An Interview with Stanley Plumly
Jeffrey Greene | December 2000
This interview was conducted on October 30, 1999 at a sparsely furnished, one-room apartment that Stanley Plumly uses for writing. The apartment has two desks, each with a typewriter. The one he reserves for poetry is set in the middle of the room, facing a large picture window with a ninth-floor view over the trees and tall buildings in prosperous Bethesda, Maryland. The other desk, which is used for prose, faces an interior wall. On that brilliant autumn morning, we were seated in what seemed to be a reading corner. The occasion for this interview was the scheduled publication of Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems 1970–2000 (Ecco Press/HarperCollins).
Plumly is the author of six other books of poetry. His work has been honored with the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award and nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and the Academy of American Poets' Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He hasreceived a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants, Pushcart Prizes, and an Ingram-Merrill Foundation Award. He has taught at the universities of Iowa, Michigan, and Washington, Ohio University, Princeton, and Columbia, among others. He is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of English at the University of Maryland.
Jeffrey Greene: Publishing a volume of selected poems is one of the defining moments in a poet's career. At what point did you decide to gather yours together?
Stanley Plumly: A selected poems has to do less with age than career. Many of my contemporaries have done a selected poems years ago because they have so many poems, so many books. I can think of some other poets my age who have few books, and who knows if they'll ever do a selected poems because they just don't have the material yet? In my case, the selected poems had a practical side to it. All my work is out of print, except for a few copies of the paperback of my last book, and my publisher, Ecco Press, has changed venue and is now with HarperCollins. It was just decided why not put the poems in a different context vis-à-vis a selected poems and bring them out that way rather than reprint whole books. That's the practical side. But being a tortoise rather than a hare, I wanted to do it sometime in the future. My editor, knowing me very well, understood what that meant. God knows when it would be done. So he pushed the program ahead a bit, and I think that's why it's coming out in the year 2000. I had a deadline of 2001. It worked out well. The selected poems has 15 new poems in a group of eighty-eight poems altogether.
Greene: Do you have the sense that your life's work is really one large work, an expanding volume?
Plumly: In one sense, every book of poems and every life's work-it sounds like we're at the end and I'm about to go into the grave, I hope that's not true—one's life's work, whatever that means, is a Leaves of Grass. It's what Yeats was doing, constantly fiddling with the work, right up to the end, even old work, maybe to good purpose. On the other hand, it can be destructive if you think of Wordsworth's life-long tinkering with The Prelude. The poetry grew worse and worse the more he fiddled with it, mostly because he was trying to rewrite or change the public perception of his life. That was impossible to do. He'd lived it. It was too late.
Greene: And Emily Dickinson?
Plumly: Her form took over the kind of poems she would always write. It's indelible right up to the very end. It took care of itself. She had these subdivisions, little books she put together herself, kind of fantasizing what it might be like to be an author and have someone read your books. Of course, that never happened. But you look at the whole of her work and it's there; the pattern is inherent. It's really about finding—what does D.H. Lawrence say?—finding the form one's passion wants to take. In a cooler sense, what Stevens says is also true, "finding the form that will suffice." And I think that when we say voice in poetry, what we're really talking about is finding a sense of a form that somehow suits the way you see and hear poetry.
Greene: A number of poets, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Penn Warren included, presented their selected poems in reverse chronology. What was the intended effect of this order?
Plumly: One has motives that one is aware of, and one has other motives. My first two books were apprentice books. I never had a poetry workshop, nor had I studied with anyone. I sort of studied in silence with the abstract gods of poetry. I didn't necessarily want those early poems to finally speak for me, so I used only two poems from the first two books, one from each one. I might have chosen other poems from those two books, but I chose those two. That seemed to say something to me—that that was not a way to begin. That was a way to end. And if that's a way to end, the rest of it falls into place. Reversing chronology is a way of remembering, so that in that sense my New and Selected is, in itself, a book of memory, as memory is, in effect, a reversal of time.
Greene: You stated in a previous interview that Out-of-the-Body Travel, Summer Celestial, and Boy on the Step formed a trilogy. Are those books meant to be read as an extended work?
