruins, the sort of thing film adaptations of high status novels with great houses in the center play with. Only she uses these to do more than weave beauty; rather to create a space in which to breathe.

View of the Temple of the Sybil, Tivoli Louis Ducros (Swiss, Moudon, 1748-1810, Lausanne) and Romanized Italian, Giovanni Volpato (Italian, Angarano di Bassano, 1740-1803, Rome).

Formalism is the poetry of the eighteenth century and some of my favorite male poets too (along with Hecht, William Empson, Alexander Pope).


I described my lovely afternoon finding this book of poems and then reading it on two of my lists beyond Wompo — where I had no reply. The bookstore I found this volume in (see above) is located in the upper part of Old Town Alexandria nor far from my house (about 20 minutes walk). The town is a kind of semi-preserved later 18th century/Edwardian town which is kept that way for tourism and because enough decent people have been on the city council (democratic-liberal) for a couple of decades and zoned to prevent hideous architecture (the brutal style or tall inhuman buildings &c&c)

Shades of Jane Jacobs: the top of Old Town is still cheap for rent — there are parking lots selling used cars dotted in. Small shops. Among these we found the kind of bookstore which can introduce you to good books and authors. Sections set up according to type of subject, and books within them in alphabetical order! Sections were labelled history or literature or theater or psychology. I found 8 Trollope novels in a row under literature! Granted 6 were a set of Pallisers, paperback brown from the Oxford so they came in all at once. But also a beautiful edition of Barchester Towers. Trollope said that book would live if any of us did. It must be the only store in all Virginia to show that many; most nowadays have none.

And then I did get a response on Wompo; indeed several. It seems that Stanford is still a sufficiently remembered presence in Calfornia, to be fiercely spoken up for. I was led to brief wikipedia stub, an analysis of one of Stanford’s poems and a review essay.

My first response to the first two paragraphs of this review was that terms for this opposition were a stalking horse for preferring poetry which reeks of macho maleness. How many women are in this new anthology they talk of I wonder? Take the central terms “raw” versus cooked. Big he-men tearing at the hunted down deer with their spears. No thank you. I’ll take my good cooked and on the table by women any time.

Leah Schwartz, her Mill Valley Kitchen (probably 1970s)

I also could see it’s a dislike of formalism, of rhyme and meter which Annie Finch has identified in a couple of her essays as something women gravitate to.

But as I thought on I realized I have an anthology in my house by Stanford, one I’ve had for years and much cherish. She is or was the editor of one of my first anthologies of women’s poetry, and one of my best: The Women Poets in English. It displays impeccable taste: she zeroez in unerringly on the best poems by women in English from the first English ones (early modern) to this century.

Then I remembered how the now famously Elizabeth Bishop sneered at Stanford and refused to have her poems put in this anthology. She asked who would make a “Men Poets in English.” No need, most books are 90% male and chosen from a male perspective (raw v cooked is part of this).

It matters what taste the editor has. The latest of the 18th century ones (by Backscheider) shows such a lack of taste, the book had almost better not have been published. One can’t deny it offers such wealth of information and general essay on kinds, but when it comes to individual poems, so dull it’s excruciating. Now by contrast, Stanford’s are alive. The feminism in the book is not overt either nor any particular agenda within women’s poems — just sheer greatness, differing in each case too. The product of many years reading I should think.

And now that I looked at it I saw her point of view influenced her choice: the love of meditative verse, the non-careerism. Yes this mirrors her mind too.

Just one example, this by Elizabeth Jennings appears in Stanford’s Women poets in English:


Let it disturb no more at first
Than the hint of a pool predicted far in a forest,
Or a sea so far away that you have to open
Your window to hear it.
Think of it then as elemental, as being
Not for a cup to be taken to it and not
For lips to linger or eye to receive itself
Back in reflection, simply
As water the patient moon persuades and stirs.

And then step closer,
Imagine rivers you might indeed embark on,
Waterfalls where you could
Silence an afternoon by staring but never
See the same tumult twice.
Yes come out of the narrow street and enter
The full piazza. Come where the noise compels.
Statues are bowing down to the breaking air.

Observe it there — the fountain, too fast for shadows,
Too wild for the lights which illuminate it to hold,
Even a monument, an ounce of water back;
Stare at such prodigality and consider
It is the elegance here, it is the taming,
The keeping fast in a thousand flowering sprays,
That builds this energy up but lets the watchers
See in that stress an image of utter calm,
A stillness there. It is how we must have felt
Once at the edge of some perpetual stream,
Fearful of touching, bringing no thirst at all,
Panicked by no perception of ourselves
But drawing the water down to the deepest wonder.

Poussin, The Travellers Resting

I read further. I read much more of Holding our Own last night and this morning. It strengthens and solaces me; it includes works of splendid beauty and puts before us central tragedies of our time: in the form of poems on demonstrations broken up and destroyed by various government-people hired thugs who destroy parts of the demonstrator’s bodies, kill them, and poems where she imagines building a dream garden to replace the brute buildings, trash malls, and commercialization that surrounds us. It does require that the reader have read other books, and older books, know of classical figures and poets, the stories. The Elizabeth Jennings’s “Fountain” is in Stanford’s mode, only usually Stanford includes the kind of ruins and filth left when the rich places in the chaparel are washed down leaving the landscape bare.

The blurb on the back of Holding Your Own (which Scates and Trinidad might not be responsible for) seems to suggest that Stanford is another woman at risk of vanishing. For example, "When Stanford died in 1987, she was at the apex of a distinguished literary career …. [but] Her final manuscript remained unpublished while each of her books slipped out of print." Scates and Trinidad's edition is thus framed as a rescue job.

From the two above passages, we see the script laid out before the person is gone altogether for disregarding her work …

And I should say the bookstore I so celebrated is small, in a place in Olde Towne where not a lot of people come (used car lots on the two previous blocks) … And it's not easy to find things about her by google without a persistence.

Much of the above was commented on — see comments section.


Hubert Robert (1733-1808), Hermit in a Garden (1790)

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