A Conversation With Stanley Plumly by KR poetry editor David Baker
Stanley Plumly was born in 1939 in Barnesville, Ohio, and grew up in the rural Quaker countryside of Ohio and in western Virginia. He received his B. A. from Wilmington College and his M. A. and Ph. D. from Ohio University. For more than forty years, Plumly has taught in universities around the country—including the universities of Iowa, Houston, Washington, Columbia, and Princeton—and currently holds the Distinguished University Professorship at the University of Maryland, where he has taught since 1985.
Plumly’s poetry is notable for the lyricism of its language and for its elegant precision of syntax and story. Rich in details of the natural world and powerful in its human passions, his work has won, in 2002, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as many other honors and fellowships. His poetry and prose have appeared in virtually every important literary journal in America, including The American Poetry Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Yale Review.
Stanley Plumly’s eight books include Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems (Ecco, 2001). Two new volumes are forthcoming, Old Heart (poems, W. W. Norton, 2007) and Posthumous Keats: A Meditation on Immortality (nonfiction, W. W. Norton, 2008). The third chapter of Posthumous Keats appears as “This Mortal Body” in the summer issue of The Kenyon Review.
David Baker: Stan, it’s a real pleasure to have this chance to talk about the culmination of your many years of devoted work on the life and poetry of John Keats. People know your poetry, of course, and your critical essays and reviews about contemporary poetry. But fewer are aware that you’ve been working for a long time on a book about Keats. We are excited for the chance to print “This Mortal Body” in The Kenyon Review. I want to start with that essay here, then venture further into the whole project from which this piece is drawn. Then I hope we will have time to discuss your own work, your new poems, and Old Heart.
“The Mortal Body” is about the great 19th century British Romantic poet, John Keats. Specifically, you focus in this essay on Keats and his circle the summer of 1818. Could you place that time in Keats’ lifeline for us here just a bit? Why focus on this summer?
Stanley Plumly: The Keats book, as I’ve come to call it over the years, is titled Posthumous Keats, for reasons we can talk about later. The book is in seven chapters, seven sections to a chapter—I couldn’t write it any other way than like a poem. The numerology gives it all a certain overt gesture toward structure; that way I can explore, juxtapose, circulate, whatever, within a structure. So that within the “superstructure” of the thing I am permitted asymmetry: none of the sections is equal in length, for instance, and though the chapters function somewhere between 40 to 45 manuscript pages, there is imbalance there too. The crucial “imbalance”—which brings us to your question about Chapter 3—is that at 50 pages this is what I think of as the fulcrum chapter.
DB: Seven chapters, seven sections: that’s the structure, seven by seven, of your seminal poem, “Summer Celestial.” Maybe we’ll come back to that. But would you dive a little more deeply into Chapter 3 just now? Why that summer of 1818?
SP: This is when Keats first comes to some terms with what will become his future. George is leaving for America; Tom is deathly ill; and Keats himself will, as if fated, set himself up for his own slow death by pushing his body past its limit on the Northern walking tour with Charles Brown. Bad roads, bad food, bad weather, and worse accommodations will insure his prolonged sore throat and stomach ailment, so that by the time he returns to London (having completed only half the planned tour) he is extra-vulnerable to the consumption killing Tom, whom he nurses for Tom’s three last months in a confined space.
This chapter highlights a dominant motif (fact) in the book: the place of brothers or brother surrogates in a man’s life. Chapter 3 is about the breakup of literal brothers and the reforming of male relationships for Keats here at the true beginning of his beyond-brief writing career. Brown will move into the center of the picture, but so will the example of Robert Burns, who dies young of drink and poverty, and whose “fame,” for Keats, seems extremely compromised. Keats writes—in addition to a lot of letters—quite a few poems on this Northern tour; the one poem he tries to destroy (rescued by Brown) is the “famous” “Sonnet written in the Cottage where Burns was born”: the sonnet that begins “This mortal body of a thousand days/ Now fills, O Burns, a space in thine own room” and ends “Yet can I drink a bumper to thy name,—/ O smile among the shades, for this is fame!”
A fiction writer could not invent a more dramatic, epiphanic example in Keats’s life, in which his young past and younger future pour as one into the same moment.
