Stanley Plumly Essay - Critical Essays


T. S. Eliot said that writing poems is a way of escaping personality. Stanley Plumly holds a similar view. Only when one abandons an intense internal focus, Plumly believes, can one see the outer world clearly. Such a clarity typifies Plumly’s own poetry. This freeing oneself of the confines of personality allows one to absorb the outer world more fully, a world that Plumly’s poems reveal to be mysterious.

For Plumly, such an escape from personality does not mean, however, a poetry that is impersonal. On the contrary, in his own poetry Plumly establishes a very intimate voice. His “out-of-the-body travel” allows him to understand nature, the outer world, more clearly, but he can also understand his own distinctive place in the natural world. He is able to stand apart from and observe himself at the same time.

The poems in Giraffe clearly exemplify this concern with escaping personality. In this volume, Plumly repudiates confessional poetry because it allows the poet to indulge in his or her own psychological struggles and leads nowhere. The poet, Plumly suggests, must enter the world outside him- or herself, no matter how dark, foreign, or foreboding, and live in it. In the transcendental tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Hart Crane, Plumly sees entry into the outer world as a means by which one can intuit a sense of his or her own place in the natural order of things, thereby realizing a more harmonious existence with nature.

This focus on nature is often manifested in poems whose subjects are animals, plants, or trees. Horses, for example, appear in several poems, particularly in Giraffe, where they represent a kind of sacred, spiritual union with nature. Plumly’s examination of the natural world also points to his admiration for his fellow Ohio poet James Wright. Like Wright, Plumly aims to see the natural world anew and, through fresh imagery, to make it live in his poems.

Another important similarity to Wright’s work is Plumly’s spare style, which follows Wright’s ideal of a reliance on the “pure, clear word.” The diction in Plumly’s poems is direct but quiet, and the resonating emotive quality of the language often leans toward lyricism.

Plumly’s poetry, however, is distinguished stylistically in several ways. The poems most often begin in an intense state of emotion and move toward an understanding of those feelings. Thus, a poem’s forcefulness often depends on the strength of its closure, and it is this strength in particular which contributes to Plumly’s individual style. The poems build toward a final moment of epiphany in which often contradictory emotions are condensed into a single clarifying image, as in “Wrong Side of the River” (Out-of-the-Body Travel). In this poem two people try to communicate from opposite banks of the river:

. . . you began shouting and I didn’twant you to think I understood.So I did nothing but stand still,thinking that’s what to do on the wrong sideof the river. After a while you did too.We stood like that for a long time. ThenI raised a hand, as if to be called on,and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.

In this example, Plumly depends in the last two lines, as he often does, on repetition, and on the strong cadence that results from it. The chantlike effect makes the poem’s emotional resonance all the more powerful.

As this passage suggests, Plumly is concerned with questions that are common to everyone. In many of the poems these are questions of loyalties to and relationships with parents, or questions about why certain childhood memories remain so strong and recur so often. In Plumly’s major collections, several poems center on a father-son relationship. In the earlier volumes, In the Outer Dark and Giraffe, the son has difficulty accepting the father’s death because the father-son relationship in life had been incomplete. The son resents the father’s passing and cannot let go of his father because an understanding between the two had not been achieved. In Out-of-the-Body Travel, however, the son has become more forgiving of the father for dying before a mutual understanding between them had been reached.

Many of the poems, particularly those whose subject is the father or another relative, also focus on the steadfastness of early memories. These poems reflect Plumly’s belief in the shaping importance of early experiences. In “This Poem” (Out-of-the-Body Travel) he writes, “The first voice I ever heard/ I still hear, like the small talk in a daydream.” These lines also illustrate Plumly’s notion that traveling out of oneself enables one to turn back and look more clearly at oneself and to understand in retrospect the experiences that contributed to forming one’s individuality. It is also by so doing that one sees one’s similarities to others in the world.

In the Outer Dark

The poems comprising In the Outer Dark are about outer darkness, but they are also about inner light, the power of the imagination and the feeling mind to illuminate. The poems are rich with contrasting images of light and dark. Inextricably caught up in the imagery and ideas of light and dark are the related subjects of time and space. Plumly considers the dark in “Now the Sidewise Easing into Night” as the embodiment of space. In this poem the dark has walls; it measures distance. Light, on the other hand, connotes openness, the physical and metaphysical sense of infinite possibility. In “All the Miles of a Dream,” for example, men travel across snowy fields toward light: “The light sat in the window// and was the only direction/ all the miles of a dream/ can offer three men moving across such spaces.”

The title poem reflects a similar concern for coming to terms with the complexities of time and space. In this poem, people move toward one elusive center at which they never arrive. As suggested by the title of another poem, “Arriving at the Point of Departure,” time propels people in such a way that their arrival points are also their points of departure. Plumly sees poetry, however, as a vehicle that can stop time and allow people to reflect on a single moment. In “Rilkean Autumn,” he writes, “Tomorrow the pump will freeze./ But today, thought, in the held moment,/ sucked to a single drop,/ still wags at the lip of the tap.” Such held moments for Plumly often depend on the absence of ego, and it is in such moments that the imagination sees beyond the confines of personality. Furthermore, many poems, such as “Chinese Jar,” suggest that only when the outer world seems darkest and most silent does one’s inner spirit become most active, most fully engaged. This creates a compelling tension in the poems. The held moment, the narrated experience, appears still, while the poem’s emotion, the feeling discovered from the moment, resonates with powerful intensity. These moments are most often memories: digging potatoes with his father, driving in the car with his mother, listening to the wind in Kansas. In silence and darkness, then, Plumly suggests, the spirit recharges itself by transcending the...

(The entire section is 3060 words.)