ANNAPOLIS – Stanley Plumly has flowing gray hair, a full gray beard and brown-rimmed glasses that hang from a cord around his neck. He is soft-spoken, quiet in tone but authoritative in demeanor, exuding an understated mastery of the art to which he has devoted his life’s work.
Plumly, 70, is a poet and a professor. For many, he is a master of both.
Thursday morning, Gov. Martin O’Malley appointed him the state’s ninth poet laureate before a standing-room-only audience. He will now serve, he said, as “both wandering bard and traveling salesman,” promoting poetry, a subject he believes often sells itself.
Plumly was the “unanimous choice for poet laureate,” said Alice McDermott, writer and chair of the seven-person selection committee. “It was finally the beauty of his words, the strength of his work, the excellence of his poetry that compelled us to recommend him as laureate.”
The author of nine books of poetry, Plumly welcomes the role of a “representative of what poetry is about,” he said. The burden and blessing of a poet laureate is “to help make more public the sometimes most private of the arts.”
Plumly recited “Long companions,” a poem which spans a lifetime — his lifetime, our lifetime, a bit of a nation’s lifetime — from “the year Hitler invades Poland” to the day that he and we “watch the tallest window buildings break and fall.”
The poem speaks of Pearl Harbor, of McCarthy, of “the black and white of cold war everywhere.” It speaks of Uncle Sam, of “the violent sixties,” of “the virulent, violent seventies.” It speaks of his mother’s funeral, of a life of “spilled milk,” of a time when he and we “love our friends anew, watch them disappear, one by one.”
Plumly chose the poem because it is a “public poem.”
“It covers a lot of history,” Plumly said. “It’s personal, and yet it has its own kind of emotional calendar, you might say. I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to see if I could get almost my entire life into two pages. I hope I did.”
Much of Plumly’s work finds inspiration in the personal. He called his father a muse, and said that his mother “has come much more into the picture as I get older.” Still, Plumly’s poetry speaks to a wide audience.
“A poem is accessible if it truly speaks of who you are,” said James Longenbach, a poet and friend of Plumly’s. “Stanley’s poems are what they must be because like all great writers, he has found a way … to truly be himself.”
It is Plumly’s language and tone that allow his audience to “feel in the presence of something quietly gorgeous,” Longenbach said, and it is his demeanor “that makes [his] brilliance all that more brilliant for it not seeming so.”
Plumly is “neither a cheerleader for poetry nor someone who is retreating from the public realm of poetry, and I think that’s exactly right,” Longenbach said. “He’s someone who, by his very presence, would make a person who doesn’t think much of poetry say, I would like to attend to this, because Stanley’s attention is seductive.”
Joshua Weiner, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, met Plumly at his job interview eight years ago. Plumly is a professor at the university and the founder of its Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing, a position he loves.
Plumly has “an absolutely sterling reputation … as being a master of his art, and that includes the art of poetry, but also the art of teaching,” Weiner said. “For the whole state to be able to benefit from his experience as a teacher is a tremendous boon.”
Plumly said that his pledge to act as the state’s poet laureate is one that “includes younger people as well as those closer to my old — my own — age. That was a Freudian slip,” he said, laughing.
He advises young writers to “keep on keeping on.”
“Sitting down and staring at the white snow of the page with nothing there, then finding the language to put there, is a … matter that takes not just work, but a certain amount of courage. And I think the courage part is underestimated. It’s a fearful thing to do.”