Plumly: It's something I thought of later. I noticed in a review recently that Charles Wright was chided for talking like this. But I'm willing to admit this was not planned. I will say this though. Now we have a fourth book, Marriage in the Trees, so what we have is a tetralogy. Those books I think were very much together, of a piece, and they are the core of the New and Selected Poems. I do know that when I finally get back to poems they are not going to be like these poems. That's a part of a poet's growth, it's a part of change, and it's a part of redefining yourself, staying alive.
Greene: This may be sidetracking after the trilogy comment, but it seems that Out-of-the-Body Travel focuses on your father and Summer Celestial shifts to your mother. Boy on the Step seems elegiac, not just for those who inhabited the '40s, but also for your boyhood self. Is that what you intended?
Plumly: No. Is it an ascension or a descent? No. It's what you figure out. My father or the father-like figure has been a very powerful muse for me, and my mother is a part of that configuration, but I don't think I'd consider her a muse figure so much as another kind of voice, the voice of conscience, the voice of awareness, the voice of governance, of taking care in a certain way. So in that sense, she's the form, and my father would be the content. In Boy on the Step, I adjust perspectives so that I see myself relative to the other fathers who preceded me. I think it's the most expansive and inclusive of the three books. Marriage in the Trees, it seems to me, includes a larger world, bringing in the street, other poets, the world in which I live, not just the world of my past. The real boy on the step in the photograph on the cover of Boy on the Step is my uncle, for example. My father is the driver of the truck. He's standing in a white shirt by the cab door. So he is no longer absolutely central. But I also want to say this: I don't think of myself as ever having written "father" poems or "mother" poems. I see my work as allegorical, or at least archetypal, and the inspirations or the antagonisms that my parents represent are ways to energize the work. My parents become figures in the poems. They are not autobiographical in that sense. But if they are, then we're talking about an autobiography of the imagination.
Greene: From first to last poem, death pervades Boy on the Step. Why such a dark book?
Plumly: Every book I've ever written, I thought would be my last. So there's that sense of not just sayonara but c'est la vie, to mix cultures a little bit. It always seemed I'd come to the end of myself in a certain way or part of my life. Also I grew up in an era—the '40s and the '50s—when death still had an otherworldly quality. It had a rich imaginative quality. The '40s and '50s were the great era of radio. For death, I'll use a metaphor. Let's call it "radio death," as opposed to "video death." And what happens in the era of video is that you'll see people on television who are dead but look alive—you don't know for sure. Maybe they died a year ago, maybe they died six months ago, maybe they're in a commercial, or maybe they are being memorialized on some news program. It's disconcerting. There's so much—I don't mean just the numbers of death, although we live now in a world of numbers—that we've become kind of inculcated with this kind of consciousness, which is the diminishment of the meaning of death, its tragic stature. Instead, death is pathos, smaller. What I'm saying is not that new. But we seem to be losing the personal impact of death. I think that's why we celebrate the death of a celebrity. It's a way of grieving in a personal way, as a culture. Maybe my complaint is just a part of growing older. But in the '40s and the '50s—and this has something to do with my being a child and not an adult—death had a different impact. It was always a part of what we were doing. It was like going to a wedding or a Sunday gathering of some kind. There was always a great meal afterwards. And there seemed to be a lot of death around, a lot of grief, and the dead were always people you knew or were related to. It seemed to me we were going to a funeral every month. Those were the times of the open casket. The person would be lying there in this strange state, looking almost like him or herself, but not quite. Of course, the cliche you'd hear from the grandmothers was so-and-so never looked so good. It didn't seem that way to me. It was frightening, and yet I wasn't repulsed by it. I grew up in a kind of flow of this life and death experience. These were people I was close to, yet their deaths seemed a part of the inevitable nature of things.
Greene: I have the impression that as you grew up, you were a lover of nature. Your work is informed by the natural imagery of the rural Ohio/Virginia landscape. Still, your childhood was or seemed unhappy. Did you have a happy childhood?
