David Baker, Jill Bialosky, Liz Countryman, Patrick Phillips, and Maggie Smith


Tribute to Stanley Plumly

The following is a transcript of a panel presented on March 5, 2021, as part of AWP’s virtual conference.


David Baker (moderator)

[Reads from “Early Meadow-Rue” by Stanley Plumly]:

The fields in fog, the low, dull resonance of morning.


There never was an old country.

Only this privacy, the dream life of the deaf,

the girl looking into the mirror above her head,

prone in paralysis.

                                        And this one loneliness,

poverty or purity of choice, driving cold

in the general direction of the sun before dawn,

coffee in the truck, and bread, the cab light on,

and nobody, nobody else on the airstrip of the road,


going to work.

It turns out Stanley Plumly is always a little bit ahead of us. He was a great rememberer, of his family, the haunted hard-worked landscape of Ohio and Virginia. He was a great scholar and lover of the past—Keats’s Hampstead and Rome, Constable’s haunted clouded skies, Whitman’s torn soldiers, Turner and Wordsworth and the ghosts of Stan’s own life, like Bill Matthews and Deborah Digges and his mother, his father, his uncles working through the day into night.

Here he is already ahead of us in a beautiful short poem, “Early Meadow-Rue,” from about forty-five years ago, out of that great book Out-of-the-Body Travel. Stanley in the morning, Stanley as the sun comes up, Stan awake hours before we’re awake, and waiting for us, and then coating those first minutes with a precision and lyric gorgeousness that shake us more fully alert and attuned. That’s probably Mary Neal, that girl “prone in paralysis”; her polio iron lung recurs through decades of Stan’s poems. Maybe that’s his father in the truck cab, going to work? Or maybe that’s Stanley, his father’s shadow. But Stan is also here with us in our virtual room, where he’s been waiting quite a while.

My name is David Baker. Stanley Plumly had no children, but generations of students and thousands of friends are his family. Can you name another poet for whom friendship was a more powerful tissue of connection? A poet whose poems themselves are often like the embrace of friendship? “Adhesion,” Whitman called it. Did you ever try to walk down a hallway or across a crowded room with Stan? How far did you get before someone stopped him, and wanted to talk, or touch his sleeve, or thank him?—for a letter, a book, a blurb, a class, a kindness, any of the many generosities we all felt and received.

We are not here for a funeral, not a wake. This is a tribute—it is, I hope, a celebration of gratitude and our happy acknowledgment for a friend—maybe a dear friend, maybe an acquaintance—who remains one of the great lyric poets of our lifetimes. Stanley Plumly.

Here’s a word about each of our four commentators today. Each will say more—about the nature of her work, about his relationship with Stan. All were—and still are, I know—students of Stan’s, of one kind or another, at Maryland or Iowa or Ohio University or in his work—as we all are, students of his poems and recipients of the gift of his friendships.

Jill Bialosky is, like Stanley Plumly, an Ohioan. She is author of four books of poems with a fifth, Asylum, coming out later this year from Knopf, and the author of five books of prose, of both fiction and nonfiction. Jill lives in Manhattan, where for many years she’s served as vice president and executive editor of W. W. Norton and Company.

Liz Countryman is the author of A Forest Almost, from Subito Press in 2017. She received her MFA from the University of Maryland in 2006. Liz lives in Columbia, South Carolina, where she teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina and co-edits the annual poetry journal Oversound

Patrick Phillips is the author of three books of poems as well as the American Book Award–winning Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. His translation of selected poems of the Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt, When We Leave Each Other, appeared in 2013. Patrick teaches at Stanford University in California.

Maggie Smith is another Ohioan, the author of four books of poems and the bestselling nonfiction book Keep Moving, as well as an internationally celebrated poem, “Good Bones.” Maggie took her degrees from Ohio Wesleyan and The Ohio State University; lives with her two children in Bexley, Ohio; and is my colleague this semester at Denison University.



