An Interview with Stanley Plumly

An interview with Stanley Plumly (b. 1939) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review in 2011.

Stanley Plumly’s voice still carries the broad rasp of Barnesville, Ohio, where he was born into an area thick with timber forests and raspberry bushes. But Plumly salts that Midwestern speech liberally with quotes from Romantic and modern poets, so much so that the interview below requires citations.

He didn’t come from a family of scholars. His Quaker grandfather made his money on lumber and airplane propellers. His father worked farms, timber lots and carpentry jobs. As a young man, Plumly divided his time between the basketball court and the Flesh Public Library in Piqua, Ohio. He later graduated from Wilmington College, where his writing talents were noticed, then received his masters degree at Ohio University in 1968.

Plumly began writing poems early, full of anger at his father, who drank heavily and ignited passionate upheaval in their family. He’s thrown all those poems away, and now, Plumly says, he writes from love, not anger. At age 23, he says, he wrote “Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me,” his first “real poem,” as a work of reconciliation with his father. While Plumly the poet was in Europe on a Guggenheim Grant, Plumly the father died of a heart attack brought on by his alcohol abuse. His son missed his death and funeral.

“The soul is capacious,” Plumly told one interviewer, and can accommodate both the loving and the sorrowful. Plumly’s lyrical poetry – which is Romantic with a capital R – is filled with both sorrow and love for the daily joys of life – birds, flowers, stones. One of his sonnets ends evoking “love’s cracked, healed-over cup full at the lip.” Many of his poems move through the single object into revelation – an examination that expands to reveal the poet and his memories.

“He has brought a Keatsian urgency to modern American irony and in so doing has reinvigorated our poetry,” reads his 2002 citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

His published poetry, which Grace Cavalieri, host of the Library of Congress’ The Poet and the Poem radio show, called “the highest kind of lyricism being written into today’s poetry,” has spanned four decades. He has won NEA grants, eight Pushcart Prizes, the William Carlos Williams Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship 2001, and the Paterson Poetry prize in 2007.

Plumly now heads the creative writing program at the University of Maryland College Park and was named Maryland Poet Laureate on Oct. 1, 2009.

His latest collection of poetry, Old Heart, was published in 2007. Barely a year later, he published Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, a prose book examining Keats’ life in a poet-like way.

“Stanley Plumly's profoundly humane evocation of Keats's life and his immediate afterlife is better than magisterial, for it is masterly,” writes The New York Review of Books.

Plumly even gave a Keats primer to filmmakers and writers of director Jane Campion’s Bright Star, the story of Fanny Brawne, Keats’ Hampstead neighbor and the love of his life. However well the movie handled Fanny and some of the other characters, Plumly contends with their portrait of Keats as perpetuating the sickly stereotype of the man Percy Shelley elegized as a “pale flower.” The Campion actor’s portrayal was “too willowy, too wan, too fey,” Plumly explains; Keats was “small, ruddy, reddish hair, he was a fighter, literally.”

Nevertheless, he liked the movie, and Plumly holds nothing against Campion, or Shelley, for that matter. Plumly’s newest collection of poetry, forthcoming in 2012, is called Orphan Hours, a phrase from one of Shelley’s notebooks.

He spoke with me in his University of Maryland office, where, under pale winter light from the gable, an electric typewriter sits on a small desk.


Susan Thornton Hobby: Do you write on a typewriter?

Stanley Plumly: I don’t even write by hand anymore. The imprimatur of print on paper has an affect for me. It saves a stage in the process of writing. With poems, it’s particularly important, because I can then see a real sense of the line. [Plumly flaps a hand toward the Mac screen looming over his desk.] I haven’t quite developed an affection for what I call the machine … the print is so floaty. It doesn’t really seem to be sticking to anything. Words have a transparency and a lack of stick-to-it-iveness. …

I think the machine has really had an affect on writing. The style it promotes is verbose. There’s a standardization that occurs to the writing that worries me. I don’t think I’m that unique; a lot of writers use typewriters. I use an electric typewriter. My fingers would be worn to a frazzle otherwise.

STH: I understand you were born in a Quaker area of Ohio – in your poem “Naps” I see that kind of silence – could you talk about that tradition?

SP: They weren’t the great war-protesting Quakers. They were like the owners of the Pequod. They were business people. I have an essay about that part of my life called "Lyric Yoga." I talk about sitting in those pews for it seemed hours in silence. But it was about acquiring a sense of the meditative act, I suppose.

