On the Poetry of Ann Stanford
Maxine Scates | October/November 2000
Ann Stanford was a poet whose poetry was both grounded in place and haunted by its erosion:
I took a walk up the hill and around a bit this evening. It is not as good as a real country walk, but rather interesting, with the houses built right at the edge of the street, and close together, almost like a big apartment house and in between, the chaparral still grows—sumac trees, and sage, with its lavender orbs now in bloom, and a few sunflowers. Things smell good and woodsy. And on the high part of the hill, I could look down and see the fog coming in, coming across the street, and drifting up over the embankments.
So she wrote in a 1954 journal entry, as she located herself in a scene very Californian, for the hill she described is not part of the miscellany of just any landscape, but rather a hill in Los Angeles, whose environs have so often suggested a place of both fecundity and loss, a place where the unnatural imposes itself on the natural with sometimes disastrous results.
Born in 1917 in La Habra, Ann Stanford lived her whole life in California, most of it in Southern California, though as an undergraduate she studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford University. Her poetry first appeared in 1939 in Twelve Poets of the Pacific, which represented the work of young poets closely associated with Yvor Winters. In 1943 she published In Narrow Bound and in 1949 her second book, The White Bird, appeared; both were published by Alan Swallow. Married to the architect Ronald White, she continued to write while raising a family before returning to the University of California at Los Angeles to earn a PhD in English Literature in the mid 1950s. From 1960 through 1985 she taught at California State University, Northridge. In 1974 she was the first woman to be named Outstanding Professor of the Year in the California State University (CSU) system. Her published work reflects the range of her many interests. A scholar of Anne Bradstreet, she wrote a book-length study of Bradstreet entitled, Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan. She was also the author of two verse plays, Magellan: A Poem to Be Read by Several Voices, published in 1958, and The Countess of Forli, also written in the 1950s but not published until 1985, as well as translator of The Bhagavad Gita, which was published in 1970. In addition, she was the editor of the first comprehensive anthology of poetry by women, The Women Poets in English, published in 1972, a project she had shepherded since the mid '50s.
Ann Stanford received many awards for her poetry including the Shelley Memorial Award, The DiCastagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, fellowships from the NEA, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. During the '60s and '70s she published three books with Viking, The Weathercock (1966), The Descent (1970), and In Mediterranean Air (1977). She died in 1987 at the age of 70. At the time of her death, she left her last manuscript, Dreaming The Garden, unpublished. This manuscript was recently published by Cahuenga Press. Her selected poems, Holding Our Own, edited by David Trinidad and myself, will be published by Copper Canyon Press.
I first read Ann Stanford's The Weathercock and The Descent when I was about to be her student at CSU-Northridge, then San Fernando Valley State College, in 1970. When I open either of these books now, I understand once again how the poems are always with me, as the lines come back to me, familiar, the bedrock of my consciousness. These were poems which welcomed admission to and ultimately defined a world of poetry that I then desired yet knew nothing about. And though it is the work, rather than the teacher, I am about to discuss, I have to note that at 20 the two were inseparable for me and this, I think, is not an unimportant point. I remember how hungry I was to write, to be heard, to be a poet—whatever that meant—but I was also wordless, intimidated by the teachers, all male, I had encountered thus far. I needed a woman teacher and I had found one, which, in and of itself, was still a rarity at that time in the California schools. I wanted to know what poetry held for me. I would not have found out, had poetry not been made real for me by that woman who stood in front of the class.
As I read The Weathercock and The Descent over and over, I was drawn to their clearsightedness, a lucidity which then and now seems to be straightforwardly radiant, as in "The Blackberry Thicket" (The Weathercock):
I stand here in the ditch, my feet on a rock in
Head-deep in a coppice of thorns,
Picking wild blackberries,
Watching the juice-dark rivulet run
Over my fingers, marking the lines and whorls,
The blue of mulberry on the tongue
Brown fingers after walnut husking,
And the green smudge of grass—
The earnest part
Of heat and orchards and sweet springing places.
