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I Have a Pettiness to Expiate
The other night, I read some of Ann Stanford’s poems at an event at the Poetry Foundation, “The Voice of Women in American Poetry.” I knew Ann Stanford (she was my teacher at California State University, Northridge, in the seventies) and have admired her poems my entire adult life, so it was an honor to represent her. I doubt that many who read this blog post will have heard of her or read any of her poems. But there was a time, not so very long ago, when, if you were seriously interested in contemporary poetry, you would have. Ann Stanford had a perfectly respectable career. More than respectable, actually. For the time—the middle fifty years of the twentieth century (roughly 1935-1985), when there were far fewer poets—she was quite successful. She published her poems regularly in all of the “best” magazines: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, The New Republic, etc. She won many prizes: the Shelley Memorial Award, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, the Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, etc. As awarded as she was, she once said in workshop, “Do not seek or expect awards.” I don’t remember why she said this; someone must have asked her how to win them. Ann was not given to pronouncements. Maybe that’s why this one struck me. It seemed like the right attitude a poet should have—humble. The work, if it is any good, will attract the recognition it deserves. At least that’s how I interpreted it.
Ann died in 1987, at the age of seventy. This is what her career, in total, looked like: eight books of poetry (Viking was her publisher), two verse plays, a book-length study of the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, a translation of The Bhagavad Gita, and The Women Poets in English, the first anthology of poetry by women, which took her fifteen years to edit. (She also raised four children, earned a Ph.D., and taught literature and writing at Northridge for twenty-five years.) After her death, her books went out of print and, as the years passed, there seemed to be little or no interest in her work. Consequently, Maxine Scates (a poet who had also studied with Ann at Northridge) and I teamed up and edited Holding Our Own: The Selected Poems of Ann Stanford for Copper Canyon Press in 2001. Maxine and I came up with a selection we were proud of, each of us wrote an introduction, and Copper Canyon produced a beautiful book. But ultimately the project was disappointing. It did not put Ann back on the map in any kind of significant way. To this day, though a poem of hers will appear in an anthology here and there, Ann’s lifework remains under the radar—uncanonized, unassessed, undervalued. (This is, I’m afraid, the fate of most poets. So, ye versifiers, grab what ye can while ye can. Is that the only answer? Cash and prizes are no guarantee a poet will be remembered: libraries are loaded with forgotten award-winners. Dictionary.com gives this example of the use of the word “humble”: to be humble although successful. How radical is that. If everyone is going to end up on the same dusty shelf, wouldn’t you rather feel good about how you got there? “Not me,” I hear the poets thinking, “I’m not going to be dust.” Ah, but I digress. Or do I?)
Beyond the general neglect of Ann’s work, I have, as D.H. Lawrence would say, a pettiness to expiate.
Again, it took Stanford a good fifteen years to edit her anthology The Women Poets in English. In the 1950s and ’60s it would have had to take time—information wasn’t at our fingertips the way it is now. I can only imagine the hours of research and reading—a solitary journey of discovery, self-education—that Ann put in. “I did not realize when I started,” she’d later write, “what a job it would be.” No one else had ever done this—brought together hundreds of years of poetry by women. The journey was not without its bumps, its discouragements. In 1956, when Ann visited poet Yvor Winters (she’d studied with him at Stanford University in the late thirties) and his wife Janet Lewis (also a poet) at their home in Palo Alto, California, she mentioned her plans to edit an anthology of poetry by women. Winters scoffed at her: “Ah, Ann, have you come to that?” Lewis’s response was even more condescending—nasty, actually. I won’t repeat her words, but they were harsh. (Even so, Ann included Lewis’s work in her anthology.) Ann left their house utterly disappointed in Winters (in her diary she lets Lewis off the hook, for some reason): “I shall seek him out no more.” There’s no evidence that she ever did see him again. She was true to her word.