I was doing a lot of yoga at the time of writing the piece. And I also tie it to writing. I can still sit for hours and it will seem like minutes if I’m working on something. Meditation really paid dividends when I wrote the Keats book, which is totally different from working on a poem. I don’t think I could have written it without that sense of focus.”

STH: You grew up in a difficult home situation.

SP: Well, I don’t know that it was difficult. My father was a drunk. He wasn’t an alcoholic – I often make that distinction. He was a working class drinker – it wasn’t sophisticated or secret; it was totally in the open. It was part of his personality, really. He wasn’t driven to drink; he liked it.

When I was very young, I spent a lot of time with him in bars. I really grew up in bars. On Saturdays especially, I’d be there all day. They’d be playing cards. I’d drink Cokes and listen to these guys talk. That was the world I grew up in. And as a teenager, I worked all kinds of jobs, laboring jobs, with the same kinds of people. Digging ditches, working with air hammers tearing up things, painting houses, painting barns, painting fences. Basically labor. But earlier, I worked on farms, baling hay. Work was just part of things, part of the rhythm of the day … .

My father, he was a very strong man, a big man. He had great qualities. He was very stubborn, and definitely went his own way, in his own way. He was the oldest of my grandfather’s six children. My grandfather was a wealthy man, in the lumber business.

[Plumly pulls out a grainy black and white photo of a very large felled tree on a very long Ford truck, with his father, age 19, tipped back gracefully against the cab door, his Uncle Paul on top of the truck bed, and his grandfather in a tie behind the truck.]

My father worked for him until right after the war, and then they had the falling out. And then he went to a town on the western side of Ohio, the place where my mother was born. He went to work for my grandfather’s chief competitor. He’d gone there as a young man to do some business deal, in his new car, during the Depression, a yellow Ford convertible, and he stayed in the boarding house that my mother’s mother ran with her two daughters. My mother was about 17 or 18 and she begged him to let her drive his car, about which she knew nothing. She promptly ran it into a tree. Their relationship never changed much after that.

STH: You’ve described your father as a muse, and he is a powerful figure in much of your poetry.

SP: “He was a real muse – an archetypal figure, a very American, Western figure, a representative man that’s for sure. At first, I wrote angry father poems; it was therapy. I got rid of all those poems. The first poem I really wrote where I felt I moved into a very different emotional state was “Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me.” I wrote that when I was 23. But I saved that title for several decades. Then it became the title of my selected poems. It’s an ur-title. … It’s a dream, and all about reconciliation.

I think those arguments are very important that you have with yourself. Rhetoric is the argument you have with the world. Poetry is the argument you have with yourself, Yeats said. [From Anima Hominis, Essays, 1924] In a way, it was my father in me that I’m having this argument with, no that’s not the right word. It’s a discussion, but more than that.

In so many ways, I’m much more like my mother. She was my sort of literary supporter – that’s a really awkward, klutzy phrase. She was behind what I wanted to do. I just had a sense that writing was what I wanted to do. I really liked making sentences, translating experiences into sentences. I was never able to make anything up. It was always autobiographical.

STH: You once said: “In my own poems, the autobiography is rooted, as it must be, in actual emotional experience, in very literal experience, and yet the information does not limit the context of the poem.” Could you talk about that?

SP: When I say it doesn’t limit the context, what I mean is that experience is mostly reconsidered, "recollected in tranquillity" [from "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” by William Wordsworth] and thereby takes on a larger circumference – that’s what I meant by archetype -- it connects to a larger imaginative and memorable world.

Your job is to find that language that will connect your own specific, rather limited experience to its larger counterpart, which is to say, to quote Wordsworth again, "If it’s happening to me, it must be happening to other people." I suppose the cliché for that is getting the universal from the particular; but the particular is absolutely crucial. That’s why people read other people’s books, they find themselves in them, knowledge they didn’t know they knew or felt.

STH: Let’s turn to Mr. Keats. He seems to be a constant companion to you. What draws you to his poetry, and his life?

SP: It took me a while to understand how good he was and what he did. I came to Keats through his letters. I’m not unique in that. His letters are his autobiography. And the poems, oh, – the odes in particular – the writing in the romance narratives, erstwhile epics and narratives -- that gorgeousness got in the way of him being taken seriously by a critical public.

The odes, however, are uniquely placed between what Wordsworth and Coleridge had realized. As in their work, there’s a real life behind the odes, even though he essentially disappears into the text of the poems. You begin to realize the modern greatness of the writing. The texture of it, or the density of it without it feeling clogged. It’s so fluid; there’s so much texture going on constantly. It’s beautiful lyric stuff. There’s nothing quite like it actually. And he’s thought of generally as the pure poet. And then you have his life – it’s so moving. You know he didn’t write that much in terms of time. He spent more time studying medicine than writing, by far.

