Tyler Mills


Tribute to Stanley Plumly

Stanley Plumly and former student Tyler Mills.


So many of us here today have had the profound fortune of being students of Stanley Plumly. I am looking for him here, for his shock of silver-white hair, his head bowed in thought. More than anything, I wish he were here, and I keep listening for his distinct chuckle.

But he is here, through the profound lyric poems he left us. And in addition to being an exquisite poet—one whose poems show us the musicality, depth, and ultimate potential for human connection through art and memory—and brilliant essayist and Keats scholar, Stanley Plumly was also a gifted teacher, in the way that when truly excellent teachers work with students, they seem touched by a greater spirit. He was selfless and rigorous, always at the aim of making the work better, the poems better. It the greatest honor that he was my teacher, and that I can join so many here today who can say that, too.

I always called him Stan; I am not quite sure when this started, though I do recall raising my hand and asking “Professor Plumly” a question on the first day of workshop at Maryland, only for him to brush away the formal address. My story of Stan begins when he called my parents’ house in Pennsylvania one late August afternoon after I graduated from college. My mother picked up the landline, and she heard his unmistakable voice—one of gravitas with a subtle undercurrent of humor moving through it like leaves rustling in the wind.

“Where is Tyler? Why isn’t she here?” he asked her. “Here” meant his poetry workshop at the University of Maryland that I had wanted to attend so badly, but wasn’t able to without funding. I had spent the summer saving money from a bunch of different jobs (a university library, waiting tables, babysitting). But summer had come and gone with that turn in the evening air, and the previous day I had reached out to the Creative Writing program to ask about deferring for a year so I could save up, reapply to programs, and see what happened.

The afternoon Stan called, I had just interviewed and been offered a job with AmeriCorps in a former coal town in rural Pennsylvania. My mom called me on my new flip phone when I was driving back home, the Susquehanna River to my right. Stanley Plumly called? For me? I was incredulous.

I knew his sonorous poems, but I had never heard his voice. (These were the very, very early days of Youtube, and I didn’t have access to video recordings of him.) But you know it well: gruff yet melodic, like a bow beginning to pull over the strings of a cello. He located wit at the level of sound—through internal rhyme that might connect words in an uncanny or funny way. Or he would pause to luxuriate in the musicality of a vowel for a moment before continuing on. When he spoke to me on the phone that day I called him back, I felt like I had received a divine summons. He asked me why I wasn’t there, why I was deferring, and after I answered, he paused. “What if we can offer you a TA-ship?” “But classes started already,” I remember saying. “Just be here next week,” he replied. And that was that.

That weekend, I packed my green Plymouth Acclaim with clothes and books and headed to College Park without a place to live and never looked back. The moment I arrived, I worked as hard as I could—often rewriting poems immediately after workshop and dropping a new draft off at Stan’s office door the next afternoon. When I was going through my papers and notebooks, I found note after note on poems and on scraps of paper: “4:00 PM Stan, Thursday”; “2:30 PM Stan, Tuesday”; “Stan 1PM.” On one packet of poems, I had written, “Here are new poems, See you at 2:30 today.” (Somehow, he made time to review my work before our conference.) I remember one time, he leaned back in his chair, tapped the poem I had given him, which I had reworked over and over again, and paused. “There, now that’s a poem you can take to a party,” he said and handed it back to me. Stan met frequently with all of his students; I remember us lining up in the hallway and sometimes sitting on the floor when the Department was in Susquehanna Hall and then Tawes to wait for our turn. “Okay, kiddo,” he’d say when our meeting was over. And off we’d go, with our poems and our notes all again new in our hands.

As he did with all of his students, he would ask me how I was doing, what I was eating (“not just cheerios, I hope!”) or if I had a proper winter coat (whatever any of us had with us never seemed to be warm enough for the damp Maryland weather in his opinion). One time, I wore a funny hat to class (think Brittany Spears) and he quipped, “Too cool for school are we?” Stan was caring and funny—sharp-witted. But he also welcomed us into the poetry world. He made sure to invite students to lunches and dinners with visiting poets, and he would seat us right next to them so we could listen and chime in. Before a reading by a visiting writer, he would take the entire workshop out to the now-defunct bar “The Oracle,” pay for a round, and gesture for us to come and talk to the guest (or sit awkwardly nearby enough to be part of it all). He’d talk about movies—I remember conversations about the latest Bond film and Hitchcock—but also poetry, always poetry. He included us in his world, introduced us to his circle, and he would always take time to talk to us. If a group of us showed up at the Folger Shakespeare Library or the Library of Congress for a reading and ended up hovering over the cheese plates and grapes, Stan would come over to us, often making a quip with raised eyebrows that would make us all laugh. We felt welcomed, like we had a right to be there, too.