Here I am printed with the earth
Always and always the earth ground into
And the arm scratched in thickets of spiders.
Over the marshy water the cicada rustles,
A runner snaps sharp into place.
The dry leaves are a presence,
A companion that follows up under the trees
of the orchard
Repeating my footsteps. I stop to listen.
Surely not alone
I stand in this quiet in the shadow
Under a roof of bees.
"The earnest part / Of heat and orchards and sweet springing places. / Here I am printed with the earth / Always and always the earth ground into the fingers"—how I love those lines. Through them I think I first understood narrative, the catalytic moment-story of the poem which both named and gave rise to feeling. Moreover, in these lines I was to find the heart of many of Stanford's thematic concerns. The book jacket of The Weathercock called her a "California poet," and, though I suspect that term was used in a pejorative sense, those orchards then and now tell me of the longing for shade, those "sweet springing places" from which her poetry came.
So it was not only the fact of the teacher, but also the fact of the place that would come to matter for me. Though when I knew her she lived at the top of Benedict Canyon on property she and her husband had bought in the 1940s, she had been raised in the country south of Los Angeles, which had more recently given way to the inevitable sprawl of post-World War II housing tracts. These lines from "Done With" (The Descent) speak to and reclaim that breathing and not so distant past:
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
Open and flower and cry we are living.
In such lines I recognized something that I knew, but could not yet articulate. I had grown up in one of those housing tracts laid over a bean field a mile from L.A. International Airport, a landscape of placelessness. But in her work I heard the echo of something that was still in the wind, voices whispering, something I had been told, a layering of sound that spoke of more natural landscapes which still existed in her memory and spoke to mine beyond the jets and sprawling freeways:
The White Horse (The Weathercock)
Where is the white horse?
I asked the toyon and the walnuts.
The toyon was flowering,
The walnuts lifted their leaves lightly like feathers.
They were tossing and flowering and the wind
rustled a little.
It was dark there under the trees.
I tried the meadow.
Where is the white horse
I asked the mustard and rye grass,
Have you seen her?
The mustard was yellow and the rye going to seed.
I could tell the old horse had been there.
She had left her mementos.
Where is the white horse?
I asked the towhees down by the corral.
They looked at me sideways.
One had already drowned in the water trough.
The birds had little to say. The corral was deserted.
I walked past the toyon and walnuts
And over the meadow and up the hill.
I knew the white horse had been there.
She's lame, I said, she can't go far.
And I went up the road to the next stable.
There was only a black horse and a brown one.
They tossed their manes on the wind and kicked their heels a little.
Where is the white horse, I said,
She was here yesterday.
These landscapes, that "yesterday," had existed in my mother's memory as well, for she was Stanford's age. And though my mother had not grown up in the country but in downtown Los Angeles, she had taken car rides to the country some Sundays with her grandparents, and though I had rarely seen that countryside myself since one had to go farther and farther to find it, I was now hearing my mother's stories of that lost countryside in Stanford's work. As well, I think these poems suggested to me that it was possible to name what one had barely heard, what one might only suspect, and, of course, as I see now in a most wonderful way they also corroborated my mother's memories, validating them as one woman, across the boundaries of class and education, gave another woman's story back. Thus, these poems coincided with my own desire to recall memories that had seemed groundless, perhaps by the very nature of that unreferenced placelessness, and certainly because, though I may have felt the desire, I had not seen how to make anything of my own or my mother's story, stories which had seemed filled with only loss.
Yet what I was coming to understand about poetry's ability to name came precisely from the fact that these voices, so much a part of Stanford's work, did echo and mutter over a lost landscape with something more than hazy nostalgia. Diamond-edged, these poems embodied not only loss but the admission that erosion and the ensuing exile brought on by change was heartbreakingly inevitable:
Pandora (The Weathercock)
Never, never again the house new or youth precise
Or the fresh loaves of hay in the field.
And the tree bark shimmers black and white
Only after rain.