Another bump, or roadblock, came in 1971. The manuscript had been completed (imagine the typing—hundreds of poems by “some 135 poets”), a publisher had been found (McGraw-Hill), and Ann was seeking permissions to reprint the work. Roadblock: Elizabeth Bishop refused to be in the anthology. Famously refused, it turns out, as the anecdote of her refusal has gotten more play, over the decades, than the anthology itself. May Swenson, who was a friend to both Stanford and Bishop, tried to intervene. Swenson wrote to Bishop imploring her to reconsider—she was too important not to be in the book. No use: Bishop thought the project “silly & wrong.” “Why not Men Poets in English?” she asked patronizingly. “Probably it’s true that some of the earlier women poets and writers have not been brought to people’s attention enough.” Yeah, that was the point. Bishop plainly felt her work had been brought to people’s attention enough—she’d won a Pulitzer Prize, and almost every poem she wrote was published in The New Yorker. She said she’d write Ann Stanford “a gentle note”—patting her on the head, no doubt. Disgusted, Swenson wrote to Stanford: “That E.B. is such a p _ _ _ k in a way. Well, I guess she’s just eccentric.” Swenson, perhaps foreseeing that some bloodhound like me might one day uncover her letter, slyly encoded her putdown. How would you fill in the blanks?
The Women Poets in English was published in 1972—without Elizabeth Bishop. Adrienne Rich (whose work does appear in the anthology) reviewed it for The New York Times Book Review on April 15, 1973. A full-page review. I’ve always held this review against Rich. I just reread it (the last time I read it was over a decade ago) and it’s still hard to put my finger on why I find it so offensive. Rich is very cagey. She dwells on what’s not there: the anthology is “necessarily incomplete”; “I wish that more of us were here”; “there are omissions.” She complains about the number of “longer-winded aristocratic versifiers of the earlier period”; wishes there were more “younger black women poets”; misses such poets as Lorine Niedecker, Diane di Prima, and Joanne Kyger. And of course the absence of Elizabeth Bishop (who, Rich notes, did not wish to be included) is a diminishment. Isn’t she buttering her bread on both sides?
Rich uses the better part of this full-page review to voice her own (highly political) take on the plight of women poets and to push her own agendas (particularly the issue of Dickinson’s dashes), without giving Stanford the credit she deserves. Only in a sentence tacked on at the end (it sounds insincere) does Rich deem Stanford’s fifteen-year effort “a real breaking of ground.” “Faint praise” is what that’s called; the reader gets that Rich does not approve of Stanford or the book. May Swenson (being a good friend) was incensed. (I read her letters to Ann when Maxine Scates and I were going through Ann’s papers in 2000.) She knew it would hurt Stanford’s anthology, have an effect on sales and course adoptions. Ironically, two anthologies of women’s poetry appeared shortly after Ann’s: No More Masks! and Rising Tides. I haven’t looked at either in a long time, but I remember them as having a slapped-together quality—younger women answering Rich’s call, implanted between the lines in her New York Times review, to “rise up.” Ann was not included in either anthology.
I guess that’s several pettinesses. I realize I’ve been harboring some resentments on Ann’s behalf (not that she asked me to) for quite a while. As it turns out, Ann wasn’t bitter about Rich’s review. I learned this recently, when I obtained copies of her letters to Swenson (they’re in the Swenson archive at Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis). On July 11, 1973, she said this about the reception of The Women Poets in English:
By this time there have been a lot of newspaper reviews, many of them good ones. Of course everyone has a list of people I should have put in and half of them also complain about the Dickinson, some of them taking their cues I’m sure from the Rich review (for which I anyway was most grateful). By this time I’m rather tired of being told what I should have done, though when you look at it, what else is there to say about an anthology?
By then she had moved on, was hard at work on her study of Anne Bradstreet. Three years later, in a P.S. to a letter to Swenson, she wrote: “I didn’t see the reviews of Adrienne’s new book in the TIMES or the NY REVIEW OF BOOKS, though I’m disappointed to hear that Helen Vendler reviewed her badly.” Stanford (unlike me) was incapable of holding a grudge.