Jill Bialosky

Good morning. I’m Jill Bialosky. It’s very good to be here today to talk about Stanley Plumly. It’s hard to know what one’s life might be if a certain individual hadn’t crossed one’s path. I think of Stan in this way. I wrote about the experience of meeting him for the first time in my book Poetry Will Save Your Life. I was nineteen years old and an English major at Ohio University, where Stan allowed me into his graduate poetry workshop after reading a small sampler of a few of my nascent early poems. I want to read you a few paragraphs about that experience from Poetry Will Save Your Life and then read one of his earlier poems, “My Mother’s Feet,” that was published in Poetry magazine in 1983 and is in his collection Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems, 1970–2000.

In the classroom in Ellis Hall that held our poetry seminar, its open windows facing on the college green, I am both excited and anxious. I’ve never written a serious poem before, only jottings in diaries and notebooks. With this shock of salt-and-pepper hair and matching beard, and his gentle yet commanding voice, our professor-poet tells us to write poems about what we know and what hurts. Every week he passes out copies of our poems freshy printed on mimeographed paper—I can still recall the paper’s sharp smell of metallic purple ink—and if we defy his assignment by writing poems with generic or meaningless subject matter, he balls up the poem and tosses it into the wastebasket.

I lived under the impression that one must hide hurt and pain, that sadness and sorrow are reserved for the solitude of one’s own private world. I go back to my dorm and think about what my poet-teacher has said. What I know has to do with my childhood and being born into a world of grief and loss and I have been given permission to write about it. My desk faces the window. Outside, it is snowing, an unexpected snowfall in late autumn before all the leaves have fallen and white flakes begin to fill the college green. I remember the snowy winters of my childhood, and the memories evoke a mood I want to capture. But how? Images spring forth. Sisters playing in the snow. A widow in her bed. Houseplants on a windowsill. A tall tree in the yard spreading its fatherly branches over the house. I write into that world of sadness and sorrow I experienced as a young child. Over time the verse evolves into a poem in ten small parts called “Fathers in the Snow.” For years, I’ve been trapped inside my own strange fear and grief and now it is liberated into verse.

The idea that poetry should take as its subject matter the painful aspects of my existence opens a new way of thinking for me. I seem to have been waiting for it. I realize that through the artfulness of poetic form, one can trap experience and make it palpable to a reader. A poem might be about what hurts, and most illuminating, the subject might be drawn from one’s own life. A poem could be both personal and communal and save a person from the dark shadow of shame. It may take as its form an address to a person, real or imagined, historical or alive today. It might be an off-kilter love letter to someone as significant as one’s mother. 


My Mother’s Feet


How no shoe fit them,

and how she used to prop them,

having dressed for bed,

letting the fire in the coal-stove blue


and blink out, falling asleep in her chair.

How she bathed and dried them, night after night,

and rubbed their soreness like an intimacy.

How she let the fire pull her soft body through them.


She was the girl who grew just standing,

the one the picture cut at the knees.

She was the girl who seemed to be dancing

out on the lawn, after supper, alone.


I have watched her climb the militant stairs

And down again, watched the ground go out from under her.

I have seen her on the edge of chances—

she fell, when she fell, like a girl.


Someone who loved her said she walked on water.

Where there is no path nor wake. As a child

I would rise in the half-dark of the house,

from a bad dream or a noisy window,


something, almost, like snow in the air,

and wander until I could find those feet, propped

and warm as a bricklayer’s hands,

every step of the way shining out of them. 

Without a doubt, Stan opened the door to my love of poetry and its necessity. He cared deeply and critically about craft, style, artfulness, but also about the heartbeat and intelligence of a poem and the private engagement of its gift to the reader.

After Ohio University, we crossed paths at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop where he was a visiting professor and again, serendipitously, I was his student. Years later, he showed up for my first poetry reading at Barnard to celebrate my first book of poetry, The End of Desire, and surprised me by giving an introduction.

I met him again, at a BEA [BookExpo America] Conference in Washington, D.C., this time with my editor’s hat at the Norton booth, and he gave me a big hug. And then he took me aside, and said, in Stan’s way, hey kiddo would you like to see my prose manuscript. It’s about Keats. He’d been working on it for twenty years. He later sent it to me and that was the beginning where our roles reversed, and I became the editor of his masterful Posthumous Keats.

We worked on four books of poetry, the last Middle Distance and his prose trilogy about immortality through art: Posthumous Keats;The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb; and Elegy Landscapes: Constable and Turner and the Intimate Sublime.

