Plumly, Stanley (Ross)

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PLUMLY, Stanley (Ross)

Nationality: American. Born: Bamesville, Ohio, 23 May 1939. Education: Wilmington College, Ohio, B.A. 1961; Ohio University, Athens, M.A. 1968. Family: Married Hope Plumly in 1974. Career: Visiting poet, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1968–70, Ohio University, 1970–73, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1974–76, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1976–78, Columbia University, New York, 1977–79, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, spring 1979; professor of English, University of Houston, 1979-mid-1990s. Since the mid-1990s professor of English, University of Maryland, College Park. Poetry editor, Ohio Review, Athens, 1970–75, and Iowa Review, Iowa City, 1976–78. Awards: Delmore Schwartz memorial award, 1973; Guggenheim grant, 1973; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1977, 1984. Address: Department of English, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742, U.S.A.



In the Outer Dark. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1970.

Giraffe. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

How the Plains Indians Cot Horses. Crete, Nebraska, Best Cellar Press, 1975.

Out-of-the-Body Travel. New York, Ecco Press, 1977.

Summer Celestial. New York, Ecco Press, 1983.

Boy on the Step. New York, Ecco Press, 1989.

The Marriage in the Trees. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1997.

Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New & Selected Poems, 1970–2000. New York, Ecco Press, 2000.

Recording: The Poet and the Poem, Library of Congress, 1990.


Editor, with Michael Collier, The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Hanover, New Hampshire, Middlebury College Press, 1999.


Manuscript Collection: State University of New York, Buffalo.

Critical Studies: "Stanley Plumly and the Mind of Summer" by Edward Hirsch, in Crazyhorse (Little Rock, Arkansas), fall 1983; "Out beyond Rhetoric" by David Young, in Field (Oberlin, Ohio), spring 1984; "Matthews on Plumly" by William Matthews, in Ohio Review (Athens), fall 1984; "The Discursive Muse: Robert Hass's 'Songs to Survive the Summer'" by Bo Gustavsson, in Studia Neophilologica (Oslo, Norway), 61(2), 1989; "'The Why of the World': A Conversation with Stanley Plumly" by Stan Sanvel Rubin and Judith Kitchen, in their The Post-Confessionals: Conversations with American Poets of the Eighties, Rutherford, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989; "The Crystal and the Flame" by David Young, in Field (Oberlin, Ohio), 42, spring 1990; interview with David Biespiel and Rose Solari, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 24(3), May-June 1995; "Loss and Redemption" by Floyd Collins, in Gettysburg Review (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), 11(4), winter 1998.

Stanley Plumly comments:

I see my poems as attempts to make something whole of the disparate and difficult parts of my experience. In that sense they are fictions—that which is made of other materials.

*  *  *

Stanley Plumly says, "I believe in a poetry of protagonist-antagonist relationship, in which the energy, the tension … is the result of what happens between the two … Which means that for me a poem is a problem of the trinity, father-son-ghost." The ghost is created by the friction of the father and son; it is the poem's content, born mainly through metaphor. Thus, he argues that "bringing the disparate into immediate and intimate relation … is the hope I have for my poems. My father in the ground is a unifying principle." Plumly's artful use of "ground" in this apparently discursive observation is characteristically manifold.

In the Outer Dark is constructed of primal polarities, some more abstract than others. But no abstraction is simply disembodied, no object locked in specificity. Central are light-darkness, motion-stillness, speech-silence, water-stone, father-son. Sun, wind, and tongue flesh out the first three parts; consciousness and humanized Christian allusions generalize the others. The metaphors conveying these tensions are "moving toward one center," "still inside me," a prior "source," an "embryo," a "womb," an original (not this outer) dark. Moreover, they are so compact that the polarities and our senses of them, as though synesthetic, seem interchangeable: "The body tunes to a single sense …" Thus, just as "stillness" may be sensed both aurally and kinesthetically, the speaker listens with his hands and "warms" not the cold but "the dark."

For Plumly the antagonist and protagonist may despair, but the poem's content cannot. The poem can, however, celebrate, "art [being] first of all a moral act." It is hard to say if this book is finest in darkness, light, or shadow, but Plumly chooses man's inevitable position and in "Between Flesh and What Follows" arranges the first and penultimate lines so as to say "The Dark that lies … And the Light that lies." Any poem's true content is shadow.