Plumly: It's not so much loving nature as it is loving where you grew up. You grew up in that world, and that was your choice. If I'd grown up in the city like some of my contemporaries, the city would have been my nature. Unhappy? All children are unhappy. Later on, you figure out if it was truly so. Adolescence in particular is a very difficult time. There's no way that it can be happy, although there may be moments of ecstasy. But on reflection, I think that I had a pretty good childhood, and I want to write about it sometime in prose, where certain gaps can be filled and certain moments extended beyond the poems. In retrospect, it seems happier. I suppose, in a more realistic sense, one could make a shopping list of the violence, the alcoholism, the brutality, both physical and verbal. The world we lived in was dangerous, not just in terms of the kinds of cars we drove or the general lack of precaution, but I grew up in a world of smokers. I grew up working with asbestos, lead paint, coal dust-all of which is now against the law. When I look back, I don't feel nostalgic about my childhood. I just wonder how I survived it. That's also a part of retrospection and maybe where I get the sense that every book that I write is my last book. I'm always amazed that I survived my childhood. Even from the beginning, with my precarious birth, how on Earth did I make it? I feel blessed in that sense.
Greene: In In the Outer Dark you wrote about your father as if he were already dead. He had little to say about your book when it came out. Later, in your essay, "Words on Birdsong," you wrote, "Poets cannot make things up. Poets make things from... memory." Was your father figuratively dead in your early poems, or is this partly why you dismiss your first book?
Plumly: No, I think he was dead. I don't know about figuratively. That was my way of getting distance and my way of understanding him. I think he knew that. He did see that first book. He was amazed at what I remembered. I guess he thought that I wasn't alive in those early years. But I will say this, and this is true for all sons: I became a free man when my father died, so maybe it was wish-fulfillment. Freud was right. It was a classic case of Moses and monotheism, of the son needing to usurp the father.
Greene: At what point did you feel your language "married" the experience in your early poems?
Plumly: I wrote only a couple of poems that I wanted to live with from the early work. Clearly, that's why the selected poems are arranged this way. I was really learning to write and learning how not to write more than anything else. I didn't have anyone to instruct me except myself and reviewers. It turns out that those first books were well received, so I was baffled about where to go next. There are clues that Giraffe is a kind of trying out for Out-of-the-Body Travel, and there are themes in Giraffe that are continued in Out-of-the-Body Travel. I wrote much of Out-of-the-Body Travel long before Giraffe was published, and frankly, Giraffe was published to get rid of a contract, an obligation so that I could move on. That's what I mean about apprentice work. I learned from those first two books, so I think of Out-of-the-Body Travel as my real beginning. That's why I reprinted "As My Father Lies Down Beside Me" in that book.
Greene: Kunitz has been haunted by his father's suicide and his mother's denial of his father's existence. Do you see any parallel to your experience?
Plumly: I grew up in a Freudian world, an Oedipal world. I was my mother's only son and the oldest. My mother totally embraced me, and I think she unconsciously set me up to be my father's antagonist at a time when I didn't quite know what was going on. It was the way it was. I read D.H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers when I was 19, and I thought, Jesus, that's it. There's a paradigm in that novel of my own relationship with my parents and theirs with their own. My mother was the sensitive one. She had come from a long line of school teachers. My father came from a long line of Quakers, Welsh—the kind of Quakers who owned the Pequod; not the pacifist kind, but ruthless business people. My father wasn't ruthless. That's why he didn't fit in. My grandfather was a powerful figure in Winchester, Virginia, and made his mark there. But he did that with some force.
Greene: The precariousness of your childhood has become the subject of a number of your poems, but many of your later poems have ranged to broader subjects. Is there a link between them?