I want to tell you about the publishing process of his last book, Middle Distance. Stan had organized the manuscript before he died, knowing like Keats it would be published posthumously. In Posthumous Keats he quotes a letter Keats wrote in November 1820, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

He chose the image he wanted on the cover of Middle Distance. Here is what he wrote to me and Drew, my assistant at Norton, about it in February of 2019:

My next (and last) single collection of poems (I think I’ve got about a year, maybe two left): I have a crazy notion of what I’d like in order to avoid the cover cliché of a “middle distance.” No landscapes, for one thing. (Not long ago the Paul Mellon Centre put together a show of Thomas Gainsborough which is now a book . On p. 88 of this text is the only “work of sculpture” Gainsborough ever produced—c. 1740, “The Old Horse.” I’m not sure how “old” but it feels ancient to me—a kind of development on its way to being fully formed. There’s a way, I’m sure, of allowing this strange work its integrity on the front cover, with only the title, my name, etc. This horse really is in the “middle distance.” 

I’m going to read a sonnet, a love poem, from Middle Distance called “Bluebird.” He loved birds, as everyone who has read him knows.



The house was strange, even for a summer house,

cold somehow, the wraparound screened porch

almost cut off by the trees, though the trees, off

and on, would come alive with bluebirds, birds

so tame they would follow on the mountain path

down to the small home lake, chur-wi, tru-ly,

chur-wi, tru-ly, over and over, in bird English.


Had I ever seen a bluebird so bright a blue?—

a blue easily confused with happiness. I didn’t

even know a bluebird was a thrush. I knew

and loved you, that was enough. These blues,

as you called them, were yours: they seemed

to fly in and out of your hands. The lake was one

of those mirror-like lakes. And the house was yours. 



Liz Countryman

There have been many moments since I left D.C. in 2006 when I wished I could hear Stan’s wisdom on a given topic. And since his death, even more so. He seemed to have immediate access to deep truths about poetry. But as I put my thoughts together about Stan’s teaching, I also realize that the wisdom he offered me didn’t make things easier. It did something else.

I can remember leaving his office after a meeting about my poems feeling full of luminous truths, but having no way, even as I stepped out of his door, of paraphrasing what I had just learned. I think it was more the feeling of truth—a sudden awareness of the bright world around me, a sudden respect for the actual events of my own dumb life (as I then thought of it), a tingling feeling of fear as birds and cars and bicycles passed by me on my walk home, and the urgency to confront what Stan calls in The Practice of Poetry “the terror of the original blank page.” When I tried to sit down and write after this meeting with Stan, which is really a composite memory, it is likely that I failed to write anything good. He understood, and he made us understand, that poetry is hard. Often, after a conversation with Stan, I came away reassured simply that the difficulty I was experiencing, in my work or in my life, was real, and that it was the stuff of poetry. I saw my problems differently, in the context of the larger, ongoing story of poets writing poems. I didn’t always know what to do about what I was facing, but I felt the energy of knowing I am a poet.

I recall that a lot of the time in workshop, and in one-on-one meetings with Stan, was spent in a kind of full silence, where I knew that questions hung in the air. Stan was worried when we all started getting internet access in our apartments, that we wouldn’t get to feel the necessary solitude of night. I remember him saying something to the effect of “There has to be a time of day when nothing can answer back.”

In his essay “Lyric Yoga,” Stan describes the influence of Quaker ritual on his life as a poet:

I blame, in part, my sometimes inability to sit still on those hours of hardwood silence endured at meeting. Even the adults, I remember thinking, must be speaking up in order to relieve the body’s boredom. I finally stopped going and ultimately chose to meditate and articulate by other means: in solitude and at the typewriter.

What I took away from Quaker collective meditation was the good sense of stillness—not so much its length in time as its presence within the space of things, which translated as the need for reflection, a sense of order and mindfulness, a way to reach the insights of contemplation, the deep interior moment. The Quaker concept of the inner light became an opportunity for self-interrogation, self-witness. Giving witness, I later remembered, was exactly what meeting was all about.

