Hoke Glover

Fathers, Trees, and the Difficult Art of the Lyric: In Memory of Stanley Plumly

Whatever it is, however it comes, it takes time.
It can take all night.
My father would sit on the edge of the bed
And let tears fall to the floor.
The sun the size of the window, full
And rising. He was a dead man and he knew it.

—From “Sonnet” in Summer Celestial by Stanley Plumly


I met Stanley Plumly when I read Summer Celestial and Boy on the Step shortly before I entered grad school in the summer of 1994, and these lines in particular stood out, because less than a year before I had experienced the death of my own father. At that time, my father was still closer than mere memory, and his voice would return to me often. Some days I would get the helpless urge to call a dead man. Sometimes I actually picked up the phone. It was inevitable that my father’s words came back, as it’s inevitable that Stanley Plumly’s words haunt me now. He passed in April of last year, and now it is the March after. The birds will sing soon what they sing in spring, and I know he will enjoy that. I know he knows their names and songs. I know he knows the trees too, who too will sing their colors and sprout their leaves as the birds sing. I know he knows the Birch and the Oak, and the wildflowers. I know he knows so many musics and is still singing.

If time has other designations besides days, hours, years, and months, this time is like that time of my father’s death for me. There’s something similar, but they are also different and they are together. I am reading Stan again, this time in the wake of his death, and learning, listening in a way that marks the memory different from when he was alive. Almost like a scar, but I am not bruised. He seems to be teaching me again that the threads of life can be stitched together into perfected songs. That almost any this can be matched to that, if you do the work right. If you know how to make music.

I meditate on him as a distant son but not prodigal. We did not talk often, and I am sure many knew him better. Yet, and still, his work has shaped this poetic life for me. I do not remember everything, but what I do remember still works well.

I have practiced poetry in a way that I hope you find acceptable. I have written about my father as you often did of yours, searching for the sake of acceptance and looking into the myth and mystery of him. I have tried to practice the difficult thin line of the lyric and make a little bit of music in the world. I have tried.



Stan practiced and produced the difficult lyric. His poems seem to effortlessly escape from the mouth of the speaker and inhabit the reader’s mouth. One is conscious of a saying that inhabits the air. Even when he roots himself in the world of names, or speaks the trees, we are always grounded by sound. He is an ultimate lyricist controlling the tension and trajectory of his poems, and there is almost always something personal in his shifts, many of which sound like the voice of a demigod stating some fact that seems to transcend the poem’s locale and head toward the transcendent. “Whatever it is, however it comes, it takes time. / It could take all night.” In these moments, the specifics of the world seem to blur as in conversation, when it seems the profound has erupted out of the common-speak of the everyday, or common speech has been whittled down to artifact. He does it so much one can easily underestimate the mastery required to execute the task.

In returning to Stan’s work, I have learned how my connections with jazz naturally reconciled with it. For in jazz, juxtaposition is as important as rhythm. The reference, the leap within songs to another song or another style, the change in pace, and rhythm blended with the leap to the standards and hollas of the larger conversation operate in similar ways to Stan’s shifts: sometimes in diction, the isolated voice, the conversational, the voice from the clouds, or the descent into image, strange vocabularies, or the language of the scientist. Threaded together like a jazz solo, we rely on the tension and sense of movement, the sense of sound, to carry us forward toward conclusion or beginning again.

Stan’s ability to thread contrasting modes of speech into what seems like a singular trajectory, often turning back on itself, operates in his work on an exponential scale. One is led by sound, image, and fantastic leaps of consciousness into a tunnel of their mind, where each image, each context still keeps us connected to the surface of things. Though it seems effortless, it is extremely difficult to do. For what makes poetry difficult are all the places where thought can become substitute for experience. No doubt, we experience our own thought, but the great spiritual traditions call this ego. Thought can become an abyss if disconnected. The master poet weds the experience of perception to the train of thought and allows us to find freedom as though we were floating on a river. In his poem “Field,” which begins with ornithology (shout out to Charlie Bird), and the technical language used to describe birds, he brings the poem to conclusion with the push toward the world outside the field, or the field as way of looking at all fields, as in math, and planes, and fields of existence:

It is no surprise, then,

that the greatest number of species as well as individuals live at the

edge and fly the pathways and corridors and trails at the joining of

the juxtaposition. That is where the richness is, the thick, deep

vegetable life—a wall of life, where the trees turn to meadows, the

meadows to columnar, watchtower trees. A man of sense, coming to a

clearing, a great open space, will wait among the trees, in the

doorway, until the coast is clear. 

