Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday Muse: Maryland's Poet Laureate

. . . you see, and then you have to figure out
what it is you're seeing. . . .
~ Stanley Plumly*

Stanley Plumly is Maryland's ninth Poet Laureate. He began his term on October 1, 2009.

The position of Poet Laureate was created in 1959 (Chapter 178; Maryland State Government Code, Section 13-306). The incumbent of the honorary position, who must be a state resident, have a "proven history" of publication, and have received "critical acclaim as demonstrated by special honors, awards, or other recognitions", is appointed by the governor, who makes the selection from a list of eligible candidates prepared by the Maryland State Arts Council. The Poet Laureate serves at the governor's discretion for up to four years and may be reappointed. 

Though the Poet Laureate position is unpaid, limited reimbursements may be authorized for expenses incurred while performing official duties; reimbursement is limited to $1,000 in any one fiscal year. The principal duty of the Poet Laureate is to promote poetry throughout the state. The appointee is expected to give at least one public reading in each geographic region of the state during his or her term. 

Maryland's first official Poet Laureate was Maria Briscoe Croker, who served from 1959 to 1962. Her successors were Vincent Godfrey Burns (1962-1979), Lucille Clifton (1979-1985), Reed Whittemore (1985-1988), Linda Pastan (1991-1995), Roland Flint (1995-2000), Michael Collier (2001-2004), and Michael S. Glaser (2005-2009). 

* * * * *
. . . my poems are, literally, thinking out loud—
or talking inside, more or less silently. . . I hear
experience first, and see it through hearing it. . . .
~ Stanley Plumly in 2003 Interview with Peter Davison

Stanley Plumly's most recent poetry collections are Old Heart (W.W. Norton, 2008; reprint, 2009) and Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000 (Harper Collins Echo, 2000). His other poetry books are The Marriage in the Trees (Ecco Press, 1997), Boy on the Step (Ecco Press, 1989), Summer Celestial (Ecco Press, American Poetry Series, 1983), Out-of-the-Body Travel (Ecco Press, 1977), winner of the William Carlos Williams Award, Giraffe (Louisiana State University Press, 1973), and In the Outer Dark (LSU Press, 1970), honored with the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award

Plumly also has published Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (W.W. Norton, 2008), which he describes as a "meditation on immortality", and Argument & Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry (Other Press/Handsel Books, 2003), a book of essays on art, creativity, and imagination.

. . . 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.
. . . For me, language rests in a state of night gravity,
and I must work very hard to bring it effectively to light.
~ Plumly on Silence, Language, and Depth in Poetry**

Deservedly honored for his trademark lyricism, meditative quality, and the intimacy he achieves in his writing, Plumly populates his poetry with with extraordinarily vivid images that he says come from "real objects and things that have entered my life involuntarily."* The natural world and its sounds and colors infuse his poems, and how Plumly describes and gives meaning to it — "the druid soul within the dying tree" ("Cancer"), "bare blue, the crest and marking jewelry / penciled in" ("Still Missing the Jays"), "shapely clouds, / changeable, emotional, a skein of moving mare's- / tails" ("Simile") — leave this writer in awe and often deeply moved.

[. . .] the willow, by its nature, wept
long tears of its overbranching,
so pale they were autumnal. [. . .]
[. . .] The sycamore made maps
of disappearance; the copper beach,
parental in its girth, was clipped
hard, by a car, with a wound that wouldn't
heal. [. . .]
~ From "The Marriage in the Trees"

In addition to nature, especially trees and birds, which serves Plumley so well as metaphor and seeming source of comfort, themes include friendship, aging, illness, loss, mortality, childhood, family and personal relationships, and what has been described as the "darknesses of the human heart"**. Such themes  Plumly transforms from the personal into universals we all recognize. The elegance of his lines and the richness of his narratives, which he calls "attenuated... interrupted, delayed"** and also "indispensable to the lyric", make his writing look almost deceptively simple. Here are some of the "moments" made manifest in his poetry:

Mine, I know, started at a distance
five hundred and twenty light-years away
and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth,[. . .]
~ From "Cancer"

[. . . ] Waking is the first loneliness—
but sleep can be anything you want, the path
to the summerhouse, silence, or a call across water. [. . .]
~ From "Promising the Air"

[. . .] Who knows if my heartbroken father was meant
to last longer than his last good drunk.
They say it's like being kicked by a horse.
You go down, your  knees hug up.
You go suddenly wide awake, and the gate shuts.
~ From "Horse in the Cage"

Interestingly, Plumly's first job involved teaching painting. Taking painting classes, he has said, teaches you to see. Here is a particularly strong example of what he sees when he looks, in this case into his memory cache where he holds his images of his parents' disturbed relationship and the violence attending even silence:

[. . . ] I know
my mother's face was covered black with blood
and that when she rose she too said nothing.
Language is a darkness pulled out of us.
But I sceamed that day she was almost killed,
whether I wept or ran or threw a stone,
or stood stone-still, choosing at last between
parents, one of whom was driving away.
~ From "Infidelity" (See video below.)

The recipient of more than a half-dozen Pushcart Prizes, Plumly also has been awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship (2001), a Guggenheim fellowship, an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2002), and a Paterson Poetry Prize (2007), among other honors.

Formerly editor of the Ohio Review (1970-1979) and the Iowa Review (1976-1978), Plumly has been published in many literary publications, including The New Yorker, Blackbird, Green Mountains Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and Slate.

Plumly, Ph.D., is a Maryland Distinguish University Professor; he founded and directs the University of Maryland's Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing. He has taught at universities throughout the United States.