Stillness within the self, within the silence. Being alone is what writing is about. Writing is giving witness. In my attention-deficit years, sitting in meeting in relative motionlessness inside a cave of Quaker rectitude was difficult enough; the thought of having to stand—worse than in school—and speak from whatever shallow depths of my being I could muster was paralyzing. My tongue turned to wood, hardwood. When I started, seriously, to write I learned that being alone with blank white paper was no less intimidating, no less a publicity. I also learned that stillness was inwardness and a way to prepare to speak, the deep dream and daydream the content of the words. Writing became the restlessness answering the stillness. 

The silence of meditation is both a comfort and a terrifying call to action. Stan’s teaching was equal parts challenge and reassurance. Do the work and the rest will take care of itself.

He wanted us to take worthwhile risks in our poems. In his essay “The Abrupt Edge,” Stan says that for a moment of recurrence or return to carry force, we need to cross into an unsafe place and come back changed: “So we say life and death, as if that were the edge of ultimate concern to the imagination, when the real edge is between life and more life, memory and wish. The powerful imagination does not work, as every good poem reminds us, unless it comes to an edge, makes its pass, and, one way or another, returns.” He also challenged us to be our real selves in our poems, and for the world of the poem to be real. There is no way of faking our way to a good poem. He says in “Words on Birdsong”: “Poets cannot make things up.” The flip side of that statement is that memory’s associations are part of the real. The vital difference he draws is between lying and transformation. He goes on: “Poets make things from—from memory; from matter that cannot be changed, only transformed; from the rock of fact that may disappear, eventually, from erosion but that cannot be willed, out of hand, to evaporate.” He reminded us students that our poems should embody our experience rather than generalizing about it. And that if archetype were to grace our poems, the form of its arrival would always be new to us. And that we would sort of be okay if we commit to the truth of what our poems say even as they surprise us, if we honor what we can’t escape, if we read deeply and keep learning for as long as we live, if we never feel that the work is finished.

My MFA cohort and I adored Stan. Our affection for him strengthened our bond with one another. We quoted his pithy sayings over cheap wine. But maybe what most made him a great teacher to us—beyond his wise way of talking about poems, beyond the breadth of his knowledge, his humor, his example, the way he embodied what he taught us—what made us feel luckiest of all was his recognition of who we were. He was somehow able to see the character of our work before we could even grasp it ourselves. I look back at who I was when I started my studies at Maryland, and I know that recognition was a turning point in my life, a gift that forever changed me.

To me, Stan could make withering criticism feel lucky and generous. To have him poke fun at one of my poems always made me feel not shut out of poetry but inexplicably welcomed in, welcomed to do better thinking, to work harder at words. I guess it was because the criticism seemed driven by this deeper truth, which is that we students were all poets, all part of this flawed family.

Our conversations with Stan don’t seem done. When he died, I spoke to many of his former students who felt his wisdom suddenly returning to them upon hearing the news—but still, those remembered lessons are almost impossible to reduce to an explanation or paraphrase. Rereading his essays, I can’t help but feel, as he seems to, that poetry is blessedly outside of time, and that the conversations that have been the most formative and meaningful for each of us will remain unfinished, and that the feverish frenzy of learning about poetry in my twenties is still real and unresolved.

I’ll end with the final paragraph of Stan’s essay “Words on Birdsong”:

Language, as such, is not the source of poetry. At best, language can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, like the wave that starts so far from shore it seems self-generated. The spirit in the wind, the heartache, the longing—these are what start poems. And these things are not nothing. They themselves come from the substance of experience, palpable, fundamental experience, with the force of gravity fixing them in our common lives, our common memory, to be passed along, rewritten, and passed along again. The selfsame song, says Keats, is both a voice and a music, a plaintive anthem, a night bird on the wing, yet it is also only words. The sources of the words, the words, for instance, of Keats’s pale manuscript, can never be known except as they are manifest in the work, in the words. But the reader must feel the force of where the words are calling from if the words themselves are to have force—force of conviction, force of fact. How many facts are there? Not many—the rest is detail.

[These remarks include quotes from a few of Stan’s essays, including “Words on Birdsong,” “Lyric Yoga,” and “The Abrupt Edge” from Argument & Song and “The Rewrite as Assignment” from the anthology The Practice of Poetry, ed. Robin Behn and Chase Twichell.]