The day rose clear-faced and quick
Breathing lemon and sage, undoubtedly crystal,
Fog was for coolness, not to get lost in, and the
Rode to ominous music.
The box had been left, but I never suddenly
opened the lid.
The day hung so full, time being happy and short,
No reason to fret over a dusty chest in a corner,
And I had given my word.
But nothing is changeless. While it was there in
Something crept out, buzzing and small.
I heard it at night, an insect whine in the air
Unseen in the light.
And the mornings were sad sometimes
And rising slow, and the day crumpled and worn
Like a picture handled too much,
And I indifferent.
Came haze outlasting the dawn
Between me and the fields, the horizon too close;
And bright days were full of objects
Not noticed before.
Love broke to a trinity, there were too many paths;
None seemed to be true, and in the oat fields the
Wore various guises, and which could I trust
On their spotted geldings?
I have heard of such things, but not for myself
And the silver sifts from the box
On my hair and my tears, and the owner is gone,
I shall never be rid of it.
And if at first I had been drawn by the clarity with which she created the natural world, if not the historical world where the Spanish place names I mispronounced spoke of another history I had not learned in school, I was soon drawn to the nature of the poet's exile from that world, most specifically in the ways in which lines such as "I shall never be rid of it" bore that exile in relation to the making of poetry:
The Walnuts (The Weathercock)
There shine always the bright tops of the grove
And within that forest mysteries of birds,
In the autumn, the clear crackle of leaves
And the walnut pickers. Dark-skirted after them
The gleaners. Trees, trees were everywhere.
Out of the banks of a foggy morning,
Outside the windows, the sweet trees leaned
Tasseled in spring, in holy burst of leaves.
And the oats made meadows of the early year—
With nodes for whistles, the juice sweet and thin—
Grown high to bend into rooms, and yellow flowers
Hung over the spicy tunnels under the trees.
There the grove, hanging forever real in the air.
And I an exile, knowing every turn
And turning home, and lost in the dazzled road
The strange swept premises, and the great trees
In that "grove, hanging forever real in the air," Stanford was teaching me a difficult lesson, yet perhaps the most important lesson I would learn from her work, though surely not one I could have articulated then.
For in these poems there was not just loss, or vulnerability in the face of the erosion of place, there was also the resistant nature of the poem "hanging forever real in the air." Not only did this exile reclaim what was seemingly lost by naming that natural world, she constructed a new world—she claimed a metaphysical landscape with the same lucidity, and in that act lay the sustaining possibility of the poem:
from The Organization of Space (The Descent)
I praise a local vista, clipped or rough.
It makes its variants with sun and frost—
Hill, row, and fields—till vacantness is lost.
And from such centering, the wires that join
The farm and town, the seen and unseen line
Can mark out waves' and gravity's design.
Arched like a row of tents with canvas seams,
The sky propped by pole and spire to show
They hold the circles fixed through which I go.
And yet a vacancy, an almost none,
An arching of the mind into a sky
Under which empty fields and barrens lie,
A round of almost gone, a black and sere,
Returns across the vivid local tiers
And turns them to a round, unshaded sea.
Spirit or being, corn-god or harvester,
That sets us deep within the year's concern,
Hold the circumference in which we turn.
Reading these poems, I could begin to see not only that what was might be remade, but that even if the perimeters of the natural world had seemed to collapse there was something beyond that collapse. There was the possibility of the poem maintaining something essential of that world, a remaking which occurred as Stanford created that "circumference in which we turn" which, in turn, formed the integrity of the poem's landscape as she observed both the vista and "the almost none" and made both there.
In that even-handedness, I think I was beginning to understand that poetry was not a defense but a making constructed both out of memory and a present acknowledgment which admitted what was. This sense would dominate In Mediterranean Air, the last of her books from Viking, which further articulated the vulnerability of the home space where change seemed to loom as an ominous intruder on the horizon:
In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius
he hunted hives of wild bees
breaking open the hollows of wood or bone
seizing the sweet marrow.
Quicker than grasshoppers
he crunched wing and belly.