DB: I agree. It sounds like Keats’s pivotal period. We all know his sad biography: that he succumbed to tuberculosis at a very early age. He died in a little room in Rome, at 25 years and a few months old, on February 23, 1821. Yet we also know from your essay that even by the middle of 1818 he had written, as you say, “nothing . . . that would even suggest immortality, let alone earn it.” What happened then?
SP: “Mortality,” ironically, is Keats’s ultimate subject—mortality placed in tension with “intimations” of its corollary, immortality. That’s the major tension between content and form in his work: the perishability of the one against the wishful imperishability of the other. From childhood on, in a kind of mortal progression, everyone close to Keats dies or disappears—father, mother, brother, friends, Fanny Brawne. They die, disappear, while Keats himself becomes more and more invisible. The desire to make him invisible is the real reason he is sent off to Italy. No one knows what to do with him, least of all himself. When Keats comes to some reconciliation with these tensions he begins to write his best, beginning with “Hyperion: A Fragment,” “Eve of St. Agnes,” La Belle Dame” and then the Odes. All written after the Northern tour and Tom’s lingering death.
DB: You take your own essay’s title from Keats’s sonnet, “This Mortal Body of a Thousand Days.” His burning desire was to write great poetry, even before he actually did. He saw his forebears in Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, by turns. The present sonnet, addressed to another of his heroes, the Scottish poet Robert Burns, mourns Burns’s recent death. Keats raises a toast, “I gulp a bumper to thy name—”, and realizes that the price of “fame” is death. To “smile among the shades.”
It is eerie to me that Keats wrote “This Mortal Body of a Thousand Days” with about that long to live himself. How much do you think he knew, or foresaw, about his own death? How far could he see? Here in 1818, did he know?
SP: This is a question. A good many scholars/biographers pass the thousand days line off as luck—is that the right word? Of course he knew that if he developed any symptoms that there would be a timeline. A thousand is a round number—he doesn’t quite make that deadline—he misses it by about a hundred days. I believe it’s Tom—to whom he was writing long journal-like letters almost daily from the tour—I believe it’s Tom’s presence as a sort of ghost in his consciousness that gives him a measure of his own possible future. Keats, on his darker days, is ever the fatalist. George, in effect, is lost; Tom will be; so why not me? Burns’s life and death only reinforce this claustrophobia. In a way Keats’s posthumous life begins on Ben Nevis, the high and low point of the Northern tour; and his real and best writing life also begins . . . when so much else seems to be ending.
DB: What do you mean by his posthumous life? Maybe this is a good time to talk about the whole book’s title, Posthumous Keats. These phrases refer to his letter to his great friend (one of those brother surrogates you mention earlier) Charles Brown. In fact, I think this letter is virtually the only thing Keats wrote during those months in Rome before he died. This is the heartbreaking piece where he wrote, about himself, that he had been living a “posthumous existence.” How do you see that term working in Keats’s mind?
SP: Keats uses the term “posthumous” to refer to his life/existence (he uses at different times both these words) once everyone seems resigned to the fact that––in spite of what is said––his creative and personal life is over and this other, between-life-and-death reality becomes his life, say in the summer of 1820 leading up to his September departure to, arrival in, and four remaining months in Italy.
I, on the other hand, think of and use the term to refer to his after-life “existence,” in which the story of his immortality is played out. The poems and the letters, then, become his posthumous life and he becomes posthumous Keats.
DB: Your essay traces with great detail some of the significant events of that summer. The poet’s brother George and his wife, Georgiana, Charles Brown, and others show up. You know what clothes they wore on which days, what routes they traveled to where. You write as though you were there. Did it feel like that?
SP: It’s easy to enter into the narrative of Keats’s experiences since, through the letters in particular, he provides so much of the vital energy, texture, foreground and background, ups and downs of the living moment. You can only imagine what the real event—internal as well as external—must have been like. And as an observer you might have a totally different view of things; but we get Keats’s take almost immediately after the experience, and, sometimes, as if he were “texting” it, we get the experience transformed into language even as it is happening. The Northern tour promotes both of these kinds of transformations: quick memory and on-the-spot. Keats’s letters, as we all know, are supreme—none ever better.
DB: His letters are magnificent. In them, for instance, we can follow the great significance of his deep friendships. You pay so much attention to friendship in this essay. Friendship as attention and companionship. Friendship as a kind of love. Friendship as an art form.