Patrick Phillips


Mine Own Stan Plumly



Thank you so much, and thanks to everyone for coming to this tribute. My name is Patrick Phillips, and it’s my honor to talk about Stanley Plumly as a teacher and mentor, and someone who had a profound influence on generations of young poets.

I was Stan’s student at the University of Maryland in what feels like the late Pleistocene: from 1993 to 1995. That period was so brief—really just eighteen months—that it’s a bit of a mystery even to me that I’m still replaying, and rethinking, and mulling over things I heard Stan say almost thirty years ago.

But as many people watching this will surely know, that’s the way it is when you encounter a great teacher: their influence can be so powerful that it’s almost impossible to take in the experience, and one spends decades trying to remember what happened and to riddle out what it all means.

Such a teacher was Stan for me in the mid-nineties, and to summon him across the Styx this way, to call his absent presence into our midst, is not all unfamiliar to me. For more than half my life, Plumly has been the ghost hovering over my desk, reading over my shoulder, the very idea of him shaping my poems even as they were being written and, far more often than not, tossed in the trash.

He has been there ever since I first came to his office as a goofy young pup, and felt the terror, the grandeur, and the unimaginable luck, of having such a poet roll up his sleeves, raise his reading glasses, and squint down at what I’d written. Ever since, Stan has been in my mind the great conscience of the art of poetry—urging us not to lie, not to puff up or bullshit, not to betray our own poems out of vanity, or faddishness, or plain old laziness and sloth.

That’s because the greatest lesson on offer was never something Stan said in workshop, but rather the example of Plumly himself: his deep silences; his oak-tree patience; and his lifelong commitment to poetry as a practice, a calling, a way of making that was inseparable from his way of living.

I know from meeting the generations of students who came before and after me that Stan has been that same kind of ghost-father to countless others, so I’m honored to pay tribute to him today, in all his brilliance and hilarity and fierceness. Stan the sage, Stan the trickster.

The way to summon a poet, of course, is to read from the text, so I want to begin with a few brief quotes from Argument & Song and then close with two poems.



Stan’s collection of essays—Argument & Song: Sources and Silences in Poetry—has been a longtime companion for many of us, as it allows any former student, from any era of his long teaching career, to rewind the tape of Stanley at the conference table . . . to slow things down, and dwell on his abiding obsessions, and to hear again some of his most oracular, enigmatic, and brilliant ideas about the art.

Grand pronouncements from the Book of Stan were a hallmark of his teaching when I was twenty-three, and it was exactly the same when I sat in on his workshop just a few years before he died. Across all that time, Stan remained fearless about saying exactly whyhe thought a poem was good or bad, and exactly how he thought good poems got made. Best of all, while Stan would often make his declarations while staring you down with his great owl eyes, he was just as likely to crack up right in the middle of the sermon, and collapse in boyish laughter. This is the great paradox that made me love him so much: being in Stan’s workshop was terrifying and, at the same time, thrilling, joyful. It was uproarious good fun. Even as a young fool, I knew that becoming his student was one of the luckiest things that ever happened in my life.

So here, from Argument & Song, are a half dozen snapshots of Stan the Man in full flight: still teaching us even from the grave.

1. “The power of the poem lies in the degree to which the poet surrenders to the material.”

    1. “The task of the maker, as we go along, is to perfect what is at hand from what has been provided . . . from that which we have already seeded and lived through and made.”
    2. “The story in the sentence is the story of the sentence.”
    3. “Anyone who writes a poem [is] a connector . . . to the poetry of the past, to specific, relevant poems, and [becomes], in turn, a transmitter of poetry into the future . . . to specific, relevant poems.”
    4. “The tenderness of any poem depends on the skepticism of a full form filled . . .”

“Full form” meaning full disclosure—sometimes of the story . . . but always of the emotion. And finally, on what poetry meant for his own life:

6. “Sitting in the room you write in, you sit within the tangle and the winter mist. The leaves have long since blown into the corners. You sit there with the hard language and memory in front of you and you feel yourself disappearing. Wonderful. These fragments I have shored against my ruins. 

