Sep 6, 2007

An Edition of Donald Stanford’s Poems

Time is always passing, the years drift by, and many projects are left undone and ideas left unfulfilled. One matter that I have neglected discussing for years on my Winters web site and now on this Winters Blog is a recent edition of the collected poetry of Donald Stanford, which came out already some four years ago. This work, however, deserves the close attention of those committed to classicism in literature, however belated this post might be.

I have frequently mentioned and highly praised the criticism and career of Donald Stanford on this blog in its inaugural year. Stanford, who died in 1998 at the age of 85, was a longtime professor of English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and the co-editor of the prestigious Southern Review, Second Series between 1965 and 1982. I have opined that Stanford was probably our finest Wintersian. He wrote a brilliant book on modern poetry from the view of what I would term a Wintersian classicist, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry, which remains in print, though I don’t know how long it will remain so.

The news I have neglected is that four years ago the Edwin Mellen Press of Great Britain published the first edition of Donald Stanford’s collected poems. I have had a heckuva time trying to find this book in the United States at a price of less than $100, which seems quite steep. Further, I haven’t had any success finding a library in my lending network to give me a look at it, though I see that it’s available at the LSU Library in Special Collections. I can’t guess why the book was published in Britain in addition to the U.S. The editor, who has edited other works by and about Stanford, is an LSU professor, the same university at which Stanford taught. I do not know of Stanford’s having any particularly strong influence in British literary culture. I suspect that he does not.

The book is entitled The Complete Poems of American Poet Donald E. Stanford, 1913-1998, edited with textual notes and an introduction by R.W. Crump. The book purports to be the first complete collection of Don Stanford’s poems, including the three chapbooks he published, his privately printed poems, and all the extant manuscript poems never before published. According to Mellen Press, the textual notes list all the authorial versions, the basic text and all the variant readings. The book also offers tables of Stanford’s editions and collections and their tables of contents, and the appendices reportedly provide some of Stanford’s statements about his life and poetry. The collection’s “Preface” is by David Middleton, a fine formalist poet and scholar in his own right. Middleton wrote a few reviews and poems for the Southern Review during Stanford’s tenure as co-editor. The “Preface” reportedly places Stanford’s poetry in historical perspective and discusses the virtues of his poetic theory and practice.

If you wish to find out a little more about Donald Stanford before I have a chance to discuss him at length on this blog, I suggest LSU’s notice about Stanford’s death, which is still available on line at:

The web site of the Mellen Press includes a couple short reviews, none of which, as far as I can tell, was published in the United States. The book’s six appendices reportedly include Yvor Winters’s fascinating “Foreword” to Stanford’s first published collection, New England Earth and Other Poems (this short essay was also reprinted in The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Yvor Winters), as well as a formerly unpublished, but undoubtedly helpful statement of Stanford’s about the school of poetry he belonged to and excerpts from two interviews he gave. A fellow named John R. May writes on the book’s web site, “Professor Crump proves here once again that she is a masterful textual editor. The artistry of her work is apparent throughout this volume -- a profound concern for the purity of the text that serves at every turn the transcendence of the poetry itself.”

Reportedly, the number of Stanford’s poems available has been doubled with the collection, and the web site claims that much of this unknown work represents Stanford at his strongest. But whether the release of the “new” poems is an important event remains to be seen. I have discovered no reviews of the collection anywhere and no discussion of it on any web site. Mellen Press also boasts of Crump’s presenting Stanford’s poems to us with great care, bringing us “closer to the poems and the poet.” William Bedford Clark writes that he “would be remiss if I did not also call attention to David Middleton’s remarkably astute preface, which will serve as both an impetus and model for future commentary on Stanford as poet.”

I consider it nearly unconscionable that the Southern Review has not seen fit to publish a review of this collection and downright ridiculous that no academic library in the Midwest network has a copy of this book. Stanford, whatever one’s opinion of his Wintersian criticism might be, was an able scholar and a fine poet who had a great love of literature and stood at the helm of the prominent Southern Review for more than 25 years. I will be working to find this book somewhere at a reasonable price. Stanford devoted his career to the furtherance of the modern classicism that Yvor Winters brought to the fore and defended so ably. We might take Stanford’s description of the basic literary principles of E. A. Robinson (from his book Revolution and Convention) as a rough description of his own Wintersian classicism:

Robinson’s approach to literature and life is primarily rational; intuition and emotion are seldom exalted above reason. His poetry usually has substantial paraphrasable content and strives to communicate rightness of feeling rather than intensity of feeling, the feeling being achieved in part and controlled by the effective use of conventional prosody and conventional poetic forms. Usually he employs the traditional iambic line. His poems have unity, coherence, and a logical structure that is appropriate for the material but is not organically determined by it. The style at its best is impersonal, simple in diction, non-rhetorical, and without excessive ornamentation. (Emphasis Stanford’s.)

