Language Makes the Senses One

Peter Davison talks with the poet Stanley Plumly, who believes that "language, at its best, is not easy"

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.

In her beautiful little poem "Silence," Marianne Moore quotes her father in the opinion that "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint." "Infidelity," at one level, is about the violence of language, the lack of restraint—as opposed to the language of violence. Utterance is difficult enough, but trying to articulate from the depth of feeling is almost impossible on the spot. At best we find a word or two, a blur of clarity. More often than not we act out because we cannot speak. Families are good at this. But beyond the circumstance of the drama of "Infidelity," I think I mean that language, as such, is a darkness, pulled into the light by the necessity of speech. Poetry itself, since it's about the difficulty of the word as well as its beauty, about truth as well as awe, is also a darkness that the form of the poem pulls out of us.

Language, at its best, is not easy, even though the task of the poem, in Yeats's famous phrase, is to make it "seem a moment's thought." For me, language rests in a state of night gravity, and I must work very hard to bring it effectively to light. "Promising the Air" and "Piano," for me, are no less about silence and language as about a darkness—the one poem concerned with the invisible world, the other with the animal presence of something wholly other than human. There is a difference between facile and facility: the former you distrust, the latter you admire. Darkness is depth, I think, and the poets I admire have the facility of being in touch with and speaking from that sense of things.

A great many of your poems refer either to your mother or your father, and as far as I can see this lasts throughout your continuing body of work, not only in the earliest poems. Do childhood and youth provide for you, as for such poets as Stanley Kunitz, an eternal source for poems? Why?

When you think about Kunitz's age, it says something about the power of childhood itself that it would continue to exert such a hold. Of course, it's linked directly to one's parents, the gods of childhood. The way I see it, it's as Wordsworthian as it is Freudian. Memory is what we have, and childhood is our original take on the world. Whatever I am now, I'm still that boy on the step, the present utterly fluid with the past. For me, at least, childhood isn't so much remembered as it is included; it's a fundamental emotional resource. I believe we come by our emotional lives from our parents, just as we come by our imaginations from the natural world. Not that these are separate. Family life, I suppose, is a part of nature, though nurture is its theme, its hopeful purpose.

For me, I guess, my father was nature, my mother, naturally, nurture. That's a common enough paradigm, except in my case the distance between the one parent and the other was tremendous. Yet I'm drawn to my father in a way that I'm not to my mother. He's the archetype of tension in my work. I only loved my mother; I loved and hated my father. I think he felt the same about me. They died at different times in different parts of my life, but they didn't disappear. They are the singular constant; they are definitely part of my spiritual life, my imaginative life, now that they're a part of nature, reconciled, in my heart and mind, with nature. I miss my mother's voice, but I was freed by my father's death to find my own voice.

I hear a religious, or at least a scriptural, ground-bass supporting your poems. Am I wrong? Could you speak to that?

You're right—the scriptural part, I mean. The language of—the resonance of, the rhythms of—the dark hand of the King James Bible has always been a presence. I see it as a profound literary text, I suppose, except the Bible has so many parts and layers, so many sources and subjects, so much accumulation of time. It's a book of books, of course; more than that, though, it's a world, the first world in many ways, the world from which we receive our wisdom but especially a world from which comes our poetry. The narratives, the psalms, the visions in it represent a kind of book beyond books. The height of our language is Shakespeare's, and that is the Bible's language, too.

The Bible is also full of silences, which is why, for many readers, it is so difficult and seems always to need further translation. I love its silences. They suit the Quaker in me. Biblical drama, which is really family crisis, has been another thing that appealed to me. And everywhere, in both Testaments, archetypes of nature become part of the parable, the example: "Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird" (Proverbs 1:17) or "As he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking" (Mark 8:24).

More than most poets you rely on spinning a narrative thread in your poems, a sort of story that unwinds itself. I presume that is deliberate?

Thread, yes. I prefer an attenuated narrative, an interrupted, delayed narrative. Narrative, I believe, is indispensable to the lyric; it's what makes it move instead of spinning its wheels. It's what motivates the poem to turn, to go on, continue, rather than simply returning, over and over. Narrative provides the major formal tension to the lyric stability in a poem. It's what causes the line to turn the corner. What is a "story" anyway but someone speaking, drawing a line that assumes a shape, a shape that becomes a figure But a line too straight is uninteresting; that's why the "narrative" must break, bend, meander; that's why indirection and juxtaposition are so important to maintaining the intensity, the surprise all art needs to keep the music going, the line moving. It's the strength Keats at his best that he depends, even in the odes, on a narrative base-line; it's what brings his lyric drama to life. It's the weakness of Shelley that he too often substitutes the didactic in his nature for the implicit drama; whatever the narrative spine, it seems to exist in order to promote an opinion. When Keats advises Shelley to load every rift with more ore, he's not talking decoration but narrative. Even metaphor, announced or otherwise, is an implicit narrative—"like a patient etherized upon a table" (T. S. Eliot); "Loneliness leapt in the mirrors, but all week/I kept them covered like cages" (W. S. Merwin). The subtext of narrative is time, the subtext of time is mortality, the subtext of mortality is emotion. Try to remove the narrative sense of things and you take out the heart, the cause of the effect.