I want to end this shameless love fest with two of those fragments Stanley “shored against his ruin,” which make clear the real reason so many of us have remained Stan’s students even decades after his ghost first appeared over our shoulders. I learned a great deal listening to Stan, but even more from reading his poems, which contain the most important lessons of all: how little one knows, how much there is to learn, and just how high the bar’s been set.

Out-of-the-Body Travel



And then he would lift this finest

of furniture to his big left shoulder

and tuck it in and draw the bow

so carefully as to make the music


almost visible on the air. And play

and play until a whole roomful of the sad

relatives mourned. They knew this was

drawing of blood, threading and rethreading


the needle. They saw even in my father’s

face how well he understood the pain

he put them to–his raw, red cheek

pressed against the cheek of the wood . . .





And in one stroke he brings the hammer

down, like mercy, so that the young bull’s

legs suddenly fly out from under it . . .

While in the dream he is the good angel



in Chagall, the great ghost of his body

like light over the town. The violin

sustains him. It is pain remembered.

Either way, I know if I wake up cold,


and go out into the clear spring night,

still dark and precise with stars,

I will feel the wind coming down hard

like his hand, in fever, on my forehead.



At Night


When did I know that I’d have to carry it around
in order to have it when I need it, say in a pocket,

the dark itself not dark enough but needing to be
added to, handful by handful if necessary, until

the way my mother would sit all night in a room
without the lights, smoking, until she disappeared?

Where would she go, because I would go there.
In the morning, nothing but a blanket and all her

absence and the feeling in the air of happiness.
And so much loneliness, a kind of purity of being

and emptiness, no one you are or could ever be,
my mother like another me in another life, gone

where I will go, night now likely dark enough
I can be alone as I’ve never been alone before. 

Thank you all so much for listening. And thank you, Stanley, for being your whole, lion-maned self with your students, and for passing on your lion-hearted devotion to the art of poetry. We love and miss you terribly.



Maggie Smith

I want to read the opening poems from Orphan Hours and Against Sunset. This is “Lapsed Meadows” from Orphan Hours.

Lapsed Meadows 

Wild has its skills. The apple grew so close
to the ground it seemed the tree was thicket,
crab, and root, and by fall would look like brush
among the burdock and the hawkweed, as if at heart
it had been cut and piled for burning.
Along the edges, at the corners, like failed fence,
the hawthorns, by comparison, seemed planted.
Everywhere else there was broom grass, timothy,
and wood fern, and sometimes a sapling,
sometimes a run of hazel; sometimes, depending,
fruit still green or grounded and rotting underfoot.
I remember, in Ohio, fields of wastes of nature,
lost pasture, fallow clearings, buckwheat
and fireweed and broken sparrow nests,
especially in the summer, in the fading hilltop sun,
when you could lose yourself by simply lying down.
Who will find you, who will call you home now, at dusk,
with the dry tips of the goldenrod confused,
with a little wind, filling in for what’s left of the light? 

And this is “Dutch Elm” from Against Sunset. When Stan and I talked about this poem at Kenyon one summer, he was remembering looking down the avenues as a boy, and he said, “It was like a cathedral ceiling the way they would branch over.”

Dutch Elm


I miss the elms, their “crowns of airy dreams,”

as Virgil calls them, their towering cathedral branching

spread into a ceiling above the lonely sidewalks of Ohio

where the first elm deaths were reported in America.

I miss in particular the perspective looking down

the distances of all those Elm-named streets disappearing

into dusk, the last sun turned the stained blue of church windows.

I miss standing there, letting the welcome dark make me invisible.

I miss the birds starting to sleep, their talking in their songs becoming

silent, then their silence. I even miss not standing there.

And I miss a life of nothing but such moments, as if they’d never

happened and all you had to go on was their memory

and the feeling in the memory forgotten but brought back

again and again because you miss someone you loved forever. 

I look at the phrases “looking down / the distances” and “letting the welcome dark make me invisible” from “Dutch Elm,” and the image of lying in a field in Ohio “in the fading hilltop sun, / when you could lose yourself by simply lying down” from “Lapsed Meadows,” and I think about how so many of Stan’s poems are elegies. How so many now read as pre-elegies to the self—which will be made invisible, which will be lost.