SP: 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. Friendship—between friends, brothers and lovers—is what gives life to Keats’s letters, both the celebration of it and the complexity of it. Keats is a very moody fellow much of the time; the letters follow his changes, often from paragraph to paragraph. And friendship, in the last year of his life, is what will begin to fail him. What to do with John Keats becomes an unspoken concern among his friends once the TB really takes over and his personality suffers.
DB: Along with the incredible biographical details in this chapter, you fill your essay with equally detailed discussions of Keats’s poetry. It’s as though I’m reading a biography of the poems themselves. How do you see the relationship between the work and the life of Keats?
SP: The basis for all the biographies of Keats starts with his letters, which suggests that his biography is as much auto- as it is other-biography. Fair copying of his poems becomes his friends’ and brothers’ job as much as his own. A good portion of Keats’s “creative writing” is included in the letters: it is all one flow, just as the shifts in tone and subject within the letters develop as a single consciousness. Truth is, Keats’s claim that he would be among the English poets is less hubris than future-think. He died believing he had left “no immortal work behind.” Thus all the writing—the sonnets, the romances, the Odes, the quasi-epics—is to him like apprentice work: preparation for what he knew he could do. Life, though, as always, takes over, and that becomes the story—not what we planned or wished. Keats’s poems are certainly part of his autobiography, especially the autobiography of the imagination.
DB: That certainly counteracts your early training in New Criticism, doesn’t it? That’s where we learned or were instructed to disengage the life from the work. To treat the work with a kind of clinical objectivity, removed from historical context. Yet what you are doing here is a kind of historicism, mixing biography and cultural context and close reading of the text. Would that be an accurate assessment of your methods?
SP: Yes, exactly. But even the New Critics––and I grew up with them: Brooks and Warren particularly––leave room for the life behind the work. Their interest is in not allowing the life to supersede or supplant the work. They are operating out of modernist assumptions of not permitting the personal to get in the way of the “professional” in the art. To me, the narrative of how Keats’s reputation comes about is masterfully compelling, which requires the back-up “narrative” of what that reputation is built on and where, in Severn’s fine phrase, the “vicissitudes of his reputation” take us. My own ultimate interest, however, is in the texture of Keats’s long posthumous story. A story still continuing.
DB: Toward the end of this chapter, as you mentioned earlier, you recount Keats’s ascent of Ben Nevis. Keats was a great walker, like Wordsworth, wasn’t he?
SP: Actually Keats was a good walker; Wordsworth and Coleridge great walkers. Keats, finally, is an English Southerner, a city and pastoral walker. His friend Brown was also a great walker. Keats, though, tended toward walking with a purpose, a goal, not for walking’s own sake. His ill-fated Northern tour was intended to inspire him to write epic poetry: he was in search of the sublime. The letters to Tom jack up the price of his “inspiring” landscapes—to the point that he tires of them and becomes more interested in the people he meets. The Lake Country and Fingal’s Cave are exceptions. Hampstead Heath and the four-mile walk into town (London City): these are his idea of walking.
DB: I suppose there is no way to account for genius, especially for the burst of genius that Keats lived for those months in 1819 writing his great odes. And yet, do you have a theory about how this young, middling sonneteer became the great lyric poet of our language? Or is that the thesis of the whole book?
SP: Yes, that comes close to being one of the central theses of the book: how the Odes, notably, come to be. I will say this: burst may not be quite the right metaphor. If you look at the development of Keats’s writing from the start—in the more serious poems—and match that development with events in the life, you can see the pattern, or what Henry James calls “the figure in the carpet.” The Odes are a product of progress, of building on earlier work; and even the Odes show their own progress, a rising and falling from Psyche to Indolence.
DB: Well, where does the sustained intensity of the Odes come from? They are such phenomenally fine lyric poetry. What evidence or preparation for them do you find in his earlier poems? Does he consider himself already dead in the Odes?
SP: Oh my! This is a question I try to address in my book, but its answer is everywhere in the text of each chapter, sometimes more directly considered than other times. My feeling is––to come to a single point––that Keats invents in the Odes the modern lyric poem, not only through the beauty and intensity of the writing but in the elevation of its achievement to tragic status. He creates the ambition of the modern lyric as a self-reflective medium. Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s conversation poems break the ground for the content of meditation, for the implicit addressing of the muse, but their poems are closer, in feel, to something like “exposition”––and I use this word in its most positivistic sense––and staged drama. For Keats the drama is in the form, not simply the situation. This is why the New Critics loved the Odes––and why, in a wholly different emphasis, Eliot loved Donne.