Plumly: One's poems gather from many sources. Among the new poems, I have a poem called "Strays." It's about stray dogs that would suddenly show up in our neighborhood. It was out in the country, but there were many houses gathered around. Ohio used to be filled with this sort of semi-rural world. Dogs would show up that had been let out, dropped off, or were just wild. Sometimes people shot them. Sometimes they were chased off by other means. People always thought they were dangerous. My father, though, had a soft spot for animals. He was almost pathetic in that way, bless him. He would round up those he could in the truck and take them... well, I don't know where he took them. But he didn't want them shot, and he didn't want them harmed, so he removed them from the scene. I remember vividly, and this is in the poem, one of those dogs dying. Going too fast on Garbry Road, a kid in a sort of hotrod hit the dog. It was late afternoon. The dog flew up over the car and landed behind the car. The car kept on going. The dog, in the middle of the road, attracted attention, so a bunch of kids and then a couple of parents, fathers, were out there wondering what to do. It was late enough that the fathers were home from work. The animal was twitching, somewhere between life and death. After a while, somebody wanted to bury it, but no one wanted to touch it for fear that it had this or that disease. Finally, one of the fathers dragged the dog over to the side of the road, and I leave the poem at that moment. Over the course of the next week, that dog just disappeared. It was eaten by this other life, taken away. That was part of that world, its ethic, its tone. That's the world my father and mother come from.
I have a few new poems that are of another nature entirely. They are written in a cooler vein. One is about the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague and an experience I had in Paris, in fact, at that famous Apollo statue in the Hôtel de Rohan, where the archival center is now, over on the right bank.
In another poem, I recall going into a little church on the Piazza del Popolo, the first afternoon we were in Rome. It was near our hotel, and it was dark, wonderfully cool on a hot day. It was nice to be in there, just looking at the church, going to the far end of it. Then in these little naves were two Caravaggios. I couldn't believe it. I mean, they were just sitting there in this sort of dank, dark spot, and if you put your money in the little lumen box the light would go on for a few seconds, maybe a minute, and you could "study" the paintings. You really couldn't see much otherwise. Caravaggio was especially strange in that setting because he painted with a single high candle. I had run across a poem by Thom Gunn a long time ago and then was reminded of it recently. It was about him going into the same place and looking at one of the paintings, "The Conversion of St. Paul." In the poem, he's waiting for the sun to set at a certain angle through the windows so that the light will strike the painting and he can actually, as he says, "be illuminated." But Thom Gunn is of that generation of the '50s in England, the angry movement, with Philip Larkin, so he has to be ironic about it. His is a wonderful poem, and it rhymes, as I remember. It's 32 lines, eight-line stanzas. It's not an ottava rima, but close. He says he has to wait almost an hour for the sun. In this way he's patient. He says once the sun arrives he looks at the painting, shows us the painting in the poem, and basically says that he's hardly enlightened. That's his conclusion. He gets up, leaves, there are people praying, and you know he's an agnostic about the whole thing. My poem is entitled "Comment on Thom Gunn's 'In Santa Maria Del Popolo' Concerning Caravaggio's 'The Conversion of Saint Paul.'" That's the title. My poem is also 32 lines, and it's a rough syllabic, ten-syllable line. Halfway through the poem, my comment is that I guess I couldn't wait either for sunset or the risk of dark, so I put my lira in the lumen box "to see more or less what you saw." Then I show the reader what I saw and what I think he saw too. Where does that come from? Well, it comes from a world far from Piqua, Ohio. But I don't see the two worlds as all that different in this archetypal sense. Paul, or Saul in this case, is a fallen figure, and I don't know if you know the painting, but he's reaching up. It's not clear why or what that means. Gunn talks about that very issue. I make the point that we also do that when we are free-falling in our dreams. But this is a different kind of poem, and, perhaps, a cooler poem, but ultimately I don't see it as all that different. Maybe it does come from a different part of me, but I don't see the passion as being any less in the new poems. They simply seem more removed from autobiography.
Greene: How did your career change with the publication of Out-of-the-Body Travel?