As incredible a poet as he was—and his beautiful books Old Heart and Posthumous Keats were released during the time I studied with him—Stan also remembered what the life of a poet was like at the very beginning, when we were new in the art. He had a gift for acknowledging and working with this newness. He was humble and brilliant.

Stan was also a tough teacher. But this tough love came from a place of generosity.

My very first workshop at Maryland, I read my poem and then he asked the room, “What is even happening? Does anyone know?” (The answer, which I needed to hear, was nope!) If one of us seemed to be slacking off and turned in a poem he thought made lazy moves, he’d be especially acerbic. Nothing frustrated Stan more than when we did not take care of our work. After one of those tough workshop days, he would meet with us to talk one-on-one about the poem, to look at a revision, to plan ahead. I remember a workshop where he talked about an (unfortunate) title I had hastily slapped onto the top of a poem. That day, he only talked about the title and refused to let anyone talk about anything other than how and why it was not working—and what titles should be and do. This lasted for my entire portion of the workshop, which was I think forty-five minutes (or at least felt that way!). I think about that workshop now every time I am searching for and revising a title for a poem. I like to share this story with my own students as a way into a conversation about how important titles are.

Each semester, he had a different theme for us to think about formally in our work. Once, this theme was writing longer poems.

“NO POEM WANTS TO BE SMALL,” Stan had said to us emphatically during workshop one afternoon. I know this because I found his words as a note in all caps, and underlined, in one of my notebooks.

Another semester, the theme was infusing our poems with place. He warned, “Don’t give up the landscape,” his advice turning into a paraphrase of the English Romantic painter John Constable: “The emotion in a painting lives in the sky,” Stan had said.

Another note reads, “WE ARE NOT DOING SELF-EXPRESSION.” (all caps) “We are making something, making objects.”

Sometimes, he would re-type our poems on his typewriter to re-adjust the line breaks and show us where our ear had gone awry. He would pass around these new Stan-i-fied poems, now amazingly clear, so we each had a copy in courier font and could see what the poem could become.

One thing he said to us all the time—and which I’ve repeated to my students—was “Don’t let the will do the work of the representation.”

While I prepared for today’s memorial, I reached out to some of his other former students to ask what they remembered about Stan as a mentor.

Here is one former-student remembrance:

“I always picture Stan reading my poems, especially the terrible ones, and laughing. It’s hard to describe that laugh, but it was affectionate to the core. Somehow, it always gave me the sense that Stan saw great potential not in the poem but in me, as if the poet I would become was already in on the joke. What I treasure now in Stan’s poetry is how he could stare into darkness and shadows and sorrow, an eagle-eyed watcher of those skies, and find some central fire, some eternal spark. In his poems, that wondering laugh, the-force-that-through-Stan’s-bright-eyes-drove-the-glimmer still lives, and I find great consolation in that.” 

And another remembrance:

“Stan would say that all poems are about loss. I disagreed with him and still do, but damnit if I don’t hear Stan chuckling in the background saying all poems are about loss when I write something that takes a real risk.”

And another:

“Years after graduating from UMD, I caught a connecting flight in Philadelphia. Although I was seated in one of the last rows, I heard a man laugh in the front section of the plane and knew immediately that it was Stan. (He had such a wonderful laugh. That single note—a scoff of joy!) We met in baggage claim, hugged (“Hey kiddo!”), chatted a bit. Although we lived on opposite coasts at the time, the coincidence didn’t strike me as strange. Stan was the kind of mentor whose presence transcended the classroom—you sensed his presence long after the diploma was framed. It seemed as though he could turn up anywhere. I’ve moved ten times since finishing the MFA. Whatever our distance, Stan’s wisdom has followed me; or rather, continues to lead me.”

Here is one more student remembrance:

“When I think of Stan, the first thing I remember is his kindness and genuine care for his students, both as writers and human beings. He would tell you if you were wasting your time or if your poem had an image that was ‘precious,’ but you knew it was because he cared. In my first workshop with him, he forbid us to write short poems, which was the best possible requirement for a perfectionist like me. He suggested I read Keats’s letters, and those helped me complete the program.”

I shared my story of Stanley Plumly calling for me, and I think that in many ways, those of us who studied with him had the experience of him calling for us—by summoning us to give our best creative self to the page.

I’d like to close with three Stan-isms that I discovered in my notebooks.

“Work is inevitably autobiographical, but it is the autobiography of the imagination.” 

“Form is a transformative act of the mind over the material.”


“What can the line contain before it moves to the next line?”

Thank you, Stan.


Mills read this tribute at Stanley Plumly’s memorial service on September 21, 2019 at University of Maryland.