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Dangerously Plain

DREAMING THE GARDEN, Poems; By Ann Stanford; Cahuenga Press: 80 pp., $15 paper

October 29, 2000|JAMES LONGENBACH | James Longenbach is the author of "Threshold," a collection of poems. He teaches at the University of Rochester

American poets often pretend that their poetry grows as naturally as weeds. Unfettered by learning, their poems light out for the territory rather than adhere to traditional forms. Poets who flaunt a knowledge of poetry seem like traitors: William Carlos Williams thought that T.S. Eliot's footnote-laden "The Waste Land" set back the cause of American poetry by 100 years.

This anti-intellectualism is of course a pose, a pretense developed at first to combat the authority of English poets, who seemed to absorb the language of Shakespeare simply by breathing. But as the territory of American literature expanded, American poets became their own best enemy. East Coast poetry grew strong enough to seem like a tradition rather than an experiment, and West Coast poets inherited the task of rejecting book-learning and fancy forms. By the end of the 20th century, the division between the coasts was so pronounced that even a poet as subtle and learned as Ann Stanford could say that though East Coast poets are penned inside "art galleries and concerts," she can always "cut weeds or work in the garden."

Don't believe her. Today, the most powerful poets of the 20th century seem to be the ones who refused to choose sides. The poems of Elizabeth Bishop, to whose example Stanford owes a great deal, are wedded neither to tradition nor to experiment; they represent a position that is not a compromise between extremes. These qualities made Bishop difficult to place during her lifetime, but since her death, she has emerged as the most esteemed American poet of the generation following Williams and Eliot. Stanford deserves a similar reevaluation: She ought to stand near her friend, poet May Swenson, just as Swenson stands near Bishop.

Whether "Dreaming the Garden," Stanford's posthumous volume of poems (Stanford died in 1987; "Dreaming the Garden" is her last manuscript), will be read beyond the chaparral-covered hills of Southern California is another question. During her lifetime, Stanford was, like most poets, neither well known nor neglected: Her poems appeared in The New Yorker; her books were published by Viking. Since her death, Stanford has all but disappeared, and "Dreaming the Garden" is published not by a major house but by Cahuenga Press, a cooperative operated and financed by five Los Angeles-area poets. But even if Stanford was sometimes capable of perpetuating the stand-off between east and west, it's difficult to imagine (as her poet-publishers put it) that she built her poems "out of the very air and earth of her California landscape." The best poems in "Dreaming the Garden" are formally meticulous but never mannered, voice-driven without seeming stagy, resolutely in the world without allowing us to forget that poetry is an artifice--a garden we do not simply tend but, as Stanford's title emphasizes, dream.

"I have tried to tell you how it was," begins "The Woman on the Island," a poem in which Stanford assumes a voice in order to explain herself:

Once in a while I climbed the cliff by the shore

and watched for the ship that was sure to come.

But the years passed like leaves, where I recorded the seasons.

Notch after notch, first the moons, then the changes

from green spring to summer

to the fogs of autumn and the cold

wind bringing rain.

Still, sometimes I looked out over the sea

past the coastal shallows, where the swells

rose like the gray humps of whales

going southward in springtime.

I forgot the moons, then the seasons.

Only the years returned. I forgot the look

of the sea where it lay in its own

blue vast widening circle round the island.

These lines, at once descriptive and otherworldly, show Stanford at her best: She allows herself no emotional gestures, no flashy metaphors, not even (until the final line) any muscular rhythms. It is a poetry, as Swenson says in a letter printed as the preface to "Dreaming the Garden," in which there appears to be "nothing artificial." And yet the poem not only employs artificial voice to give the impression of naturalness, it is also about our need for artifice. Locked in a place where everything is "always the same," the woman finds that merely to "record" the world is not enough: Only when she sees the world as what it is not, imagining the stationary swells as migrating whales, does the poem rise out of its superbly modulated torpor. Ultimately, the task of the woman on the island--the task of the poet--is to "forget."

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