Joanne Rocky Delaplaine


 Tribute to Stanley Plumly for A Splendid Wake

Thank you Henry, thank you Splendid Wake organizers, and thank you friends. Stan once said in class, “One does not live alone in this art.” Stan came from Quaker Welsh heritage. He believed in democracy.

Stanley Plumly’s impact on our region’s literary life was indelible: as teacher, as writer, as friend and builder of poetry community.

Since I fell in love with his teaching before I fell in love with his poetry, I’ll begin there. I needed to meet the man and absorb his method to fully engage with his poems. When I first read his poems, I found them difficult. As I came to understand his vision, honed over nearly half a century of writing, I found his work heartbreaking, life-enhancing, and utterly compelling.

I had the honor of studying with Stan over eleven years, including the last three years of his life at a church basement near his home in Frederick, with a cohort of about thirteen whom he once lovingly dubbed “his tribe.” He could be Zen-master tough and held us to his own high standards. He’d admonish us to “Just do the work,” or “Write a simple sentence,” but then follow that up with an affectionate: “You’ll learn, kiddo.”

Stan believed poetic craft could be taught. Not only did he teach creative writing and English literature students at University of Maryland for thirty-four years after stints at the Universities of Washington, Houston, Columbia, Iowa, and Princeton, he also consistently reached out to working adults at community-based literary communities such as the Writer’s Center here and the Hugo House in Seattle, by teaching night and weekend non-academic classes. He loved teaching, he invested in his students, and brought his passion for poetry to every class.

Kevin Craft called Stan “One of the most influential and meaningful teachers I’ve had.” Rita Dove said “He shepherded my first attempts at poetic sequence past the naysayers . . . opening me to a world of possibilities.” Poet/translator Nancy Naomi Carlson said, “Stan taught me there was no such thing as writer’s block.” Poet Claire McGoff said, “I refer to my “Stanley notes” whenever I need discipline and inspiration.”

Classes with Stan were lessons in craft, poetic tradition, character… and vocabulary.

Verisimilitude, he would say, rolling the word languidly on his tongue, verisimilitude . . . do you know that word?, he’d ask softly in a rich baritone voice that could also bellow, whisper, or trail off into silence. It sounds like very similar . . . Verisimilitude . . . very similar . . . Stan believed our poems should be grounded in a particular experience.

If you wanted to hear his every word you’d sit near, but if you were afraid of getting clobbered (most of us were), and clobbered could mean being the recipient of his bushy-eyebrowed, withering stare, you wanted, as Claire once joked in his presence, a bike helmet on your head. He had an imposing physicality; it took confidence to sit close. “Isn’t it interesting that author and authority have the same root?,” he’d inquire. He loved the grand pronouncement: We live in a Chekovian universe, not a Dostoevskian one, or Leonard Cohen trumps Joni Mitchell. Stan knew his authority came from life experience, his working through inner and outer conflict, but he was not authoritarian. Like a strong wrestler, he loved a good fight. He wanted you to push back.

McGoff keeps the following “Stanleyisms” on her bulletin board:

Once you have left the object and start drawing conclusions, you have left your poem.

So much of what we do is about yielding.

You cannot be superior to your poem—you are your poem.

Vulnerability is your strength, not your weakness.

“Don’t try to be so meaningful. Be meaningless . . . because you can’t!

Poet and poetry teacher Bonnie Naradzay, in a poem dedicated to Stan called “Lament For The Maker” just published in Agni,remembers Stan saying: “there are only six shapes in nature and one is the meander,” and “don’t be in a hurry to send out poems . . . let it take years . . . it’s awful when you can’t get what you want.”

Poet/doctor Susan Okie in her poem “Advice to Poets from Stanley Plumly” quotes Stan as saying:

Come to the page with a full heart and empty mind.
See, don’t think your way out.
Don’t be afraid to screw up.
And What is the language of the experience? 

I try to channel Stan’s teaching essence in the following poem.


My Plumly

Love death and a good long think

he said are the occasions for poetry

If you can film it you can write it

Don’t worry about being a poet

just try to capture the moment

This is a terrible poem

Tone is everything tone is not

what you intend   it’s what

you discover in the writing

I do favor a certain formalism

form is your father  your mother

Pay attention to the music

Silence is one of your sources

or should be  Never let the will

do the work of the imagination

If you want to grow as a poet

put yourself in your poem

Your obsessions are your prompts

You have centuries to turn to

learn from the poets before you

not as competition but as support

He knew which poets were drunks

When he recited poetry he’d quiet

to a whisper  we’d lean in  straining

You never stop revising your poems

until you die  Bad writing

can kill you    it should kill you

You should die of it    You’re lucky

if you have five readers

Where is the poem taking place

you give up such power

when you don’t tell us    Poems are elegies

if not why write them  Passion

he insisted is what really matters

praised Frost’s Directive    A poet

should never have the last word

when you end    close the door quietly


Never let the will do the work of the imagination, was a Yeats quote, and by imagination I think Stan meant our memories, dreams, those archetypal presences such as fathers and mothers that haunt our lives.  