DB: I have had the pleasure to read the manuscript of Posthumous Keats. This third chapter, the present essay, is typical of the biographical detail of the book, and typical of the kind of loving meticulous attention to the poems as well. So far we’ve been talking about this essay, and book, as though it is an example of biography, a study of the poet John Keats and his circle of friends. But it is much more than that. Honestly, I have never read a book so intimate, so entirely versed in the details and data of the life. The project feels like a confession, or the story of a friendship, or of many friendships.
SP: You keep referring to the Keats book––or at least the chapter in front of you––as an “essay.” To me it is a great story, the living story and the story after death, which is another kind of living story: meaning how art, this art, the word on the air, survives, like the breath of the spirit, written down. So it is not just Keats’s story; it is the story of poetry, its lyric origins and its lyric destiny. And it is the story of how fragile that destiny is, even, often, accidental. Really how human it is, since nothing is promised, and since what it requires is someone of value paying attention. Poems, for instance, don’t automatically go into the canon. Greatness is, more often than not, in disguise.
DB: What do you hope your readers will find in Posthumous Keats? Why write this book?
SP: I hope they find the great story that is Keats and that is lyric poetry. 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.
DB: Yes, it is. I know you have a long history of preparation for this book. Did you study him in graduate school? I know you have read all the biographies, the critical studies, and you have utterly absorbed the poems. But my guess is that you have also personally followed his pathways in England and Italy, too, literally walked his paths, looked over the bay in Naples, climbed Ben Nevis. Is that right?
SP: I studied with one old Romantic English scholar who had a lot to do with securing the status of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. His name is Neville Rogers. I have visited every single place in the Keats story. I spent a year, almost every day, at the Keats House in Hampstead––before it became such a public place: the Keats Library at the Keats House. And I have spent a lot of time at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome; in fact, I stayed on the floor above Keats’s and Severn’s rooms for a few nights––a very strange experience. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, since the Spanish Steps are an ongoing meeting place. I’ve “walked”––by car––the trip from Naples to Rome; I’ve climbed Ben Nevis; and I’ve trailed along much of the journey north that Keats and Brown traveled that fateful summer. There is no substitute, whatever the subject, for being there.
DB: In this whole project, what surprised you most? What did you learn?
SP: What surprised me most is the human vulnerability in everything we touch. And what I learned most is how much I love prose.
DB: That’s really interesting. Do you mean how much you love writing prose? What is the basis for that feeling? Prose’s elegance, or its capability to carry and sustain a story? Or something else entirely?
SP: I guess I do mean writing it, writing prose—writing, I hope, in the spirit of Pound’s dictum that poetry should be at least as well written as good prose: or, to turn it around, that prose should be at least as well written as good poetry. You’re asking, in addition, about differences and similarities between poetry and prose. The truth is, I think, that they are entirely different, if for no other reason than that they express, condition, acquire different contents—they create different contents. Critics will sometimes laud a piece of prose for its “poetic” qualities; no one ever praises poetry for its “prosaic” distinctions. I guess both means are roundish: and tasty: but they really are apples and oranges.
The other thing is that prose offers spatial and temporal options that counter, in poetry, certain energies. Poetry pulls in, includes by selection; prose reaches out, embraces its choices. Style is a term we use for prose; form is the term for poetry. Faulkner and Hemingway represent “opposing” styles, as do Proust and Flaubert. (I do wish poetry critics would stop using the word “style” to talk about formal differences in poets. It’s a kind of failure of imagination to not find a more on-the-money term.) I love the lengths I can go to in prose; I love the meander, the wander, the walkability of prose; I love its territory. Perhaps this is a function of age: all that memory and experience backed up behind what needs to be said.
DB: Keats is not just the subject of this prose project. He is a subject of several of your finest poems. If my guess is right, your first poem in which he appears is “Posthumous Keats.” That poem appears in your 1984 collection Summer Celestial. Along with the majestic title poem, “Posthumous Keats” is unlike any of your previous poems—so directly and fully a portrait-sketch of the poet and his friend Joseph Severn.
