Sandy, Stephen

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SANDY, Stephen

Nationality: American. Born: Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2 August 1934. Education: Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, B.A. 1955; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (Dexter Fellow, 1961), M.A. 1959, Ph.D. in English 1963. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1955–57. Family: Married Virginia Scoville in 1969; one daughter and one son. Career: Instructor in English, Harvard University, 1963–67; Fulbright lecturer, University of Tokyo, 1967–68; visiting assistant professor of English, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1968–69; visiting lecturer, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, 1969. Member of the literature faculty, 1969–74, and since 1975 professor of English, Bennington College, Vermont. Director of poetry workshops at Chautauqua Institution, New York, 1975, 1977, 1996, Johnson State College, Vermont, 1976, 1977, Bennington College, 1976, 1977, and Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 1981; poet-in-residence, Y Poetry Center, Philadelphia, 1985; visiting professor, Harvard University, summers 1986, 1987, 1988; McGee Distinguished Visiting Professor of Writing, 1994. Panelist, Arts Review Panel, Jacob J. Javits Fellowships, U.S. Department of Education, 1992; final judge, The Hopwood Awards, University of Michigan, 1999. Awards: Academy of American Poets award, 1955; Harvard Monthly prize, 1961; Huber Foundation fellowship, 1973; Vermont Council on the Arts fellowship, 1974, 1988; Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1985; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1988; Chubb Life America fellow, MacDowell Colony, 1993; Reader's Digest Residency for Distinguished Writers, Yaddo, 1997; co-winner, Mudfish poetry prize, 1998; Howard Moss Residency in poetry, Yaddo, 1998; senior fellow in literature, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, 1998. Phi Beta Kappa poet, Brown University, 1969. Address: Box 276, Shaftsbury, Vermont 05262–0276, U.S.A.



Caroms. Groton, Massachusetts, Groton School Press, 1960.

Mary Baldwin. Privately printed, 1962.

The Destruction of Bulfinch's House. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Identity Press, 1963.

The Norway Spruce. Milford, New Hampshire, Ferguson Press, 1964.

Wild Ducks. Milford, New Hampshire, Ferguson Press, 1965.

Stresses in the Peaceable Kingdom. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

Home Again, Looking Around. Milford, New Hampshire, Ferguson Press, 1968.

Spring Clear. Pascoag, Rhode Island, Delmo Press, 1969.

LVIII: To Caelius (version of poem by Catullus). Tokyo, Voyagers' Press, 1969.

Japanese Room. Providence, Rhode Island, Hellcoal Press, 1969.

A Dissolve, music by Richard Wilson. New York, Schirmer, 1970.

Light in the Spring Poplars, music by Richard Wilson. New York, Schirmer, 1970.

Jerome. North Bennington, Vermont, Grel Press, 1971.

Roofs. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Soaking, music by Richard Wilson. New York, Schirmer, 1971.

Elegy, music by Richard Wilson. New York, Schirmer, 1972.

Phrases, Fields, Kanda (6 P.M.). North Bennington, Vermont, Grel Press, 1972.

Can, music by Richard Wilson. New York, Fischer, 1973.

One Section from "Revolutions." San Francisco, Grabhorn Hoyem, 1973.

The Difficulty. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1975.

Landscapes. White Creek, New York, White Creek, 1975.

From "Freestone." Binghamton, New York, Bellevue Press, 1975.

Freestone: Sections 25 and 26. Binghamton, New York, Bellevue Press, 1977.

End of the Picaro. Pawlet, Vermont, Banyan Press, 1977.

Arch (card). Binghamton, New York, Bellevue Press, 1977.

The Hawthorne Effect. Lawrence, Kansas, Tansy Press, 1980.

After the Hunt. Brattleboro, Vermont, Moonsquilt Press, 1982.

Chapter and Verse. Brattleboro, Vermont, Moonsquilt Press, 1982.

Flight of Steps. Binghamton, New York, Bellevue Press, 1982.

Riding to Greylock. New York, Knopf, 1983.

To A Mantis (chapbook). North Hoosick, New York, Plinth Press, 1987.

Man in the Open Air. New York, Knopf, 1988.

The Epoch (chapbook). North Bennington, Vermont, Plinth Press, 1990.

Thanksgiving over the Water. New York, Knopf, 1992.

Gulf Memo (broadside). Bellows Falls, Vermont, The Bridge Press, 1993.

Vale of Academe: A Prose Poem for Bernard Malamud (chapbook). Spartanburg, Holocene Press, 1996.