Plumly: A career is only what's put into it. Let's say the work changed. I moved to a different level. I knew this when I wrote the first poem that I thought was absolutely going to be in this book Out-of-the-Body Travel. I reached a certain place in that poem, a certain move, and I thought, This is my move. This is mine. This is the way my poems will be in the future. The poem was called "The Iron Lung." I remembered and tried to focus on my experience with polio. Basically, it's descriptive until I reach a place in the poem where it says, "It's precisely at this moment I realize / I have polio and will never walk again." I said, Jesus, that's different. That's the truest thing I think I've ever said up to this moment. I thought, well, I could get there again. And so I knew I had changed and the work had changed. The rest, what you call a career, all came out of that insight and being able to write about that material, being able, in a way, to transform my own deeply personal life into something else, something like an archetype. Robert Lowell's Life Studies was immeasurably important for many people, but I was in the middle of nowhere reading those poems in The Partisan Review, before they were ever in a book. It was in the late '50s, when I was about 19, and it was just a knockout to me that he could do that, that he had that access to the material. Now knowing that and being able to do it are different things. In my first book, I sort of had a go at it. That first book, in fact, was awarded the Delmore Schwartz Award, which was judged by Lowell, Berryman, and Mack Rosenthal. But I didn't see myself as a confessional poet and I didn't want to be a confessional poet. I realized in "The Iron Lung," so many years later, how I could draw on that material without it being parochial or provincial, if you will, to autobiography. It didn't have to take that tone, what was classically considered at the time the confessional tone, which is really the tone of the victim. I wasn't the victim; I was fully a participant in the drama of the event. That was the transformation I was after, and in "The Iron Lung" I finally reached what I wanted. It made all the other poems possible.
Greene: Throughout your career, you have used the sonnet both formally and informally—the sonnet standing alone or as a stanza or in sequence. Discuss your fascination with the form.
Plumly: Well, that's our haiku, our core concentrated poem. No matter how you mix up the forms, combine the forms—Shakespearean compared to the Petrarchan—it still has a beginning, a middle, and an end. By the end, I don't mean the closing couplet. That's a problem. To me, that couplet was always a wasted two lines. It made it a 12-line poem. I saw the sonnet as an opportunity to write those 14 lines and cover a certain space and time and tell a certain story, or a part of a story, and get out. The form itself, historically, gave me permission to do that, as it has for many poets. I think 12- or 13-line poems can be sonnets in their way. I'm thinking, for example, of Roethke's wonderful "Dolor." Eighteen-line poems can be a version of an octave and sestet. Berryman's Dream Songs are 18 lines. Now some of those are tucked lines, but those are essentially sonnet extensions and explosions, and he himself wrote sonnet sequences. The Dream Songs were not possible without the sonnet.
Greene: You contend that "free verse" is a misnomer. The debate over form has polarized some American poets. Where do you feel your work fits in?
Plumly: There were many books published in this decade that address this question and continually, some more than others, divide us. There is that group out there, the so-called neoformalists or whatever, the reactionaries, the formalist reactionaries, who still insist on this difference, which in American poetry, in particular, is so unnecessary. It's nonsense. I'm working on an essay right now which is a revisiting of that long piece that I did for American Poetry Review 20 years ago where I say, at one moment almost in exasperation, all poetry is language poetry, all poetry is formal, and all poetry is free. And I explain that. How can it not be? The trouble is that so-called free verse is more difficult to talk about since it isn't and can't be canonized in any particular way. If you look at a particular poet's work, at W.S. Merwin, for example, at a certain point in his career as against other Merwin poems, you can see what he's doing in his various open forms. I can't think of a poet who hasn't moved from so-called formality to openness, or what we loosely call openness. Why haven't they moved from openness to formality? And what does that mean? It doesn't mean that they have sacrificed one for the other. It means that they have taken those forms, whether they'd become too strict or habitual, too dominating, too parental, and found a way to give them more life or breath, a different kind of resonance. That doesn't mean that the poems in Robert Lowell's Life Studies, which actually have a lot of rhyme and meter in them, are any less formal. In a way we are talking about the appearance of form, or apparent form and unapparent form. I know that's not a very good word—apparent—but a word that would stand in there. That's what we're really talking about. That's an interesting discussion, and it's an international discussion. Other cultures don't have this problem. It seems to be a particularly American problem. When I talk about Whitman and Dickinson to students, I always talk about the formality of Whitman and the freedom in Dickinson, how she's working against the hymnal closet-that's a mixed metaphor, but that's what she worked herself into. Whitman is trying to unify and pull into some kind of cohesion all that stuff that seems to be growing organically out of his brain. I think it's an arbitrary difference between the two of them, and it suggests to me that we still have people in the culture who are royalists, seeking other forms of order.
