The Legend of the Last Panther of the Ozarks

New attention for Frank Sanford after rare video published

Still shot of Frank Stanford from the recently released short documentary 'It Wasn't a Dream, It Was a Flood'.
Still shot of Frank Stanford from the recently released short documentary ‘It Wasn’t a Dream, It Was a Flood’.

How I discovered Frank Stanford could be interpreted in different ways.

To the devoutly logical, it was purely by accident. During a search for southern gothic writers, my cursor just happened to click on his thumbnail image in some random act even though I was dragging it in the opposite direction.

Those familiar with Stanford’s poetry, and who possess a penchant for the mystical, may understand it seemed like a spiritual encounter guiding me to a muse.

When searching for a list of southern gothic writers, Frank Stanford’s image is last. William Faulkner is at the forefront. Eudora Welty is a front runner. Edgar Allen Poe even makes the cut, although he wasn’t a southerner.

I had finished scrolling through the first few names, disappointed that I hadn’t come up with anyone I wasn’t already familiar with. It was storming outside, and I desperately wanted someone southern and someone gothic to listen to the rain with.

I gently dragged my cursor towards the exit button when suddenly, my screen glitched. In that millisecond, when cosmos took over computation, Frank Stanford’s profile emerged on my screen.

A black and white image of him crouching in a field holding one of his books jumped out at me, his serious dark stare catching me off guard.

Before reading a line of his poetry, I knew he was strong. I knew he was wild. And I knew his words were going to hit me in the gut.

Stanford owned the definition of enigma. A man who spent his life in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, he’s got a cult-like following. Chances are you don’t learn about Frank in a classroom. You discover him in your own room.

There’s no writer more southern gothic than Stanford. His poetry has a grisly streak that comes with a mind hellbent on never being caged.

He grew up on the levees of Mississippi. In the Ozarks of Arkansas.

Though he spent a short time in college, he didn’t go for writing. He majored in engineering. He never thought of himself as a professional poet. He made his living as a land surveyor, outside in the woods, air, light, and darkness that left him thinking up stanzas you’d never conceive if you were in a dorm lounging comfortably.

As William Packard once said, ‘You can’t live a bunny life and write tiger poetry.’

While Frank wasn’t aligned so much with a tiger, he is honorably referred to as The Last Panther of the Ozarks. This persona can be seen in a painting done by his wife Ginny Crouch Stanford in which he is sitting cross legged, covered by a printed kimono with a panther to his left and a full moon in the background, his same serious dark stare bringing the art to life.

Like any decent southern gothic poet, he was preoccupied with death. Themes in his poetry consist of the afterlife, the living and the dead interwoven, and those who resurrect the dead.

The publishing company he founded, Lost Roads Press, is named after his poem Circle of Lorca:

When you take the lost road
You come to the snow
And when you find the snow
You get down on your hands and knees
Like a sick dog
That’s been eating the grasses of graveyards
For twenty centuries.

While death and the afterlife are constant themes throughout his work, his commentary in The Forgotten Madmen of Menilmontant on the celebrity-acquired life of academic poet-professors he passionately distanced himself from leaves independent artists like me deeply appreciative:

Poets have done this before
Poets have made love and gathered at the cheap joints
they’ve cut their fingers toasting one another’s death

Poets have made love
and remained thick
they’ve gotten cold feet at the crucial moments
when left alone with the students with sad eyes

Stanford’s poetry is lyrical. He often left out punctuation and allowed lines to flow together to create a musical effect to his poems. My favorite poem of his, The Arkansas Prison System, represents this flowing style.

Set against his flow of words like a river and his expert ability to soften the sting of the unknowable afterlife into a flood of gaining wisdom and freedom, like his poem The Light the Dead See, was his proclivity towards destructive behavior.

A famous story his few friends have told several times is of a night when Frank threw a party for his poet-friend who had made a clean break from academia, thus a celebration was in order. Halfway through the night, Frank fired his shotgun toward the ceiling in the kitchen to get rid of the ‘lightweights.’

Frank’s death was as mysterious as his life. He died at only 29 years old, according to authorities, from multiple self-inflicted pistol wounds to his chest after he came home to find his wife and lover in his home at the same time.

Though he was married, he carried on for some time with fellow Arkansas poet C.D. Wright whose poem Only the Crossing Counts reflects on her relationship with Stanford.

As modern poetry becomes more and more like simple diary entries of common emotions and transient feelings, Frank’s poetry acts as a line of defense, a stand against the arts industry’s constant strengthening push to promote feelers, not thinkers.

While most poetry published today is written inside the academic sector, Frank Stanford, an unapologetic outsider, put it best in his poem, The Truth, about himself versus the rest:

I’m not going to lie
Through my teeth to you
Like the poets from Minnesota,
The South, and the West,
And New York City.

And I don’t have any hesitations
About saying I’d rather be Marlon Brando
Than I would T. S. Eliot, etc.

For a rare personal look into the poet’s life, watch It Wasn’t A Dream, It Was A Flood, an autobiographical 16mm short film produced by Stanford and his publisher Irv Broughton in 1978. It is available for the first time ever to view online. It is one of the only videos of Stanford reading his work. The footage also features music by Delta blues greats such as Lead Belly and Mississippi Fred McDowell. It’s a truly remarkable film, and I’m glad I found it.

(Rebecca Day/October 31, 2019)

 

 

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