All Poetry Excerpts © Stanley Plumly

Stanley Plumly University of Maryland Profile

Announcement of Stanley Plumly's Appointment

Poems Out Loud, Columns by Stanley Plumly

David Baker, Interview with Stanley Plumly, The Kenyon Review, June 2007

* Grace Cavalieri Interview with Stanley Plumly for "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress", February 2005 (During this wonderful interview, Plumly reads a number of his poems: "Wrong Side of the River", "Naps", "Mercy", "Debt", "Simile", "Farragut North", "Infidelity", "Souls of Suicides as Birds", "Constable Clouds for Keats", and "Birthday", texts for which are included. Plumly speaks here of his Quaker heritage and its influence in his writing. In response to Cavalieri's statement that he does not judge when he writes, Plumly responds, "Quakers [call it] "giving witness". . . in the moment you begin to judge, you cut off certain possibilities, certain options. And you really begin to close down the imaginative part of your thinking." This is a marvelous approach to thinking about writing.)

** Peter Davison Interview with Stanley Plumly, "Language Makes the Senses One", The Atlantic, January 8, 2003 (In this excellent interview conducted by e-mail, Plumly talks about his fascination with Keats, his use of trees in his poetry, childhood and youth as theme ("a fundamental emotional resource"), his Quaker faith and its silence, the scriptural base of his work, the way he tells stories through his poetry, his style (use of "to be" verb), and the ever-present aural aspect of his work. "Nature," Plumly says in the interview, "is a teacher. The more we, as a culture, alienate ourselves from it the more alien we become." I especially like what Plumly has to say about prose and poetry: ". . . 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. . . if the lyric poem is a path, prose is a road somewhere.")

Lisa Meyer, "A Conversation with Stanley Plumly", Boston Review, Summer 1996

Craig Morton Teicher, Interview with Stanley Plumly, 2007 National Book Award Finalist (for Old Heart: Poems), National Book Foundation (Of note in this interview is Plumly's description of the relationship between poetry and experience and his statement that "the poem is a made thing, an object.") 

Selection of Stanley Plumly Poetry Online: "Cancer" at The New Yorker; "Still Missing the Jays" at Blackbird; "Horse in the Cage", "Infidelity", "Out-of-the-Body Travel", "Wildflower", "Woman on Twenty-Second Eating Berries", all at PoemHunter; "Autumnal" at Poetry Daily; "The Morning America Changed" at Valparaiso Poetry Review; "Infidelity" at The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor (audio also is available here); "Cardinal", "Meander", "John 6:17", "Strays", "Piano", Naps", "The Marriage in the Trees", "Will Work for Food", "In Answer to Amy's Question What's a Pickerel", "Promising the Air", "Hedgerows", all at The Atlantic Monthly; "Grievers" at Slate; "Wight", "Reading With the Poets", "Keats in Burns Country", "Constable's Clouds for Keats", and "Posthumous Keats", all at Beltway Poetry Quarterly; "Wrong Side of the River" at Literary Arts; "Cardinals in a Shower at Union Square" at Poetry365; "Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me" at Boston Review

Stanley Plumly Page at The Poetry Foundation (Here you'll also find links to text of nine of Plumly's poems.)

Stanley Plumly Profile at Academy of American Poets ( (Nine of Plumly's poems are available here.)

Sherry Horowitz, Review of Plumly's Old Heart at Del Sol Review of Books: "The Crystal Eye: the 'I' as Prism"

Molly Sutton Kiefer, "Lyricism of a Flighted World: Old Heart", Review at Cerise Press, Fall-Winter 2009/2010

Nicholas Lezard, Review of Plumly's Posthumous Keats at The Guardian, February 20, 2010

Mike McDonough, Review of Plumly's Old Heart for Coldfront, January 3, 2008

Charles McGrath, Review of Plumly's Posthumous Keats for The New York Times, August 7, 2008

Plumly's Argument & Song on GoogleBooks

Plumly's Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me on GoogleBooks

Plumly's Posthumous Keats on GoogleBooks

Stanley Plumly, "Something of the Sort: Full-bodied, paper-original, non-expedient correspondence", Poetry Daily, Fall 2007/Winter 2008 (This essay also is featured in Poetry Northwest.)

Marianne Amoss, "Versified Wanted: So, what does a poet laureate do?", Urbanite, January 1, 2009

Fact Sheet on Poet Laureate of Maryland, Maryland State Arts Council

Enock Pratt Library Collections for Poets Laureate

Maryland Center for the Book

Maryland at a Glance: Poets Laureate

Maryland Humanities Council

Maryland State Arts Council

Here's Plumly reading his poem "Infidelity":

Here, Plumly is both subject and interviewee, talking with Maryland Newsline about making poetry "alive and vital":

Stanley Plumly on FaceBook


M.L. Gallagher said...

In reading this series, I am always amazed at how many of these positions are non-paid.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Wow!!! What boggles my mind is how many resources you provide readers with.

I'd love to read a post sometime about your process---esp. with research. Do you write posts throughout the week, or ahead of time?

Cassandra Frear said...

This guy can write! Thanks for sharing!

Maureen said...


Depending on time available, I usually set aside a couple of days just to write posts. Some I do in advance but not always.

I learned a lot about searching when I was developing and writing content for my last employer's Websites and had to create keywords for linking. I use different types of searches with different keywords, depending on what I'm looking for. I do vet each link before I include it. I think that's important. I also check out links on other sites and tend to go deep. Typically, a Monday Muse post like this one takes a couple of hours for me to research and put together.

I have one more state PL, I think, after which I may do pieces on known and unknown poets who interest me.

Laura said...

The work you feature here is stunning. I see what you describe as "intimacy" in his poetry. I believe that is a gift. You have that gift also, Maureen.

Looking forward to exploring these links.

S. Etole said...

This I like ... greatly!

nance marie said...

i like his voice.
thanks for the post.
well done.

also enjoyed reading your answer to hannah's question.
it is interesting to know how you do this.