Greene: When writing the poem "Summer Celestial," you stated that the seven-line stanza dictated the poem—seven lines, seven stanzas. Do you often set such assignments for yourself?
Plumly: No, that's a failed sestina. Mark Strand once referred to that poem in a conversation as a septina. And it is, except that the repeated words are within the text; they're not outstanding to the line. I wanted to write a sestina, but it wouldn't stay. I thought, just go with it. So is that free? That's a point to make. It's not just formal; it's a form I'm playing with too, which I do with the sonnet sometimes, but here with an extra line. At last, the story wouldn't stay in the margins, so it had to go on.
Greene: In The Marriage in the Trees and some of your recent poetry, you've explored the prose poem. How did you come to use this form?
Plumly: I backed into it, I think. All those prose poems were written in lines, and you can hear the lines. I just didn't feel that the lineation of the poem could hold the continuity. The verse yielded to the sense of continuum, to going on and on and on, and not holding that rest, not holding that silence at the end of the line. I have a few poems that are quite long-lined, and in those cases, there is something holding the line in place. Here there's something about the consciousness of the poem, the state of consciousness in the experience that moved it from verse to prose. But, nevertheless, the poems are very concentrated, the energies are very concentrated, the language is very focused, the rhythms of the sentences are essentially iambic to anapestic. You can hear that. If there was a false note, I'd adjust that, reword, but the adjustment would always be made in the direction of verse. We all know that prose has a rhythm and cadence. Prose poetry accentuates and even accelerates those principles in prose. I think probably Richard Howard said this originally, and he's right—poetry really is prose. But there's something else in that too; there's other content in that insight, that poetry is prose, that it's not just language and surface. That emotion—or thought, as Emerson calls it—is a priori to the language. It determines rhythm.
Greene: You wrote that a poem, for you, is a form of speech that is distinguished from everyday discourse. Besides fixed forms, etc., do you also mean alliteration and anaphora, the emotive stance of a preacher or statesmen, for example, to drive a point home?
Plumly: You could say that the basic diction of most modern poetry, and certainly contemporary poetry, is an elevated colloquial speech. Eliot says, "Poets are just talking to someone." But it's also colloquy; it's an elevated kind of conversation, the kind you might find in drama. But it's the degree of elevation, the degree of enhancement, the degree of engineering that makes the difference. But what is the source? We're not writing in Latin. We're not writing from some form of language that's meant for the page but not for the street. We're essentially writing from the other direction, from the street, and applying certain verbal and vocal principles, however consciously or unconsciously, to that speech to give it a sense of memory. As Auden once said, "The best definition of poetry is the oldest-memorable speech," with the emphasis on speech. Poetry is not song. Speech is very important here because it isn't anonymous. Someone is voicing the speech, and that speaker is clear in every lyric poem, whether the speaker is off-stage or at the center. That's why I think all lyric poems are "I" poems, whether it's a stated "I" or not. All the persons in grammar are the permutations of the "I," whether it's third person or second person. It's the same in poetry. That makes a tremendous difference, the fact that someone is speaking. Where does the speech originate? It's speech you grew up with, it's speech you discourse your daily life with, it's the quotidian of the world in which you live. What gives it life on the page when there is no one there to speak it, no one there to elevate it? The poem has to speak for itself, and the way it speaks for itself is through the engineering. What is the prosody of free verse? It's not that far from old-fashioned prosody, classic prosody—assonance, consonance, surprise. Rhyme is only assonance and consonance hyped a little bit. The same word doesn't rhyme. You have to vary it. Is that free? Yes. That's where the freedom is, but that's what makes it rhyme too.
Greene: Dichotomies, or even contraries, bring out the tensions in a poet's work. So many of your poems are physical, about the body, and yet you also maintain a poetry of aesthetic distancing, Keatsean at times, in subjects such as birds, suicides, or the English painters. Do you see this as a source of tension in your work?