Two questions about style. First, in a poem like "Hedgerows," you utilize the definite article over and over again, nearly fifty times in fifty lines. Some critics have suggested that when a poet overuses the definite article that he or she intends to exert exclusion, to refer to things or events which the poet finds more familiar than the reader does.

"Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the," says Wallace Stevens. I don't believe the the is exclusionary as much as it's denominational. Critics who suggest exclusion as a motive need to look at context. The context of "Hedgerows"—nominationally and musically—is naming, specifying, nailing down the actual. Any straying from the particulars, the the-ing, and the poem might have turned into one more pastoral glib moment. The definite article, as a separator, could become merely rhetorical—I can see that in certain poems. But in "Hedgerows" the use of the is intuitive not inventive, especially since the poem's narrative course follows a fairly blind path (in Devon, on a one-lane two-way road between giant hedgework). For me, the definite article in the poem is a way of including the reader more directly in the literal nature of the experience. It's part of the texture.

You have written a lot of prose about poetry, both to assess the poets of your own generation and to explore the nature of English and American poetry. In your prose I have noticed you depend heavily on the verb "to be," as though you were writing notes toward the definition of definitions. Your prose style is quite different from that of your verse. Why?

If I may say so, this is a remarkable observation—precisely on the point. Definition is what nearly all my prose writing has been about, even the more lyrical analytical pieces. There must be a legion of reasons why my poems put different pressure on the language compared to my prose. Different parts of the brain? Obviously different purposes. Prose, critical prose, examines and explains; its thrust is expository. Poetry dramatizes; its thrust is to present. But the secret of good prose is not that far from the secret of poetry, which is narrative. When Pound says that poetry ought to be at least as well written as prose, he's clearly talking about language, but I think he means the language of the experience, a language tied directly to some kind of grounding. In prose, however, the connective tissue is allowed to show; in poetry it is subverted, subtracted, made invisible, suggested. I think my prose enjoys the space it's been offered, the cubicle volume. My penchant in my poems is to describe, if not complete, a circle; to bend the line severely. Prose is a way of creating so much circumference that the curve of the thinking and telling is disguised, though the good reader will ultimately see it if the good writer has written well enough to satisfy unity. Prose, for me, is exploratory too—"notes toward." I like the idea of finding my way. Thus if the lyric poem is a path, prose is a road somewhere.

As for the verb "to be"—I loathe the creative writing notion that verbs necessarily need to act, to juice the pale nouns and poor modifiers. Verbs are part, only part, of the voice of all the words. Perhaps, for me, state of being verbs are faster or more direct means between the subject and the complement. I don't know, except that is verbs are quieter, more given to silence. Or perhaps, in my mind, all verbs are state of being, depending on what state of things, active or still, the writing is calling for.

Let me add that writing criticism, review-essays and whatnot, is one kind of prose; writing about Whistler or nature or Keats is an entirely different kind. The first is thankless, the second thankful and a lot more fun. I think I got into the criticism business in the first place because I had, and have, strong feelings about distinctions of generations. Which, like narrative, is the subject of mortality.

You admire the sort of innerness that readers have always found in the poetry of Keats. Your own work hums with a richness of sound as well. Where do you find that sound, and what do you aspire to in the aural or musical aspect of your poems?

On one side, what you call "innerness" and "richness of sound" are the result, I think, of having grown up fairly isolated within the silence of my own head—hearing myself think, especially at night when I'd talk myself to sleep. My childhood insomnia seems to have elevated the connection, in my mind, between thinking and talking. They became, early on, the same thing, their rhythms inseparable. In that sense, my poems are, literally, thinking out loud—or talking inside, more or less silently. The poem "Piano," which you mentioned earlier, is for me a very interior poem, whatever its trappings and setting. I hear the experience first, and see it through hearing it. "Innerness" is the substance out of which the form is achieved.

On the other side is poetry itself, the poetry we all grew up with—those sounds, whether Keats or Yeats, young and sensual or older and clean. I suppose there's a ghost pentameter behind most of my lines, but it's always meter at the service of speech, self-dialogue, if you will. I favor a quiet percussive rhythm varied and extended through the thinking-out of the narrative of the sentence. Assonance, consonance, and surprise has been my prosodic mantra for a long time. Hearing and seeing in a poem, naming and bringing the thing—the image, the object—to life, where do you separate these? Shut your eyes and your ears will be your eyes, cover your ears and your eyes will hear. Language makes the senses one.