Interviews January 2003

Language Makes the Senses One

Peter Davison talks with the poet Stanley Plumly, who believes that "language, at its best, is not easy"
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Stanley Plumly's sensuous, poignant poems, eleven of which have appeared in The Atlantic, hum with a note of true feeling. He springs from that generation of poets, which includes his friend the late William Matthews, who came out of the American heartland in the years after John Kennedy's presidency and carried their promptings of family feeling outward onto the liberating campuses of the great American universities. Plumly's rich, dense poems give off a special fragrance, the incense of the English Romantic movement mingling with forest odors from the Old Northwest Territory between the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Great Lakes. A line from Plumly's poem "Boy on the Step" neatly describes its author: "articulate, American, close to ground."

For over thirty years Plumly, both as poet and as teacher, has explored the surfaces of nature and the darknesses of the human heart. A 2002 award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters recently ratified his poetic reputation, though he has long been recognized by alert readers as one of the assured masters of contemporary American poetry. Born in Barnesville, Ohio, in 1939, he was educated at Wilmington College and Ohio University and has taught literature at a number of universities, including Iowa, Columbia, Princeton, Michigan, and Houston. He is now a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. His collections of poetry include In the Outer Dark (1970), Giraffe (1973), Out-of-the-Body Travel (1977), Summer Celestial (1983), Boy on the Step (1989), The Marriage in the Trees (1997), and Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000. A volume of his critical essays, Argument and Song, will be published by Other Press/Handsel Books in the fall of 2003.

We corresponded recently by e-mail.

—Peter Davison

Stanley Plumly
Stanley Plumly   

You have been fascinated by Keats for years, and I gather that your forthcoming book alludes to him throughout. What is it in his poetry that most attracts you? What poets, in addition to Keats, have had particular influence on the way you write? Rilke? Galway Kinnell?

Part of it is that Keats, for me, represents the integrity of the mission of the poet—not unlike Rilke in this respect—which is to say he represents the value of poetry itself. I suppose it most has to do with the commitment to poems as works of art. When Keats speaks of "the holiness of the heart's affections" and links such absolutes as the imagination, beauty, and truth, when he questions life in the terms of art, it lifts the activity of poetry to some ultimate purpose. Simply put, poetry is the thing in my life that has made the most sense and remained the one constant.

Another part of the influence is the nature of Keats's text itself ... the richness, the density of his poems, the way in which language is always in multiple places at once—generous, physical, and most of all quick. I think it's the speed of his connections that makes him the most modern of the Romantics; that, and his sense that the poem is its own world or—as he puts it—"that which is creative must create itself."

Rilke, too, is in more than one place at once—many and in harmony. The French Symbolists are a bit exquisite, but Rilke, in the grounding of his German, builds always from the heart, from an attachment to things. That's what makes his mysticism so elegiac. When he looks at the panther at the zoo in Paris he's there for hours, over days, until the animal seems to know him, in some perfect way, as well. Each gives something up in the encounter. As for Kinnell, he writes in fire; his whole being feels at stake almost every time, every poem. The language sometimes seems inadequate to his demands—it's the demands you respond to. I love his poems.

Your poems are heavily and richly populated with trees, as well as birds and plants, even horses. (One poem revolves around a horse named "Piano.") What is it about trees?

I grew up with trees—I mean forests. My family, in both Ohio and Virginia, was in the lumber business. The picture on the cover of Boy on the Step is from the State of Ohio archive and it shows my father and uncle and grandfather, plus a cast of townsfolk, gathered around the first big log cut for the P. W. Plumly Lumber Corporation. It's resting on the flatbed of a Ford truck the size of a semi. The photo was taken just before the Second World War. As with so many families, the war changed everything, but it made my grandfather a millionaire. My father and his brother worked for my grandfather through most of their twenties. As a small boy I would often tag along as they went out into the Blue Ridge to cut trees in the years right after the war. We'd be out for days. I don't think my father liked cutting trees, which in those days was done by hand, with big double-manned bandsaws. You could see it in his face how it hurt him to bring them down, especially the really large oaks and poplars. You get to know trees intimately that way, by killing them. And a tree on the ground is a different thing altogether from a tree standing. It's like a great dead or dying animal. No wonder the first poets were Druids.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"In Defense of the Forests" (December 18, 2002)
In a collection of Atlantic articles, the pioneering naturalist John Muir extolled the wonders of our nation's forests and called for their protection.

In a way, nature starts with the trees, these great flowers. Their presence is certainly powerful, but so is their silence; and what sweeter sound is there except wind in the leaves, the first music on the planet. After which comes birdsong, also in the trees. The human voice, projected, is, it seems to me, an extension of these natural sounds, just as we imitate the shapes in nature—the circle, the hexagon, the meander, and so forth. My sympathy, obviously, is with nature, while at the same time feeling separate. Our separateness is one of our basic themes in poetry. I sometimes think that the closer you feel with the natural world the closer you can be with other people. This may be Wordsworthian, but it's true. Nature is a teacher. The more we, as a culture, alienate ourselves from it the more alien we become.

The first big log cut for the P. W. Plumly Lumber Corporation

In that great sequence of Rilke's early poems, "The Book of Poverty and Death," when Rilke is walking the slums of Paris, the world of Zola, his one lament is that there's no green, no tree, no life outside the stone and bleakness and deprivation of these broken, ugly lives. I've translated a few of those poems; they are in a different universe from Sonnets to Orpheus unless the poor in their place represent the underworld.

I love the rumination, in your poem "Infidelity": "Language is a darkness pulled out of us." Could you expand on that?

To a real extent I grew up in silence. On the good side, it was Quaker silence, which dotes on a kind of minimalist linguistic reality. The less said the better, unless you really had something to say, usually to a congregation. On the less good side, my father was a lapsed Quaker, but then he was a lapsed father too. (He was not a lapsed drinker, however.) I'm not going to psychobabble the reasons for his means of dealing with his life, except to say that on the other side of silence there was a good deal of the noise of anger and complaint in our house. Silence was my way of biting my tongue and biding my time.

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