SP: This “project” all started with the “Posthumous Keats” poem, and my realization that certain connections in his story had not been made, and that the story itself was overwhelming in its richness, its “light and shade.” My other Keatsian poems are responses to moments and details in the life, as if, perhaps, they were my own experience.
DB: It also seems to me that your capability to find space for Keats in your poems has extended to other figures. Whitman, Wordsworth, Whistler. And in your new book, an even wider cast of characters appears—from Lyndon Johnson to Gene Tierney, your dear friend Bill Matthews to Audubon, Eliot, Dickinson, and so many other acquaintances, influences, and neighbors. It’s like a big family gathering. Does it feel like that to you? It is also like a life-list, everyone accumulated, tallied, and accounted for.
SP: I guess, for me, these other figures are compelling because they draw something out in me: an identification, of course, but also a sort of forgiveness of self, which applies even to Bill Matthews. People we love or respond to have that gift for naming something in us and making us know it.
DB: It’s fascinating to me how your books of poetry have grown over the years. I mean this in three ways. First, your later books are bigger. The first few were, as they say, slender volumes, and the poems there are tight, even meticulous lyrics, spare in their rhetoric and song. And the subjects are closely managed in those first books—natural descriptions, and a few fundamental narratives of the mother and father. Out-of-the-Body Travel and Summer Celestial are a son’s books. Yet in Boy on the Step and The Marriage in the Trees, your palette deepens: more poems, more space, and more people. Neighbors, lovers, friends.
Now you have finished a new manuscript, your first collection of all-new poems since 1996 and The Marriage in the Trees. Old Heart—which Norton will release this fall—is your biggest book. It has the most poems, the most pages. It also has the most people. It is not a son’s book. It is, in some way, a father’s book, though you have no children. This is the conundrum of “Paraphrase of the Parable of the Prodigal Son,” isn’t it, which ends with “He will die, / like many of us, without children.”
SP: My first two books were apprentice books, tryings-out. I never had a teacher, as such, for poetry-writing. I taught myself by studying whom I considered to be the masters, especially the Romantics and Moderns, and especially English models. Thus I have never quite got over the feeling that I sound, constantly, old-fashioned as a lyric poet––indeed, fearful that being a “lyric” poet somehow is a way of being excused. Out-of-the-Body Travel is when I found my voice and a sense of direction; found a way of admitting the silences and the spaces in-between things in my poems. The way my poems have “grown” in size and consciousness is exactly how I, as a person, have grown. The next poems, after Old Heart, will be that much more accepting, and, I hope, large-hearted. There is no substitute for honesty––it changes everything and frees you of the hold of “dark matter.”
DB: Old Heart is also profoundly a friend’s book. There are your students here, and their own parents and children. There are poems to your friend Bill Matthews. And more neighbors, townspeople, movie stars, painters, and pals.
Many poets’ worlds shrink as they grow through middle age. Yours has become more inclusive. And the poems themselves grow more formally spacious and various. How do you find the right form for a poem? Do you start with syllabics? Or a line? Or a story?
SP: To me, the heartbeat in my poems is syllabic but with an accent that I hope is natural and inherent within the language of the line and the sentence. You have to hear the language, word by word; otherwise, the writing degenerates into the noise of only-narrative, like a book-report of autobiography. The seeing in a poem is in the hearing. The hearing is all the page has: everything else flows from that. If you get the hearing right, then you have a chance to say something of value that will be heard. The hearing has visual qualities too—the right rhythm enlarges the space and helps find the form.
DB: Your Keats book is a book about mortality and immortality. So is Old Heart. Your own brush with heart trouble a few years ago underlines every other subject here—heart trouble as cardiac failure, heart trouble as the erotic life, heart trouble as the vexed life and death of friendship and passion.
SP: This is probably true for all of us: that our lifespan is somewhere between the mortalities of our parents. I have, as of today, outlived the death date of my father by twelve years; and I have ten more years left before I reach the death date of my mother. Both died of heart attacks. My own heart attacks reminded me of this inheritance. And yes, there is that other kind of heart trouble: love and its ablutions. There’s no solving love or absolving it. There’s just living through it. Friendship is love without sex. Sex also changes everything.