His face gnarled under the sun.
At night he crawled under
a goatskin. The air was thin out there
the stars big as melons.
The brook for water or washing in
or to cleanse an occasional stranger of wickedness.
His hair matted. His dry beard
bristled away from his jaw.
Ravens flew by sometimes. Small groups of men
he shouted to, came, bringing others.
Clearly the world couldn't go on like this.
Yet it is exactly the poet's ability to address both the inevitability of change and the world lost to it that does define the deeply metaphysical nature of her work.
Fitting, then, that her last book, Dreaming the Garden, is dominated by a sequence of garden poems where the idea of the garden and whatever dreams we have for it dominates. In this sequence Stanford explores the ways in which we would tame the natural world by selecting elements from it which in turn form the merely symbolic; yet the ornamental, she suggests, does not account for either natural or unnatural disasters that do take place. Here Ann Stanford's poetry of inevitable exile from the garden takes its final and luminous shape as the attempted garden is reclaimed by the natural world.
This garden needs you. Between its walls
a central path, iris and asters, pear trees in rows
and the blue wisteria over the gateway.
But beyond the gate, matted grass and weeds
overrun the paths, splash against walls
and ivy thickens over the fallen columns.
Once there were laurels here, now only traces
of ruined walkways. The deserted terrace
overlooks the sea gate and the broken hedges
where the white, deep-rooted morning glory sprawls
over broken rubble.
You long to pull at the weeds, clear out the paths,
cut the thicket of myrtle, set up the columns,
plant foxgloves and asters, rosemary, marigolds,
put lemon against the wall, trim the broken hedges
and sit at evening
looking over the garden and the wall
where the warm blooms mingle with the wind from
But it doesn't belong to you. Not for you to untangle
the smother of green, you with your hillside
waiting, deserted, unfinished, as you mourn for this
She reminds us that "This garden needs you" and we, by turn, need it. But which garden do we need? She answers in the last poem of the sequence:
The garden is only for you. It is a shell
in which you live. It is a wall
to keep you from the world. You are the center.
Not the pool where dryads
pour water forever in meaningless gestures,
nor the stairs with stone balustrades
where eagles spread their useless wings of stone
nor the clipped alley between cypress hedges.
You are the garden. Let it circle round you.
You are the heart of the maze, where the laurel
draws its own pyramid, shakes out its limbs
overhangs the path and takes the form of trees.
Leave Daphne there
her freed limbs shaking in the autumn wind.
See the colors of autumn—chrysanthemums, asters,
the lawn covered with leaves where yellow and red
rain from the trees, and for your pleasure
the black-crested quail wander over the lawns.
The boat drifts farther away; it is leaving
and the flocks of traveling common birds feast on
the red berries.
The orange trees
set here and there forget the terraces
and the path curves away among the pine trees.
You are inside the garden, and it takes your form.
It is real now, not a plan, not even a vista,
but a warm wall in winter, an old coat thrown
Finally, I take her to mean that the garden which survives is that in which we tend the necessary, rather than smothering it with unnatural artifice—and, for me, that is the essence, the living, breathing beauty of Ann Stanford's poetry.
It's been 30 years since I first read Ann Stanford's poetry, since I was first drawn into the current her poems named. How lucky I was to have these poems, this teacher. Her unassuming directness and her love of poetry inspired her students, while her generosity and encouragement changed the lives of many of us. And, of course, her poetry itself taught us a wonderful fullness in its prismatic and dazzling clarity—that garden, that grove "hanging forever real in the air." I recall how she once warned me against expecting too much from poetry, though, of course, I could not take that warning seriously, precisely because her work had already promised so much. I think of her. I think clear, clear as if I looked into the bluest pool. I drink the water there.
Maxine Scates's Toluca Street (University of Pittbsurgh Press) received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and the Oregon Book Award. She is co-editor, with David Trinidad, of Holding Our Own: The Selected Poems of Ann Stanford, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2001. Portions of this essay previously appeared in Poetry East.