My other mentor, Sekou Sundiata, is a spoken-word artist elevated to musician. His instrument, like Stan’s, was the voice, with the distinction that he most often presented his voice through a microphone backed by a band. From his early twenties until his death in 2007, he performed consistently. Like Stan, he was concerned with the page; but the odd connection is the absolute orality of their work and jazz-like trajectory. Even when Stan takes up extremely technical language, one is conscious of the lyric, the sound, and the fact that that language must be heard if only in the head, if it is to work. He and Sekou meet for me in some odd space in American literature. I see the one and the other. They unite and give me strength and assurance for a long journey.


I went to Waynesboro once with my father, and we went looking for our ancestors, some whose names we did not know. In many of the graveyards there were no tombstones. We had to get a guide to point out spots under trees and beside rocks to tell us where some of them were born. My grandmother was buried about ten steps behind or before a magnolia, depending upon which way you were approaching. We stood at that spot and thought about her and her name.


Legacy is difficult. It is about honor, trajectory, and maybe even luck. It seems I am learning more about how puzzle pieces fit together. I am trying to figure out why my relationship with Stan seemed so immaculate. Not an issue between us I can remember. I am trying to explain how the thread of Stan stitches with the other threads of my poetic life. For spoken word, black poetry, black power, are often difficult stones to stand on in academia. If poetry unites us all, the pursuit of the spoken has at least challenged the academic. Orality without the technical aspects on the page is almost cliché: a diss or sign of inability. Such things never came up between Stan and me, and I really appreciated it. For in the pursuit of any difficult task that requires attention, conflict is too often simply distraction. Thank you for that, Stan.

His mastery was effortless and packaged in the ordinary. Stan was deceptively simple and proficient beyond comprehension. Jokingly, I often refer to him as my white father. Of course he has the look of a great white father with his bearded face and white hair, but in my joke I am trying to get at the strange way I could be receptive to a relationship that could have easily teetered into some form of rebelliousness on my part. I am a black man, who ran black bookstores, who works at an HBCU. Prior to Stan, my entrance into predominantly white environments always seemed tinged with an angst. A need to rebel, resist, fight, and struggle. Things proceeded so smoothly that it is sometimes hard to mark the time elapsed.

We met in some crossroads where the poetic is truly transcendental. It’s talked about, but hard to get to.

Returning now, I see him there in my work and the things I am trying to do. It is like homecoming. As with a father, the son imagines some outward movement that has expanded the distance or expansiveness of the journey; but dare one contemplate the father, especially in death, one learns the difficulty of an inch of movement within generations. Invention is one thing, and legacy is another. Progress is too easy to name, and patterns are too easy to absorb. Mere words one can say, but the work is humbling. I am still striving to do what I was exposed to twenty-five years ago as I worked with Stan.


Jack Gilbert is another one of my favorite poets, and in thinking about my love for Gilbert, I see both Stan and Gilbert seem to raise a human consciousness that is hidden among the mundane to archetype. Gilbert is more narrative-based, and Stan more lyrical, but both pivot on the way the human mind travels in and out of the mundane toward ideas and back toward the mundane, or back toward the image, and merges with ideas. It is as though both hide the magic of the work in a simple journey that is full of triggers, pivots, and shifts—such is consciousness—such is music. I like Gilbert so much, because I like Stan so much.

And last, Stan’s difficult lyric is rooted in nature. Stan is always in the trees, and with the birds. He is rustling with the wind. He is with the mother and father too as they move amongst us larger than life and tied to the simple shit of our everyday lives. He seems to go up so often by going down. Nature roots his work, but it is not the simple nature of an external world where science is applied, but instead, a world that is rooted in mind and perception, and a human being’s ability to shift consciousness from the specific moment they are in to conclusions about their whole life or the way the world spins on its axis:

They fly up in front of you,

Suddenly, as in allegory, black

And white, by the handful


—From “Ground Birds in Open Country”


Lacrimal, clavicle, patella—

Bones of the body, clusters, corollas, pinwheels—

Enough to make a metaphor of meadows.


                —From “Two Moments, for My Mother”

Here the difficult lyric dares to challenge our perception of literary terms themselves. To think allegory and metaphor can easily be to think too much, but what Stan does here is use these terms as he uses the scientific, the names of birds, the names of trees. It is a democratic act. He releases the reader from the intellectual by suggesting these words describe acts that are natural phenomena, and the way consciousness operates. An allegory rising up like a flock of birds—it is literary and at the same time transcends the literary by placing the comprehension of a literary term on the same level as contemplation of an image. In this way it neuters the drama associated with the literary that seems to separate it from the mundane. These lines teach us the literary is experienced as are the birds and the trees. It is an idea worthy not simply of reading, but also of meditation.



So, I met the man through his poems. There’s nothing unusual about meeting a poet that way; though if you meet the poet you already made a decision to study with that way, it borders on irresponsible.

I got lucky.