STH: Keats is in so much of your poetry, but why did you turn to prose to do the biography of him?

SP: I’ve always thought this: Prose can have the stature of poetry if you do it right, if the feeling life in the language is right. And I think I got that. And the structure of the book is unusual; it’s a discovered kind of thing. I wrote it the way I would write a poem. In fact, I have different versions of it, trying to find the book.

STH: You once said, “All lyric poems are arguments and songs, the fact of the one rescuing the presence of the other.”

SP: The operative word there is rescue. They cannot be in agreement, they have to be in tension. It’s really a form or content issue. The argument is the content. That’s why I resist thinking of my poems as having narrative. They are not narrated; they are presented. There’s a dramatic quality about them. Yet all the time I am commenting and having an attitude or wondering or whatever.

STH: It’s a good thing that I know a little bit about ornithology and botany – only a teeny bit, enough to know what I don’t know. The natural world appears in so many of your poems, flowers, stones, but especially birds – jays, swifts, cedar waxwings.

SP: I walked down to the hotel last night -- we had couple of visitors -- and it’s kind of marshy, there are ponds and reeds, and I kept hearing these red wings – they make that almost computer sound. And this morning, it was pretty chilly, and I heard this cardinal singing his little red heart out.

STH: You talk about birds as souls – like the Greeks do.

SP: They’re correlatives – who doesn’t see that? It’s amazing to see them fly, to hear them sing. They represent everything that I suppose we envy. There’s a longing implicit in what they are, from our point of view. Not that we want to be birds, but in what they are. … Birds are the remnants of the dinosaurs, but that’s even more interesting. They are miracles. … In this new book, I have this thing where I juxtapose – I don’t know if it works or not, I hope it does – what’s going on in Afghanistan or Iraq to the killing of songbirds around the Aegean by the millions, I play with that idea.

STH: How has working as poet laureate affected your work?

SP: [Plumly rolls his eyes and sighs, checking his schedule and counting down the events during which he’s reading or judging or teaching this week.] It’s been interesting. The kids are interested in poetry and interested in writing it. And they’re interested in a poet. It’s like I arrive from another planet.

So what we do is, we have a question and answer thing. Sometimes I only read one poem, we spend the whole time talking, and they seem to enjoy that. I’ve spent a lot of time in Baltimore … . Then I have my own things to do, too. I was just at Hopkins last week, giving a lecture, completely separate. I have to say, it is time-taking. … It’s not just that hour or two, it’s the whole day, you lose the day.

STH: You have a new book coming out …

SP: My editor said, "You did this fast." I didn’t think of it that way. My last book was Old Heart; that was published in 2007, six years after my first heart attack. It was New Year’s Day, 2001. I was at the beach staying at this Victorian mansion right on the beach. New Year’s morning, I take a walk on the beach; I am going against the wind. And it’s pretty cold, knifelike. I started to feel bad. I thought I must be getting pneumonia.

I’d been walking about 20 minutes, so I walked back, walk into the living room of this place, and I’m really feeling bad. I feel things are going black, and then I began to recover myself. I leave early and I go to see my internist, and I describe what happened, and we go right down to a cardiologist. Turns out I had a silent heart attack … then right away into Washington Hospital Center for an operation. Then I had a heart attack on the operating table, so I was lucky. … That book comes out of that.

Two years ago, I found out I have cancer. It’s slow. The doctor said that I’ll probably die of something else first. So that was encouraging. He was young. [He laughs.] So OK, that put on the gas. I was up every night working on this book – I’d go to bed and get up at 2 or 3 a.m. and work for three or four hours. It was dark night of the soul work.

STH: Today is the date that’s on Keats’ tombstone – Feb. 24 – and his tombstone reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ on water.”

SP: Well, that’s not all it says, but that’s what it says at the end. The rest of it is the mess, it helped perpetuate what Shelley and Byron were saying, and frankly Jane Campion and her film.

STH: So what you would like on your tombstone? I know, it’s a long way away.

SP: [Plumly laughs, then jumps up and heads for his bookshelf, pulling out Old Heart and putting his glasses on his nose to thumb through the book.] There’s a line at the end of a poem called “Childhood”: "I died, I climbed a tree, I sang." Yeah, that’ll be all right. That’s probably not what they’ll put. [He laughs and puts his book back on the shelf.]

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2011. All rights reserved.