Plumly: Yes. The question is always, where is the voice calling from? I think that teachers, especially those who teach in workshops, make a terrible mistake in asking who is speaking. It doesn't matter who is speaking. That takes care of itself. But where you're speaking from, how far you are from the material emotionally, or how close you are, makes all the difference. I seem closer to the material in a poem like "Strays" and farther away in a poem about Caravaggio or the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, when, in fact, that isn't necessarily the case. Tonally it may feel that way, but from the writer's perspective, it wasn't at all like that. This question of emotional distance—it's a terrible phrase for it—but it does kind of describe it—it's paramount. You see it in everyone's work. It depends on the material, how much gravity it has, as to how close you'll be or how far away. It's almost physics. A certain specific gravity will force you to be closer and warmer, therefore closer to the atmosphere of that place, that planet, that material. Other material will not be so compelling. You'll be further away; you'll still see it, but you'll see it perhaps more totally, more completely than you would otherwise. So that sense of distance makes all the difference, and relative tension.
Greene: While so many poets use classical mythology and refer to the Greek and Latin poets, you prefer to return to English culture—the English Romantics in particular, both in poetry and painting. Do you find your roots there?
Plumly: Yes. I think it's crucial, period, not just for me. Also the Bible in English. I think there are two essential moments in our literary history in terms of our language—the King James version of the Bible and the Romantic movement. You just can't get around them. Take a look at the more recent translations, and you can see that the Bible has been sent to the laundry. It's been starched as much as possible, ironed to reach the simplest standard. It argues against translation, especially considering how Romantic the King James Bible can be.
Then those Romantics, those English Romantics. Powerful. You can't get past them. Modernism is really another version of Romanticism. That's what worries me about postmodernism. What is it? That's been an issue lately. It's become a question of whom we respect and whom we read. We have a plurality right now of aesthetics in the poetry world. There's no question about it. Some people are coming down on one side, some on another. I suppose the general divide has to do with those in the thrall of what I would call theory dynamics, mechanics, what's loosely called language poetry. Those language poets are trying to include more and more people. It's like they're enlarging the club. They want to admit more members to keep themselves going. And then there are those of us who are coming out of a more familiar tradition having to do with the old-fashioned virtues that one finds in the canon, all those expectations that came to fruition in the New Criticism and then were rejected by those who wrote against it.
Greene: Literary friendships or liaisons are unique and important. You are the literary executor for William Matthews. What was he like?
Plumly: His son and I have just put together a new book of miscellaneous prose that the University of Michigan Press will publish soon. They did his other book of prose, Curiosities. This one is called The Poetry Blues, and I think it's even more dynamic and interesting than Curiosities. That's probably an unnecessary comparison, but this book has its own strength and kind of haphazard wildness. That's something Bill would never tolerate. Bill was, in some ways, not a Romantic, or he was a Byronic—there's a word in there too, ironic—Romantic, in the sense that Byron was really an 18th-century poet. Byron hated being called a Romantic. He saw himself as Pope's inheritor, hence a satirist. That is Byron's greatest gift. Often he's the subject of his own satire. And Bill is along the line of that spectrum. He's a brilliant satirist. There's brilliant satire in his work; that's what I mean. He is not really writing satire in the broadest sense of the term, as a genre. But he is a supreme ironist. Auden is also another model, or Nabokov. So Bill was someone in constant tension with the artifice of what he was doing, and that carried over into his life too. There was this sense of his life being created, invented, and attended to the way the artist would attend to the work. He rewrote his letters. He planned everything—meals, the day's schedule. He was a terrifically organized guy, if you could see his desk. I say all of this about Bill because there was so much in his life that was a mess. Everyone knows this; this is not a secret. His personal life was disorganized and often confusing, confusing mostly to him. He was certainly the cause, and he took responsibility for that. But in terms of his work, in terms of the artistic part of his life, his music, his attitude about wine, his knowledge, then his poems too, his work in prose as well, his teaching, all of those areas—it was all done with a terrific attention to the artifice of the event. But I think there's the soul of the Romantic in there too. It's often in conflict or in tension with this other artist. Everyone who knew Bill felt terrific affection for him and understood that they were in the presence of someone they wouldn't ever meet again. He was completely unique and superior. Beyond that, if you were really his good friend, what you came to appreciate about him was his loyalty and honesty. This is why he was such a good judge—his impartiality. That's why he was good on committees, good at picking winners of this and that contest. It irritated me because he never played favorites and he was a democrat. Through his own sense of himself as such a patrician—this is a paradox, I suppose; maybe a quality we assign him in retrospect—he was the ultimate democrat. He did not discriminate among poets, between poets, only their poetry. It's one of the reasons he kept publishing everywhere when he could have published in just the top magazines. If he was asked by someone who needed to have a poem to help beef up the table of contents, Bill would do that. I rarely do that, but of course I don't have as many poems as he had. I tend to be much more selective than he was, but to his great credit he was generous.