Stan once told me that the one thing he could never write was fiction. He said he had no capacity for inventing or making anything up. All of his writing, whether poetry or prose, had to come out of a sense of real history or personal memory. As he phrased it, “My wheels are always spinning backwards.”

So many of Stan’s poems turn toward the past—childhood in particular—but they exist in two places at once. That’s the poetry of memory: we’re remembering an experience, but at the same time we’re here, with our consciousness now, our perspective, and that past experience is colored—soaked through with a kind of dye—because of who we are in the present.

Stan was my friend and teacher, though not a teacher in a traditional sense. I was not his student, but I learned more from him about poetry and about writing than perhaps from any teacher I’ve ever had.

The best writing advice I ever received was from Stan. It wasn’t about line breaks or diction or the rhythms of sentences. It was about protecting the inner life.

At the end of an email dated August 30, 2017, he wrote: “Stay deep within yourself and stay alone there—that is where your poems come from, and that has nothing to do with an audience. You are the audience.”

So I’ll leave attendees with that advice. “Stay deep within yourself and stay alone there. You are the audience.”



David Baker

Here’s another of my own favorite Stan poems, from midcareer, from that marvel of a book Summer Celestial. This is “In Passing.” This is just one of Stan’s poems that redefined, for me, the American sublime.  

On the Canadian side, we’re standing far enough away

the Falls look like photography, the roar a radio.


In the real rain, so vertical it fuses with the air,

the boat below us is starting for the caves.


Everyone on deck is dressed in black, braced for weather

and crossing against the current of the river.


They seem lost in the gorge dimensions of the place,

then, in fog, in a moment, gone.


                                           In the Chekhov story,

the lovers live in a cloud, above the sheer witness of a valley.


They call it circumstance. They look up at the open wing

of the sky, or they look down into the future.


Death is a power like any other pull of the earth.

The people in the raingear with the cameras want to see it


from the inside, from behind, from the dark looking into the light.

They want to take its picture, give it size—


how much easier to get lost in the gradations of a large

and yellow leaf drifting its good-bye down one side of the gorge.


There is almost nothing that does not signal loneliness,

then loveliness, then something connecting all we will become.


All around us the luminous passage of the air,

the flat, wet gold of the leaves. I will never love you


more than at this moment, here in October,

the new rain rising slowly from the river.

Sheer alchemy, to change one letter and get us from “loneliness” to “loveliness.” It’s a poem about dying—as Stan was writing about his departure ever since his arrival. But, unmistakable, this poem about dying is more centrally a love poem—to some intimate “you” and to some most wide congregation of you, and you, and you, and so us all.

It’s surprising what we remember exactly and what we don’t recall. I can’t tell you exactly when Stanley and I first met. I think it was in the early or mid-1990s, shortly after my daughter’s birth, which was 1992. Stan always said it was some time in the late eighties, at an AWP, of course, and someone introduced us—was it Dave Smith, or Mark Strand? We never figured it out. Our letters go back to the mid-eighties. But AWP makes sense. We both attended most of the last twenty of them, since by default we ended up working together nearly every year on a panel—on the lyric poem and lyric poets.

I’ve been asked many times how we got started on all these AWP panels. This I do remember. We were at my house in Granville, Ohio, and we were discussing over some red wine—we were arguing along with Ann Townsend about the relative conditions of the elegy in British and in American nineteenth-century poetry. Whitman for me; Keats for Stan. Our friend Patricia Clark wrote it up, and moderated, and Ellen Voigt and Rick Jackson joined us on our first panel, “The Elegy in British and American Poetry.” It went well, for the few dozen who attended, and so while we were still at that AWP, Stan said, “Well David, what should we do next year?” We have to do this again? I said; okay, let’s do the love poem, since we just did the elegy. Great! he said. He was so enthusiastic; then added, “I’m really busy. Why don’t you write it up?” We worked over the years with Ann Townsend, Carl Phillips, Linda Gregerson, Meghan O’Rourke, Eric Pankey, Rosanna Warren . . .

Stan didn’t go to a big or famous university. He went to Wilmington College, in Wilmington, Ohio, not far from home. He wasn’t an English major first. He wanted to be an artist, but he couldn’t draw well enough, as he told it. He was an art history major, then English.

