Russell Banks


Tribute to Stanley Plumly

“The Boyz.” From left: Daniel Halpern, Stanley Plumley, Russell Banks, and Bill Matthews. Photo courtesy of Chase Twichell.

I think of those many beautiful poems Stan wrote in memory of his friends. For instance, his poem “Kunitz Tending Roses” for Stanley Kunitz:

Still, there he is, on any given day,
talking to ramblers, floribundas, Victorian
perpetuals, as if for beauty and to make us
glad or otherwise for envy and to make us
wish for more—if only to mystify and move us.

And one of his several poems for Bill Matthews:

Now I realize that for the longest time
I’ve been waiting for him, and need
to think of something, and that
he’s expecting it, the way silence
sometimes promises.

And I wish that I had his perfect poetic gift and could on this occasion present him with something like what he gave to the memory of his friends, Stanley Kunitz and Bill Matthews. I wish that I could offer him something like the gift his work gave to each of us and to those who will come after.                       

Stan left us many gifts. His poems, of course, first and foremost, and his beautiful, haunted and haunting prose narratives that were so much more than mere biographies or criticism—they were, as he himself admitted, portraits of his own imagination. In an interview with David Baker in the Kenyon Review, Stan said of his masterful Posthumous Keats, “I have written this book because I said I would: and why did I—so many years ago—say I would? Because, I guess, the book is about me too.”  

And as many here, his colleagues and ex-students, know from personal experience, and as I know from having married one of his ex-students, he was a brilliant and inspiring teacher and mentor to several generations of poets and writers.

These are the gifts that keep on giving, a great poet’s gift, a superb prose writer’s, a teacher’s. They will remain with us long after everyone in this room has left the building. They are the public and posthumous embodiments of Stan’s life and work. I use the term “posthumous” the way Stan in that same interview used it for Keats. He said, “I . . . think of and use the term to refer to his ‘after-life existence,’ in which the story of his immortality is played out.”

But there is another, different kind of gift I’d like to memorialize and celebrate tonight. That is Stan’s gift for friendship. It, too, like his poems and prose and his influence as a teacher, should be made a part of his “after-life existence.” I was lucky enough to have been a forty-year-long recipient and benefactor of that gift. I’ve been the intimate friend of only a few that long, and one of them, Bill Matthews, introduced us. Bill and Stan were colleagues at Houston back then, and I remember Bill writing me about his new best friend and tennis partner, the poet Stan Plumly. I didn’t play tennis, so I was jealous at first. But then I met Stan in person, and suddenly he was my new best friend, too.

He was a private man, as many of you know, and reticent, but maybe that helped make him a wonderfully attentive listener. He was nonjudgmental to a fault and didn’t trade in gossip or rumor, so you could confide in him. And I did. He always read his friends’ books, and he always found something in them that he could love, and he told you what it was, without troubling you about what was too late to fix. He understood the complex difficulty of becoming a good man as well as he understood the complex difficulty of becoming a good artist.

Before long there were four of us, Bill, Stan, Dan Halpern, and me, who thought of ourselves as each other’s lifelong best friends. Sort of a literary Fab Four, if you will. (I kind of thought of Stan as Paul, the sweet one; you can figure out for yourselves who was John, George, and Ringo.) When we could, we traveled together, hung out at writers’ conferences together, rented summer places in Maine together, and when we managed to all be in New York at the same time—easy for Dan and Bill and me, as we were living in New York or Princeton back then, harder for Stan, by then down here in Washington—the four of us would meet for a dinner and many bottles of wine that started at six or so and ended usually around three am. Memorable, profoundly comforting evenings. Like adolescent boys, we even had nicknames for each other. I remember Dan’s was Big Tuna, and Bill’s was Duke Stork. I can’t remember mine, for some reason, or Stan’s, though I think his had something to do with his hair—we were all envious of his perfect leonine mane.

Then in November 1997, Bill suddenly died, and for the next twenty-two years, we were three. Our last long dinner for three in New York was the night of December 6, 2018, ten months ago. And now we’re two. Friends this long are each other’s memory and witness. We are saved by each other from being seduced by false memory and self-delusion. Stan knew that in his bones. He wrote it into his poems. It was key to his understanding of Keats, and he celebrated it in that lovely group portrait, The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb. He even made imagined friends, in his book Elegy Landscapes, out of Constable and Turner.

As Stan said of Keats, we could also say of Stan: “Friendship is the chief currency in Keats’s world. Keats must have been the best friend you could have: hence, he attracted good people to him. His friend Haslam says, at the end, that, if he knows what it is to love, he loves John Keats. The only words, other than their names, on John Reynolds’s and Charles Brown’s tombstones are: Friend of Keats.”

To the end of my days I will be proud and grateful to be able to say that I was a Friend of Plumly.


Russell Banks
September 21, 2019, Washington, D.C.


Acclaimed novelist Russell Banks died in January 2023.