George Stanley

Winner of the 2006 Shelley Memorial Award


In Veracruz, city of breezes & sailors & loud birds,
an old man, I walked the Malecón by the sea,

and I thought of my father, who when a young man
had walked the Malecón in Havana, dreaming of Brazil,

and I wished he had gone to Brazil
& learned magic,

and I wished my father had come back to San Francisco
armed with Brazilian magic, & that he had married
not my mother, but her brother, whom he truly loved.
I wish my father had, like Tiresias, changed himself into a  
& that he had been impregnated by my uncle, & given birth to
   me as a girl.
I wish that I had grown up in San Francisco as a girl,
a tall, serious girl,

& that eventually I had come to Veracruz,
& walking on the Malecón, I had met a sailor,
a Mexican sailor or a sailor from some other country—
                                 maybe a Brazilian sailor,
& that he had married me, & I had become pregnant
                                 by him,
so that I could give birth at last to my son—the boy
                                 I love.

Joshua Clover and Sonia Sanchez on George Stanley

George Stanley's poems often take place in bars; he's like Charles Bukowski, had Bukowski been a few years younger, a former student of Jack Spicer, queer, brilliant, an expat who departed the United States for Canada during the Vietnam conflict, and honestly marginalized. Perhaps as a cumulative effect of all these causes, Stanley's poetry knows itself to be far from the center, and refuses to make claims on swaggering personality or fake immediacy; neither is he interested in effacing his own presence entirely, in the way of someone who has had quite enough of being the subject of the world.

These are negative claims, leading to the great negative claim: George Stanley sounds like nobody else. This is true, and rare, and leaves unstated what makes his poetry seem deserving of this award, given "with reference to...genius and need." So, to state it plainly: Stanley's capacity to grasp both the personal and the social, the local and the conceptual —and how they are always reaching for each other, dreaming of each other, failing each other and themselves—is surprising, moving, seductive. It functions as a kind of diagnosis about contemporary poetry, and a vision of what it might do at this late hour; a poetry as eccentric as this moment is eccentric. In the words of noted poet-critic Christopher Nealon, Stanley's writing "has provoked me again and again to ask whether the name to give the struggle to bring together emotion and abstraction, to understand in tandem the intra-psychic and the global, is in fact 'poetics.'"

Stanley's poems lack all hermetic recalcitrance. They are compellingly direct, as dreams are compellingly direct, from early pieces like 1960's "White Matches" through the last entry in the recent volume of selected poems, A Tall, Serious Girl. That 18-line poem, "Veracruz," captures without parallel the fluidity of imagination—and the melancholy of a free imagination's role in the bound world. It's a love poem like no other love poem— the sort of writing that makes it a strange and desperate pleasure to read George Stanley's work, and a secondary but great pleasure to award him this prize.

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