The Thread, New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Black Box. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

Recordings: Heartbeats: New Songs from Minnesota for the AIDS Quilt Songbook (music), Innova, 1997; Stresses in the Peaceable Kingdom: The Choral Music of Richard Wilson (music), Albany Records, 1999.


Vita de Sancto Hieronymo: An Antiphonal Cantata, music by Henry Brant. New York, MCA Music, 1973.

The Raveling of the Novel: Studies in Romantic Fiction from Walpole to Scott. New York, Arno Press, 1980.

The Breakers Pound, music by Dan Locklair. Toronto, E.C. Kerby Ltd., 1989.

The Second Law, music by Richard Wilson, in The Aids Quilt Songbook. New York, Boosey & Hawkes, 1994.

Translator, A Cloak For Hercules, in The Complete Roman Drama, Seneca, Vol II. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Translator, Seven against Thebes, a verse translation of Aeschylus. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.


Manuscript Collection: Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Critical Studies: "Like the Bones of Dreams" by Heather Ross Miller, in American Scholar (Washington, D.C.), autumn 1967; by Vernon Young, in Hudson Review (New York), winter 1971–72; by Richard Howard, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), May-June 1973; "The Difficulty" by Dick Higgins, in Margins 24–26 (Milwaukee), 1975; by Kate Lewis, in Harvard Advocate (Cambridge, Massachusetts), June 1983; "Witnesses and Seers" by Terence Diggory, in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), fall 1983; "Stafford, Sandy, and Willard" by Jerome Mazzaro, in Michigan Quarterly Review (Ann Arbor), summer 1984; "Stages of Growth" by Phoebe Pettingell, in New Leader (New York), 11–25 January 1988; "When You've Seen One Perfect Spot" by Richard Nunley, in The Berkshire Eagle, 30 March 1988; "The Year in Poetry, 1988" by Kurt Heinzelman, in The Massachusetts Review (Amherst, Massachusetts), XXX (1), spring 1989; "Poetry in Review" by Phoebe Pettingell, in The Yale Review (New Haven, Connecticut), 80 (4), October 1992; "The Everyday and the Transcendent" by Richard Tillinghast, in Michigan Quarterly Review (Ann Arbor), XXXII (3), summer 1993; "In the Divide: Skeptic Master, Stung Pilgrim" by Chard deNiord, in The New England Review (Middlebury, Vermont), 16 (2), spring 1994; in New Republic (New York), 25 August 1997; by Robert J. Brophy, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 14 September 1997; by David Yezzi, in Poetry, CLXXIV, June 1999; "The Black Box of American Culture" by Douglas K. Currier, in Vermont Times, 9 (25), 16 June 1999; "Sandy at 35,000 Feet" by Richard Nunley, in Berkshire Eagle, 11 August 1999.

*  *  *

Stephen Sandy's poems exhibit extraordinary powers of observation, technical mastery of the craft, and a distinctive way of thinking about the present and the past. For forty years he has ruminated on his experiences in America and abroad in these disquieting postmodern times. Moments from his boyhood in Minnesota when he hunted with his father or rode the trolley cars of the Minneapolis Street Railway Company with his grandmother are vividly captured. Many poems minutely describe the rural landscape of Vermont or a New England graveyard. Others have more public subjects, such as the gunman in the tower in Austin, Texas, the war in Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War. A poet's poet, he loves language and form and moves easily from free verse and tight rhyme patterns to poems written in rhythms and language that capture the dissonances of the metropolis. In one poem, for example, he uses demotic speech and offers a poetic riff on Penn Station's madness and the "confabs of zonked homeless." He treats subjects as varied as Robert Mitchum's movies, chic Manhattan couples, four corners in Vermont, and the boy found in a taped-shut vacuum cleaner box abandoned in a field in Maryland. His poems are rich with a sense of time and its passing. His mind is keen and reflective, full of fresh discoveries and brimming with excitement. Some of his poems are wildly witty; others, deeply sad. Some are exquisite in their lyricism; others are difficult, full of dense passages and philosophical thought.

Words, often quite unpoetic ones, are Sandy's argot. He has Marianne Moore's fondness for unusual words, particularly those describing flora and fauna. "Bovine spongiform encephalopathy" appears in "Daphnis and Chloe." In "Blue Perennial Border" he lingers over "fresh lucubrations." In "Elixir" he parodies the opening lines of "Kubla Khan," writing, "On Mao Shan did Tao Hongjing a fabulous / pharmacopeia decree: of cinnabar / And orpiment, mica and malachite …" He writes an outrageous parody of Yeats's "Among School Children." He is a great imitator, and many poems pay homage to ancient masters as well as a host of modern poets. I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, and many others figure in his verse. Sandy's poems compare well with those of James Merrill, Theodore Roethke, Amy Clampitt, and Richard Wilbur.