And so Ann’s out-of-print books sit on library shelves—gathering dust, turning to dust. One of her poems, “Libraries,” seems to speak to this: “the slow fire of hours / darkens the pages.” Will there ever be a use for her lifework? I think she is a poet for “now”—but then I have always considered her a poet for every “now.” Are we really ruining the planet beyond repair? Ann’s poems seem to speak to that, too. (Ecopoets take note.) They bear witness to the cost of progress: intimacy with the earth forsaken for the expediency of air travel, the wildness of her beloved Southern California rapidly disappearing beneath urban sprawl. “Trees, trees were everywhere,” she remembers in “The Walnuts.” The final stanza both commemorates and mourns their absence:
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 gone.
Ann tried to find the music in everything, even destruction. In August of 1954, she returned from a camping trip to discover a bulldozer had torn through the middle of her hilltop property, knocking down a fourteen-foot pine tree and leaving uprooted bushes and debris. She was very upset about it. Many years later, in the poem “Down, Down,” she takes on the voice of her old archenemy, the bulldozer:
I am and send my weighty message
over the hills at daybreak
I am stronger than the mountain.
I push up the knotted roots of sycamores
a hundred summers gathering.
I shake the sunflowers
where the spotted eggs are hiding.
I stamp down this terrace. I descend
to the Pleistocene. This was a lake
then rock. I make it a meadow.
No ages for me. An afternoon is enough.
I am says the bulldozer
and compassed round with music.
The last two lines of another poem, “Going Away,” seem to foreshadow our own increasingly isolated, technology-dominated lives: “We will go back into our houses / We will forget how large the world was once.”
Loss (of nature, of loved ones, of youth) is a major preoccupation for Ann. Loss is the great spiritual teacher. It teaches us to become less attached to the material, to cultivate faith in the unseen. We are, after all, inhabitants of flesh, this flesh, for only a short time. And flesh is “corruptible.” That’s where morals or principles or whatever you want to call them come into play. I think we live in an increasingly immoral time. (And I am not one to make pronouncements!) I think it’s important to keep a check on our ambitions and our motives. And our pettiness. I’ve never met a poet, no matter how awarded, who felt he or she has been recognized enough. Except possibly Ann Stanford. Careerism mucks things up for everyone.
Reading over Ann’s poems, I’m amazed at how much I absorbed without really knowing it, how much they helped shape my beliefs. The choice between “growing into light” and “gross engrossing sense.” The integrity of the individual in history. The right to life of all “Small beings moving in the midnight grasses.” A commitment to artistic personal best (rather than cutthroat politics). I first read Stanford’s work when I was still in my teens; it has been my moral compass ever since.
Have I forgiven Winters? Lewis? Bishop? Rich? Of the four, Rich is the one I’m most reluctant to let off the hook. I just reread her review again. It certainly is ungenerous. And self-serving: she seizes the moment (at the expense of another woman) for herself, and does so in the name of all women. And perhaps (given comments Rich later made about Stanford) even mean. A good friend, a poet, recently said, “Poets are some of the worst human beings I’ve ever met.” How could I argue with him? (I’d better watch out, or I’ll have yet another pettiness to expiate.) When I was in New York earlier this year, a younger poet asked me to sign a book for him. We’d spent a pleasant hour or so sitting in Washington Square Park, talking about poems. It was spring at last (after a long, difficult winter); a Disneyesque squirrel tossed blossoms into my hair from a branch overhead. This younger poet was still in the “honeymoon” phase—wide-eyed and enthusiastic about the art of poetry, the glamor of the poetry world. (He reminded me of me, not so very long ago.) I wanted to write something encouraging, to wish him well in his quest as a poet. So I wrote: “May you meet very few mean poets.” It was an odd thing to write, but it was my sincere wish for him. It’s my wish for us all.