STANLEY PLUMLY, who died last week at 79, was one of my first poetry teachers in graduate school. He taught workshops of course, but the class that had the most impact was a seminar, Long Poems and Poem Sequences. We read many published examples, including Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon and Robert Hass’s “Songs to Survive the Summer,” from his second book, Praise. We discussed those poems in class, but were also writing our own versions. Doing that changed the way I wrote. Until then, I had assumed I would write one poem about my grandmother and one about evolution, one about New England, and one about art. I wrote slowly, a line at a time squeezed out like toothpaste and then fretted over, before I went on to the next. Working on a group of poems, I realized that I had just a few obsessions I would write about over and over, that one poem led to another, and that I needed to get down the arc of thought and feeling before it faded–I could go back to the details later.
Stan was also the first one to encourage me to send my poems out and to suggest specific places. I believe his recommendations were behind the quick acceptance of my first two books.
The deepest lesson I took away from watching him and my other teachers was that being a poet goes beyond writing poems–though that was the written evidence–that it’s a way of living in and moving through the world. It’s not just something you do, but something you are. Stan’s absorption in and devotion to poetry were a model of what I aspired to.
He was, of course, a wonderful poet, with more than a dozen collections. He also published a beautiful prose book, Posthumous Keats, An Intimiate Biography, about the poet he loved best; and The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb. Both of these are as vividly written as novels, and allow us to eavesdrop on these moments and figures from the past, to see them up close.
The book of his poems I know best is still Out-of-the-Body Travel, published by Ecco Press in 1977. These were the first poems of his I knew, and I read them over and over. Two favorites: “The Iron Lung,” a persona poem written as someone who has polio and must live in that little tube forever–but it intertwines his own life with that character’s life so that every line is about two things at once, a shimmering metaphor. Another is “The Tree,” that layers images like an anatomy textbook’s transparencies: actual tree, genealogical tree, cauliflower, the hand, the brain.
The other poem here, “Wrong Side of the River,” is from the same book. I’ve always loved the haunting scene, the unexplained mystery of it. But when I read it right after I learned of his death, it too revealed more layers.
It looked like oak, white oak, oak of the oceans,
oak of the Lord, live oak, oak if a boy could choose.
The names, like ganglia, were the leaves, flesh
of our fathers. So Sundays I would stand
on a chair and trace, as on a county map,
back to the beginnings of cousins,
nomenclature. This branch, this root…
I could feel the weight of my body take hold,
toe in. I could see the same shape in my hand.
And if from the floor it looked like a cauliflower,
dried, dusted, pieced back together, paper–
my bad eyes awed by the detailed dead and named–
it was the stalk of the spine as it culminates at the brain,
a drawing I had seen in a book about the body, each leaf
inlaid until the man’s whole back, root and stem, was veins.
WRONG SIDE OF THE RIVER
I watched you on the wrong side
of the river, waving. You were trying
to tell me something. You used both hands
and sort of ran back and forth,
as if to say look behind you, look out
behind you. I wanted to wave back.
But you began shouting and I didn’t
want you to think I understood.
So I did nothing but stand still,
thinking that’s what to do on the wrong side
of the river. After a while you did too.
We stood like that for a long time. Then
I raised a hand, as if to be called on,
and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.