Sandy's poems immerse the reader, albeit briefly, in the world as he sees and experiences it. Many of his lyrical poems are autobiographical. Some offer philosophical ruminations, and others provide social commentary. His late volumes The Thread, a selection of poems from five earlier volumes that concludes with a section of new poems on the theme of America, and Black Box offer a retrospective of his work and confirm his standing as an important American poet.

The Thread opens with "Wild Ducks" from the early volume Stresses in the Peaceable Kingdom:

Nine mallards amiably swim
the stream's treadmill.
Sedate, intent; bills front, they form,
a V unmoving as kites
Swimming the unseen wind.
Upstream they go together;
they glide as if upstream
some hand guides them there.
With button eyes not looking
they move, unmoved, in the pull
of taut, positioning strings,
the hand's extended will.

Yeats's "The Wild Swans at Coole" hovers behind the image, but Sandy's poem has a singular feel. In his frequently anthologized and very funny poem "The Woolworth Philodendron" Sandy spots a real plant—"a sort of proto-gewgaw, if you please"—in the Woolworth dime store and takes it home and watches it grow over five months, in its own wild way complicit with the dark plots of the sun while he labors at his "boring" tasks. In a more serious vein, in "Hiawatha" and "The Destruction of Bulfinch's House" Sandy treats the themes of the loss of innocence, past traditions, and historical landmarks. In "Home from the Range" he turns the familiar folk refrain into the lament of a soldier returning from a firing range with his hearing impaired.

The Thread continues with a series of poems from Roofs about Sandy's journey from New England to Japan and back again. His elegy "Charley" is both an intensely personal poem about the death of a friend killed in Vietnam's demilitarized zone and a poem of bitter protest against the war. Other poems about Japan recall some of Paul Engle's poems on the same subject. Both poets experiment with words and space them on the page to capture the delicate line and sensibility of Japan. Sandy's poems on Japan are painterly.

In the next two sections of The Thread Sandy selects poems that appeared earlier in Riding to Greylock and Man in the Open Air. He also culls poems from three earlier limited editions—The Difficulty, End of the Picaro, and After the Hunt— reproducing those that seem to have worn best over time and giving some of them fresh titles or a slightly altered form. In the early collections Sandy had traced the mental journey of his speaker—a thinly disguised extension of himself—and wrestled with problems of perspective, the poet's relationship to his personal and historical pasts, and his need to trace the journey of his literary counterpart and double, the Picaro, in order to know himself. His poem "The White Oak of Eagle Bridge" shows Sandy at his best, minutely describing his fields, his neighbors mowing, and the majestic oak stretching its black arms against the sky, only later to be felled and recalled nostalgically by the poet and an old farmer who recalls still another oak, its twin, that once stood beside it and lent its name to the farm Sandy now owns.

The volume concludes with poems from Thanksgiving over the Water and with new poems. In "The Tack" a fly stings Sandy as he prunes his pine bushes. He dwells on the welt on his arm and, later, a polished tack on the wall. Both call forth a host of images and memories in a manner akin to "the floppy discs of memory" that keep printing out feedback. He is reminded of a boyhood spanking, a homeless beggar, and another poet, Coleridge, who, like Sandy himself, found in the external world the same chasms and columns that had come from within and become the subject of his poems long before he encountered them in external reality. In "Four Corners, Vermont" Sandy, in a manner reminiscent of Marianne Moore, recreates a "Norman-Rockwellish tableau" of the activities of a boy and a bellhop, a cop and a governor upstate on a Sunny October day on Vermont's Main Street, which could be any Main Street in midland America's small towns.

The poems in Black Box are the poetic equivalent of the snapshots glimpsed from the aperture of a black camera box. Sandy's black box is his unerring eye and unusual mind. The poems in this collection, some early, some late, offer all the pleasures one associates with reading Sandy. Some are his reflections on the end of the millennium, as in "Brain Decade," where he records the excesses of postmodernity and the horrors and marvels of the catheter lab. Various poems recall the old days and old loves, the wetlands of the world, the utter changing of the "figure-ground relationship in your life" following a scrape with life-threatening heart disease, the intimacy of listening to Chopin in Japan, and late-breaking news and other assorted reflections. For the most part the poems are lucid and less difficult to understand than usual, making Black Box a delicious volume to commemorate the millennium. All of Sandy's poems grapple with who we are and what we live for, and very often he startles the reader with the rightness of his wisdom.

—Carol Simpson Stern