Before I get my hands on a copy of this work, I conclude by noting that John Fraser, editor of the important anthology A New Book of Verse (which I have been discussing from time to time on this blog and which began as a collaboration with Stanford, as explained in Fraser’s introduction) chose two of Stanford’s poems for that anthology, a choice which implies, it could be, that Fraser considers them particularly fine examples of modern classicism. (Still, exactly how we should understand Fraser’s choices is a matter for some debate, which I will get to some time.) I offer the two poems below, which Fraser reprints online without apparent permissions.

The Cartesian Lawnmower

The wandering vast unbounded green
Perplexes the intense machine.
I watch, I listen and hear more
Than mathematics in its roar.

But it rolls on, and like a pall
The towering weeds and grasses fall
Till each particular blade or spike
In essence different looks alike.

But there’s a spot it has to pass
Where weeds are thicker than the grass,
And on that spot it’s ill at ease.
With less a roar and more a wheeze,

With less a wheeze it grunts and pops,
And then ridiculously stops,
Until at last the tense machine
Is merged with an intenser green.

This first poem is a very complex, yet playful meditation upon the nature of human experience, as signaled by the title and a couple of words in the body of the poem, “mathematics,” and “essence.” It reminds me quite strongly of many playful-but-deadly-serious poems by J.V. Cunningham. It’s an elegant and even comic rumination. Indeed, it’s almost light verse in the way it employs a somewhat unexpectedly impish vehicle to study the profound subject matter. I will be examining this poem more closely in the future. I would say, off hand, that it is a very fine piece of work, though not deserving of the status of “great” (as Fraser could be suggesting that it should).

The Bee

No more through summer’s haze I see,
In sunlight like a flash of spume,
The resolute and angry bee
Emerging from a flood of bloom.

The bee is quiet in her hive.
The earth is colorless and bare.
The veins of every leaf alive
Have stiffened in the altered air.

This poem seems a little too simple for inclusion in Fraser’s anthology, again without making any final call about what that anthology’s purpose is. It’s a minor and rather conventional, if masterly, meditation on death. It’s not a great poem, but it is a fine one, written with superb style and consummate control. One has to wonder whether Stanford saw himself, like his bee, as “resolute and angry” in the face of death.

Finally, there might a continuing need for a disclaimer on one particular matter. Readers want reassurance that no author or critic takes every word and idea of someone other author or critic as pure GOSPEL. If an author leaves that impression, he loses a great deal of credibility; he doesn’t seem to be truly thinking – which, I might point out, is not a logical argument in itself. But, alas, I must follow the common modern practice and make the compulsory disclaimer in order to have any hope of getting a hearing for Donald Stanford -- or Yvor Winters, for that matter. Here it is: I do not take Winters or Stanford (or anyone) as pure Gospel.

To demonstrate this, I want to relate one disagreement I have with Stanford’s critical views, among several. Stanford was a strong and convincing advocate of the fiction of Caroline Gordon, wife of Allen Tate, during the period of his editorship of the Southern Review. I read somewhere in SR that he considered Aleck Maury, Sportsman, a rather obscure piece that I have never read about in any other venue anywhere in the world of letters, to be Gordon’s finest novel. I have tried reading just about everything Winters or one of his advocates or adherents have ever recommended as important or worthwhile, and I have been repeatedly rewarded with one splendid discovery after another. One of those discoveries, thanks to Donald Stanford, was the work of Caroline Gordon, who has written a number of fine novels that have been neglected or forgotten for far too long (yet another matter that I should get to some time on this blog -- the list of tasks ever lengthens!). But I must disagree, respectfully, with Stanford’s judgment of Aleck Maury. This episodic novel has very little to say and is not even particularly well written. It’s an overlong fictional chronicle of the uninteresting, trifling life of a college professor who has a passion for hunting and fishing. It tells us very little about any significant aspect of human experience. This almost trivial work is far from Gordon’s best piece. It’s not even notably good in any of its major aspects, not in narrative structure, writing style, or themes. I have not often been let down by a recommendation from Winters or a Wintersian, but Stanford’s accolade for Aleck Maury was one of the biggest disappointments that I can recall. Still, those who found A River Runs Through It, the popular novel and movie about fly-fishing, worthwhile, might find something valuable in the turgid Aleck Maury.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog about Yvor Winters. I have come into possession of many of his books all at once and have been curious of this poet I don't recall hearing of previously. The books came from the estate of Colgate Dorr who was a student at Stanford in 1940, hence the connection. One of the book, "Poems" from Gyroscope Press is signed be Winters. I've noticed it has value on Abebooks. Is it a book you'd be interested in? You probably have a copy, but if not let me know.

Thanks again for your blog

Michael Doherty

michael said...

Thank you for your Yvor Winters blog. I have come into possession of many of his books all at once and I have been curious about this poet with such a great name of whom I'd never heard. The books came from the estate of Colgate Dorr who was a student at Stanford in 1940, hence the connection. One of the Winters books I have, "Poems" by Gyroscope Press appears to be valuabe from a look on Abebooks. The copy I have is inscribed to Mr. Dorr by the author. Might you be interested in this book of poems? You probably have a copy but let me know if you don't. There are other books in the collection. Let me know if there are others that might be of interest.

Thanks again for you blog.

Michael Doherty

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