Stanley Plumly

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Stanley Plumly
February 2011

Aaron, I want to introduce you to a poet that people may not know, even though he’s been around a long time. His name is Stanley Plumly. He grew up in Ohio, and he’s written five gorgeous books of poems and has won major prizes. So—you might ask—why isn’t he known to those who read, say, Billy Collins or maybe Charles Bukowski or even Edgar Allen Poe—(I talked about Poe not long ago)?

Let me answer that by quoting part of a 1996 interview Stanley Plumly gave to Lisa Meyer in the Boston Review. This is Plumly talking here:

“Poetry is not supposed to be a popular art but there are tremendous numbers of people writing it. A lot of people go to readings. . . When you talk about poetry, you really have to be rather particular about what kind of poetry you mean and what kind of writer you mean. There is, of course, street poetry: the coffeehouse poem. There is that kind of poetry of the moment, part of an oral tradition, a kind of poetry therapy that goes on, and that’s very popular, a kind of bar poetry. You see that all over in major cities. A poet like Charles Bukowski – a wonderful, strange figure in our literature – fits that mode, and yet he’s someone very much who writes for the page as well.

Plumly goes on to say that the Beats started out that way, as part of an oracular and oral tradition. Now I’m quoting him again: “The best of them – and I’d say Ginsberg is the best of them – understood the power of the page and were very much interested in a literary career too, as well as winning over live audiences. There is that kind of poetry. And then there’s the academic poetry, the poetry of chamber music and high-minded intellectual illusion. There’s just incredible diversity but I’m not sure the constituencies talk much to one another. I think there’s terrific antipathy from one kind of writing, one notion of what poetry is, as opposed to another notion. And maybe that’s typical of our culture.”

Ah, so the poetry world may be as polarized as the political world! What he says is, there ISN’T an average reader. There are different constituencies. You’d have to call Plumly an “academic” poet, since he’s won a string of national awards, he’s edited the Ohio Review and the Iowa Review, he’s taught at many universities, including Princeton, Columbia, and Michigan, as well as at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, he’s been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram-Merrill Foundation Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. And besides being Maryland’s poet laureate, he’s now professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. Can’t get much more academic than that.

But let me read you one of his poems, from his fifth book, Old Heart, which came out in 2007 from Norton. I bet you thought I’d never get around to giving you a poem. This one is called “Mercy”:

Mercy

A murder of crows,
what I saw on a spindle of dead white oak,
two or three of them, at different times,
hectoring the head of the sick one,
the old one, the weak one apart.
From school those Eskimo stories
in which leathery grandfathers and grandmothers
are left behind or set afloat.
They’d freeze, Mr. Steinman said, from the extremities in.
Thinking about what they must have been thinking,
I imagined the brain last
on the ascending list—
As freezing persons recollect the Snow
I read, in chilling poetry,
years later. Even at twelve,
the concept seemed distant, efficient,
in keeping with the clarity
and killing cold of vast, undifferentiated artic spaces.
In keeping with the landscape of the old.
In the language of the desert Navajo,
the old man didn’t drown,
the water came up to get him.
That’s how I imagined freezing,
as a kind of incremental drowning,
a sort of slow, word by word submersion,
then, at last, the pulling under, rings of water.
The killed crow fell the sixty feet in seconds,
less, though in the while it took
to find it, it had moved. My mother,
alive in the machine,
becalmed on hard white sheets,
the narrative of legs, arms,
animal centers stilled,
some starlight in the mind glittering off
and on, couldn’t tell me
whether or not to leave her.

Isn’t that beautiful, moving, and personal? He takes us from the crows to the Eskimos to the Navajo before we know what the real fountainhead of the poem is—the speaker’s mother is hooked up to machines. When is it time to call it enough? To turn off the machines? To leave her?

Okay, I admit, I’m fully and completely an “academic,” if you look at my credentials. But when I was teaching Intro to Poetry at the University of Delaware, I found over and over again that when students tried a little harder to understand language and ideas that at maybe at first seemed foreign to them, they quit pushing away the (quote) “hard” poems. Sometimes all it took was teaching them to read and listen more carefully and to look up one or two words they didn’t know. They actually began to get bored with the poems that didn’t offer them much more than surfaces.

Say, in this poem, the one I just read, “Mercy,” it might be incremental, ormurder of crows, or maybe even spindle they’d want to look up. And they’d gain a lot from knowing where As freezing persons recollect the Snow comes from—it’s from an Emily Dickinson poem, that begins “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” See how that matters to the poem?

Speaking of snow, here’s another poem by Plumly. He’s just paid a young woman to shovel his sidewalk:

The Woman Who Shoveled the Sidewalk

She clearly needed more than money,
which, anyway, wasn’t much.
Her dog, one of those outlawed fighting breeds,
black-and-white and eyes too far apart,
kept snapping at the leash, the cash
I placed as simply as I could into her open hand.
Her small stalled car was what she lived in,
the death seat and backseat all-purposed into piles.
She was desperate so she blessed me.
I could almost feel my mother standing there,
the way she’d greet the lost after the war.
A woman vulnerable is powerful.
Poverty in all the texts grants grace
to the raveled and unwashed,
just as the soul we assign to what is singing
in the trees, even in winter, lives
in the face and voice of the least.
You could see the random child in her,
who had got, today, this far.
You could hear, under her words, silence.
There wasn’t that much snow, enough
to take its picture if you left it untouched.
Her companionable, hostile dog was what she had,
who stayed in the car while she started in earnest,
as if the work were wages. Young, off
or still on drugs—I couldn’t tell—
she was alone in every hard detail.
Each day is lifted, then put back down.
Tomorrow’s snow turns back into the rain.
I had to be somewhere but knew when
I got home she’d be gone. And the walk,
from start to finish, would be clean.

There’s such depth of feeling AND thinking about what it means to be poor and vulnerable, here. But Plumly turns that vulnerability on its head. He calls it powerful. He notices that in all the religious writings, poverty is connected with grace. Then he returns in his thoughts to the woman and her mean dog, doing the task at hand, and doing it well. No sentiment, no sentimentality, just a kind of reverent attention to a part of our world.

See, I don’t want to label this poem or any of Plumly’s poems “academic” any more than I want to call Allen Ginsberg “just a performance poet.” What I want is to be open to what any poem can give me, and to slowly and carefully reject the ones that don’t give me much even after I try. If this is a political message for all of us, so be it. I don’t know. Maybe it is.