He played basketball seriously, tennis well. He was a sports fan all his life, with almost as much passion for a good game on TV as for an old Western shoot-’em-up.

He was one of the founders of the Ohio Review. With Cynthia McDonald he was founder of the creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Houston—though he did not quite finish his own Ph.D. at OU. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, there’s that Quaker background, though when he lost his funding at OU it was not—as some have guessed—because of his CO status. His old friend, Samuel Crowl, tells me he and Stan both joined the OU faculty in 1970, with Stan making the arrangement to come back from teaching at LSU to accept a full-time assistant professor untenured position with the stipulation that he could take courses each year toward the Ph.D. Sam sent me a funny email about that: “when Stan returned to Athens to work on a Ph.D., he was already a first-rate new critic and unlike some CW types he did not shy from, in fact eagerly anticipated, the lit requirements—except I recall he drew the line at Old English!” I can hear that, can’t you? But then, the bottom fell out of freshman enrollments in ’73, ’74, and the university withdrew funding for untenured positions. Sound familiar? Stan went on from OU to Iowa and a string of other jobs at Princeton, Washington, Columbia, Michigan, and then Houston. Then, Maryland.

Stanley Ross Plumly was born on May 23, 1939, and died two springs ago, April 11, 2019. He was seventy-nine—though, you know Stan, in a poem called “Deathbed” from Middle Distance, he looked forward to the future enough to write: “at eighty I’ve discovered the royal chair, the kind you sit in to read with wine and hear yourself travel at the soft end of the day.”

Clearly here, he’s resisting that posthumous existence.

He loved giving things to people. Scarves, books, coats. I mean his coats. A little group of us were talking about his gift-giving at his memorial service in College Park. When I said, “you know, I have two coats that Stan gave me, a big wool winter overcoat and a heavy brown barn-coat,” three others said they did too. Of course—you know Stan—they were his coats first, worn and then passed along. That’s how it is in families.

He wore size-thirteen shoes.

He was a difficult sleeper. He’d waken. Walk around. Read. Jot a line. And when he got up finally, it was often well before the sun.

I can’t tell you with certainty how many times he was married. The number is fluid in my sense of his life. But I met one of his wives—whom I knew first as Debbie Sugarbaker—when I was about eight and she was about thirteen, in our shared neighborhood in our hometown, Jefferson City, Missouri. That amused Stan to no end.

Stan loved wine, red, Italian—Sicilian in an emergency. He called Barolo Bar-al-lah, though he much preferred Brunello over anything else.

He was the most patient writer I know. The last poem in Middle Distance is a short lyric, “With Weather.” It’s his final poem, whose final half-line is unfinished and, heart-breakingly, unpunctuated. How long does it take to write a seventeen-line poem? For Stan it took, in this case, forty-eight years. A version of this poem, same title but a full ending, first appeared in Stan’s chapbook How the Plains Indians Got Horses, from 1973. Then again in Giraffe, his second LSU book.

Here is “With Weather” as it appears in Middle Distance. It feels to me like Stan’s first poem and his last poem. The work is never finished.

All day you watch the frost flare

into each end point of the star.

The cold is like glass on your skin.

You know if you sit here long enough

how brittle the body becomes.

Even the paling evening is on two sides.

But you sit in the sun half, half sun,

the lie in your lap, filling your face.

You’re like a man in love with something—

some word, a gesture, the one line of light

lost among a line of trees, a man in a chair

watching it starting to rain a little and snow.

You could get up and join the snow.

You could move to a warmer window.

You could move to the middle of the room.

You could get up and turn on the light.

You could sit here alone

In “Early Meadow-Rue,” the poem I started with, there was Stan, or someone, driving through the countryside before the sun was up. And here, at the end, here he is again, a poem of friendship sitting here alone in “the open country of his body,” going just a little bit ahead of us once again, making sure of the way.

Thank you all for coming. Thank you to Jill, Liz, Patrick, and Maggie for sharing today with us all. Keep reading Stan’s poems, keep writing about him, teaching his work; and do find Middle Distance. Take it into your hearts. And pass it along—like a coat.