Animal titles designate the three parts of Giraffe. Plumly perceives and identifies with an incipience of flight in each creature, especially as it is conceived at night or in dreams. The poems are, then, emblems of the awakening to transcendence. "Walking Out" makes the point more humanly clear: "I would be silence. Even the sleeves / of my best coat would not know me." These various, still unrealized leave-takings are, however, not only initiated by a poem about loneliness ("Since England Is an Island") but also lead back to another on the same subject ("One of Us").

While the father continues to provide tension, conflict between the desire for death and for the transformation of life is equally basic. But the poems of darkness and extinction neither dull the volume's celebratory edge nor fail in themselves to honor struggle (as in the lovely, elegiac "Jarrell") and survival (as in "Dreamsong"). Though never evasive about Jarrell's lifelong flirtation with easing himself out of life, Plumly regards him as a man who, even imaginatively, doubted his own seriousness and ultimately as "a man walking out of himself on a road at dawn" with "the dark piled up behind." Before rising and walking the water, the persona of "Dreamsong" says, "I wanted to die. / I wanted the whole / day."

Perhaps the key to the collection is in "One Line of Light," the geographical background of which is flood country:

I think of my house as a ship
lit up like a birthday.
I walk around inside it
with the page of a poem—
the day's log,
the night's psalm.
The dark is my ocean.
I know the water's rising
in the next town.

In "Jarrell" that poet is himself, "the page of his poem filling up," which is a masterstroke of ambiguity and metonymy. In "Walking Out" and "Heron," "flight" or its "mockery" are imagined "at the edge of water."

"The Wish to Be a Red Indian," a bit of Kafka provided as a postscript to Giraffe, is equally a preface to Out-of-the-Body Travel. It involves naturalness and creature identification as conditions of pure motion and the dissolution of fetters. When the speaker says, "We lie in that other darkness, ourselves," he is, among other things, considering the truth of lives not our own. Getting out of ourselves is at once impossible and imperative. These poems realize the poet's experience only as a portion of the lives, deaths, and painful self-divisions of others, particularly the members of his family. Two poems entitled "Anothering" are about the mother's transcendence through her progeny but in conjunction with the sad vacancy the child's "out-of the-body travel" leaves in its wake. But death is the principal battleground for transcendence. Recurrently, as in the last two poems, Plumly discovers perpetuity and new life in identification with the dead, especially the father, both as a person and an archetype:

Whatever two we were, we become
one falling body, one breath.
And whosoever be reborn in sons
so shall they be also reborn...
And you, my anonymous father,
be with me when I wake.

The title poem, devoid of all artiness, is perfectly apt. His "raw, red cheek / pressed against the cheek of the [violin's] wood," the father elevates his merely "sad relatives" with that mournful music Yeats knew and made through "Lapis Lazuli." Plumly's subtle prosody continues in Summer Celestial, the key word being "witness." His focus shifts more strongly to the maternal nurture of youth and the natural, especially botanical, wonders of his early life in Ohio. The exploration of his past in this volume, especially his remembrance of a fecund connection to the natural environs of his home, is extended significantly in Boy on the Step. Whether it is deepened is, however, problematical.

Thumbing through Boy on the Step, a reader is at once taken by the manifest formality of the poems. Patterned and matching stanzas, many with identically repeated line indentations, are the rule. Indeed, only the prose poem, "The James Wright Annual Festival," stands apart from this ubiquitous formal practice. The last fourteen poems are virtual sonnets, but they are cast in a curious line, nearly always of eleven syllables, a line as close to blank verse as the stanza is to the sonnet. The guarded freedom of the line seems to counterpoint stanzaic formality throughout the collection. But it is formality that most lingers in the mind, giving subtlety to feeling but also somehow dampening it.

Though certainly concerned with the lost and hurt parents, these mainly melancholic pieces are in search of a recollected sense of spiritual well-being, given once by nature but undone by time and history, especially the two great wars of the twentieth century. It is really a yearning, and its elaboration suggests both Keats and Roethke, though these poems do not go as far toward metaphysical success in their enterprise as do the later works of Roethke. For now at least the poet is spiritually stalled amid an "industrial rain," his intimations of an elevated wholeness restrained by a desolate reality:

My eye, hooked like a bird's, fixes on anything,
even in memory: how the black rain
washes clean, how the dry leaf opens and
is lifted whole back into the new wind.
The spirit puts its nose against the glass—
The sky is nothing, is a starved black wing.

—David M. Heaton