Stan was tough not only because he wanted us to demand more of ourselves; he knew the difficulties of turning again and again to the blank page. But there were consolations to being beaten with his proverbial Zen stick. After class we’d walk to a local restaurant, enjoy good food, a good bottle of red wine, and good conversation. Stan enjoyed this creaturely life. He welcomed our family members and introduced us to his beloved wife, Margaret. He’d stop and talk to dogs passing by. He was curious about our respective professions, both making fun of them and admiring the way they entered our poems . . . (“Always put at least one fact in your poem,” he’d say. Stan loved quoting a good pun: “John Keats is dying? Con-sumption be done about it?” He wrote blurbs for our books, came to our readings, helped us get jobs, introduced us to editors, this on top of his academic and writing load, family duties, including shopping and cooking, and in his final years, managing his illness.

Stan’s work ethic was ferocious. Just as he advised us, he wrote and revised until the end. At his University of Maryland memorial service, Stan’s Norton editor and former student, Jill Bialosky, told us that in the middle of editing Middle Distance, he texted her, “Jill, I’m dying.” Poet and retired Catholic University professor Rosemary Winslow received an essay on beauty written over the last summer of his life. It’s just published in a collection of essays called Deep Beauty.  

Stan published eleven books of poetry, three books of nonfiction, and a book of essays on poetic craft. He edited poetry anthologies and magazines; conducted and granted interviews; gave readings, including two at the Folger Library; and taught classes at Breadloaf in Sicily, The Gettysburg Review Summer Writer’s Workshop, Hope Snyder’s Sotto Voce poetry festival in Shepherdstown, and a residency in Prague; and gave popular lectures at AWP conferences. He served as Maryland’s poet laureate from 2009 to 2018, going to classrooms and introducing kids of all ages to poetry. His books were awarded finalist for the National Book Award, and won the L.A. Times Book Prize, the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Criticism, the Paterson Poetry Prize, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. He received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment For The Arts. Did the man ever sleep?

David Baker called Stanley Plumly his favorite poet. Rita Dove said his poems were kind and ferocious and funny and sad and called him “the successor to James Wright and John Keats.”

When I summed up the liminal quality of Stan’s poems in 2014 for a reading he gave at Café Muse, I said, referring to the poem “kittyhawks,” in his book Orphan Hours, which opens with the Wright brothers flying a kite:

kittyhawks, with a lower case “k”. . . Here is wordplay and mystery. Plumly holds something back, invites our interrogation, rewards our participation. Kites are a kind of hawk. For Plumly, birds suggest the human spirit, and this poet has spent his patient, poetic lifetime describing the fleeting, the flying, the falling: birds, butterflies, clouds, light, autumn leaves, rain, snow.

Natural processes, the pull of gravity and the passing of time, are not denied, but embraced. Like kites, we will be blown to rags. Our mortal bodies, and the poem’s body, its form, are both limit and gift, sources of dread and our most beautiful music. Rooted in the palpable, his poems pulse with eros. Suffused with loss, they forgive our foibles. His poems startle our thought, and wake us to deeper presence. We’re alive, enlivened, because of him. 

Of his most recent book, Middle Distance, Linda Gregerson writes: “This is the poet’s final blessing: to hold the precious world in two good hands and say goodbye.”

On April 11, 2019, Stan died, just short of his eightieth birthday. I was on a retreat in rural Ohio in a town not unlike Piqua, where Stan moved from Winchester, Virginia when he was seven. Parenthetically, I just learned Piqua was a stop on the Underground Railroad and in the language of the Shawnee tribe means, “He Who Comes Out of the Ashes.” Stan would have loved that; maybe he knew.  

When I got the news, I went outside, walked barefoot under the stars and cried. Before I came in I said, “Now you are a redwing blackbird.”

Goodbye, Stan. May your spirit and writing continue to soar. And while you taught us a poet should never have the last word, today I grant you the last word.

Here are his last six lines from the poem “Vesper Sparrow” published in Orphan Hours, Stan’s tenth book of poems. Imagine him asking what bird you’d like to be, as he once asked us in class. And listen as he answers his own question:  

Those of us who’ll wish at last for redwings
want the yellow of the sun under the heart’s blood
on each wing in measure just enough to remind us
of where we’ve come from, the way the blackbird 
opening to fly brings back word from the old life to the new.