Greene: It seems interesting that your book will be coming out in the next millennium and you've also turned 60. I sense in your new poetry that you might be putting to bed some old obsessions. Where do you see your work moving?
Plumly: I don't think I've even begun to examine the natural world. I've looked at the cardinal here, the redwing there, the diseased Dutch elm, and the almost unnatural natural world—what's become of it, but not in a documentary sense. I've looked at it as a part of memory, outside the moment. We can even have a nostalgia for buildings too. I learned that in Prague. I've lived in London quite a bit, and you can see the juxtaposition of the natural and artificial especially there. The English are terrible at the modern, but they're great at the old. Is it possible to build the old? Old has a naturalness to it. Look at the year 2000 and ahead. Is that a world we want to go into? Or do we pull back? Look back? I wonder how this new and selected book is going to be received. I'm sure there will be people who will dislike it immensely now that it's all together. Or for those that like it, I'm wondering if the work is going to be seen as nostalgic for a world that doesn't exist anymore, kind of a dream that happened. Someone had the dream. Someone understood, whether by means of memory or not, that the imagination is the real reality, the ultimate arbiter.
This is the great thing about Wallace Stevens and why I think he is right now the 21st-century poet. These dream issues are constants in his work. I don't think we've even begun to understand him that way. I think that the next reading of Stevens is the kind of writing I'm trying to get at. Where the poems are resonant of some clear but unspecified emotional source, someone's memory, but that seem to have no one in particular starring in them. The speaker in a Stevens poem seems to have no autobiographical life whatsoever, so the emotion feels oddly distant, almost overheard, overfelt. Yet I think that his poems echo a deeply emotional, deeply personal world, so personal that the details of the individual life or actual life in the natural world have merged or blurred into correlatives of certain colors, certain seasons, certain images, certain generalizations that read like archetypes without being exactly archetypal. This is the purity of voice, of image in Stevens, this allusive life won from the imagination. The language poets want to appropriate this self-referencing in Stevens because he was a brilliant writer, a wonderful user of language—they should want to since they don't seem very interested in or capable of writing well, of representing. But I think there is a story in Stevens; I think there is a narrative there—having an emotional life at all, in itself, is a narrative. You feel this basis in Stevens, intensified because it is so indirect, unapparent, the real subject, as he once said, as opposed to the first subject. Narrative is a priori to the music of the poem, as much as music may embody it. The story, though, has yet to be really looked at in Stevens the way it's often exploited in other writers of his generation—Eliot, for example, or Williams. Maybe I'm having a pipedream. But is there a way for us to represent ourselves in poems without confession or victimization or sentimentalizing and still represent the story without persona or prose? Stevens is the great poet of tone, beyond irony, even memory in the common sense. The one suffering yet the mind observing—a condition Eliot describes as a dissociation but that in Stevens is a synthesis, a reconciliation, though that doesn't diminish the tragic light around his poems. In my real old age, in the 21st century, now that would be a poetry to write.
Jeffrey Greene is the author oftwo books of poems, American Spirituals and To the Left of the Worshipper, and a memoir, French Spirits, forthcoming from Morrow/HarperCollins.