I’ll blame my father too, for meeting Stan the way I did. For it was he who had told me, when I went to grad school (he said when to make certain I went), to read my professors’ books before I took their classes. Before he died, I was an unlikely MFA candidate who knew I wanted to be a poet, but was also caught in the whirlwind, raising two infants, running a few small bookstores, and managing my father’s estate. I confess I did not choose Maryland or Stanley Plumly for any reason other than proximity. That and a desire to enter a world where poetry was the center as compared to the periphery.

For it was Stanley who told us that in school we would be surrounded by other writers who would engage our work, but in the end we would go out to the world and spend much of our time alone. The solitary profession, he called it. Yet, even when I entered, I had some sense of that isolation of the poet. Indeed, even a bookstore can be a lonely place for poets and playwrights in particular. Our works do not sell, and that is sobering, even more sobering when we know the cost of producing it.

We can name ourselves poet, and perhaps in conversation it becomes a worthy title or sprouts a smile, but in the end, the name means little. Stan’s comment told me to buckle up for the long ride into poetry for life.


This past fall, shortly after Stan’s death, I couldn’t help but think of him as I taught Mentor, by Tom Grimes, to my Introduction to Creative Writing class. If you are not familiar with the work, it is a memoir discussing the long relationship between Grimes and longtime director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where Stan taught during the seventies, Frank Conroy. I taught the work for the first time because it offers insight into the shape of the mythic literary figure and their relationship with students, the industry of writing, and the institution of the MFA.

I never went to Iowa; but I got some of that with Stan.

One day, as I stood in awe of Rita Dove, he casually dropped, “Oh, yes. One of my students.” I might have gasped, or maybe by that time I had grown used to the presence of such encyclopedic knowledge. Rita Dove is godlike for African-American poets in particular. She was the second African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, thirty-seven years after Gwendolyn Brooks. The comment was so casual and never mentioned again that one might imagine that it wasn’t true.

I got lucky. The presence of the larger-than-life literary character in one’s life can be daunting. In some way with Stan, I never really knew.



I cannot overstate our connection. A distance like that with my own father. An intimacy, a simple conversation, less charged, but similar, a tiny joy, a spark, a connection. We talked rarely after I left Maryland. A few times I went down and sat in the office and we talked like I was still in school. A few others we ran into each other out and about. But I listened to him like my father. I watched him the way I did with a distance, knowing he knew many things I did not; but if I listened carefully, I might learn something. I appreciated the absolute absence of pressure in our interactions, which is its own form of distance and fatherly nurturing. I always felt we were doing something, but almost never did I feel it was important enough to trouble the waters. I appreciate that mastery now more than ever. After over a decade in college classrooms, I understand better how hard it is to work without troubling people about the work.

One of my favorite parables in the Tao Teh Ching tells of a man healed by a doctor. Thankful and with joy, he tells the doctor how good he is. The doctor then explains he has a brother who is a much better doctor who would have healed him six months earlier, and another cousin who is a doctor who would have healed him two years before. The story is about humility, simplicity, efficiency, and the ability to perceive on levels that seem unimaginable. All these attributes fit Stan. He is the doctor who could see the flaws and struggles of the poem long before anybody else. He operated at the root of things.

My love for Stan comes from the casual way he managed our interactions, which brings me to another confession. Somehow in his presence, I never really felt as though I was working that hard. Our interactions were friendly and intimate. In his office, I would often catch myself staring at the large poster of Lorca on his wall. The image fades, but I remember the colors. An almost brownish-red, moving toward orange, a passion filling the room with a drama packaging our conversations. A presence like Lorca, singing of the everyday. And there was Stan. Both he and Michael Collier leading me to the world of jeans-wearing professors. Stan in his jeans, with his beard puffed around his face, and a warmth that seemed to embrace me. I had heard stories from time to time that he could be difficult. I’ll blame my mother for teaching me to swim through such, though I must say I never felt like I swam through anything with Stan. He posed himself as a confidant: a guy I could discuss anything poetic with.

He called me just before he died and suggested that he nominate me for Poet Laureate as he stepped down. Our relationship was secret like that. My chances were slim. I’ve only published one book; I work at an HBCU. I’ve been in some poetic underground for years. There was confusion; it didn’t work out. I was perplexed. It seemed like a lesson. He was still teaching me and nudging me on even as he neared death. We did not talk about his illness or his death. At the time, he knew he was dying, and in many ways gave me a gift. It seemed he said: you are a better poet than the one you imagine yourself to be.

I’ll always remember that phone call too. It was almost hurried and anxious, and I could hear in his voice and pitch and range something that had not been there before. He spoke quickly and got off the phone after asking for a CV. It was the last time I spoke to him.

I’ll remember that call like the call from my father where he let me know he had decided not to continue his treatments. He had decided to die, and there was no thunder to go with it. We talked on the phone like the world would be the same, and it was; but it was different.

The world is the same, but different now without Stan. I think he knows that, might even say it; and I will continue to shift between the world’s light and darkness, its trees and beauty, and the world of words practicing the dance of the lyric.