UMD professor Stanley Plumly remembered for his devotion to students, poetry

Stanley Plumly sits at his "writing perch" in Tawes in fall 2018 (Photo courtesy of Derek Ellis).

It’s hard for James Hoch to pick out the distinct ways that studying under Stanley Plumly at the University of Maryland in 1998 made him the poet and human being he is today.

Hoch can talk about Plumly’s tremendous generosity, his big heart. He can extol the poet’s profound devotion to the art and his fierce loyalty to his students.

But really, it was the totality of all these things — the all-encompassing experience of being in Plumly’s presence — that ultimately shaped Hoch.

“It’s like, how does the ocean contribute to the concept of water? It’s the ocean, man,” said Hoch, who now teaches creative writing at Ramapo College of New Jersey and Sarah Lawrence College.

So when Hoch heard that his former professor had died, it was as if he had lived by the ocean his entire life, then turned around one day to find it gone.

Plumly, who taught poetry at this university for 34 years and served as the state of Maryland’s poet laureate for nine, died from multiple myeloma complications on April 11. He was 79.

By the time of his death, Plumly had composed a vast body of well-loved work. Of his 11 volumes of poetry, Old Heart was named winner of the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry and a finalist for a National Book Award and Out-of-the-Body Travel was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Plumly’s writing — in its rich texture, simple elegance and deference to nature’s majesty — is imbued with a sense of British Romanticism that harks back to the work of John Keats, for whom he had a lifelong devotion. In his 2008 work, Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, Plumly chronicled the poet’s short and tragic life with empathy and tenderness.

Bringing Plumly to this university in 1985 from the University of Houston was a “real feather in the [English] department’s cap,” Michael Collier recalled, laughing at the memory. Collier, a poetry professor at the school then and now, noted that Plumly had already established himself by that time as one of the “leading poets of the generation” and as a great visionary for building creative writing programs — he had established the well-known program at Houston.

Together, Plumly and Collier created the creative writing graduate program at this university and proceeded to work together for more than three decades. During this time, Collier was in awe of Plumly’s ability to figure out the soul of a young poet and determine how best to help it grow.

“As a colleague, he never missed class,” Collier said. “I can’t remember a single time when he missed class. That’s really a model to a younger colleague — to see someone who’s that dedicated, who loves it that much … That the teaching was as important as writing your own poems.”

Today, Plumly’s students are writing and teaching across the world — Hoch’s former classmates are living in New Zealand and Israel. They are published in The New Yorker and Poetry, and many have released their own books and volumes of poems. One of his students — Rita Dove, who was a poet laureate for the United States from 1993 to 1995 — won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987.

Within minutes of Patrick Phillips coming across another former student of Plumly’s — one of the “sons and daughters of Stanley” — he feels a sort of kinship with them.

“I meet people who went through Stan’s courses and picked up his view of things, and I feel like these are some of my favorite people because we were sort of raised right,” said Phillips, who earned his master’s of fine arts at this university in 1995 and now teaches at Stanford University.

To his students, Plumly passed along a deep commitment to the tradition of poetry — one that transcended any accolades that may or may not follow the work. He taught them that their own egos and myriad insecurities dimmed in the face of the poetic calling.

Plumly poured a great deal of time into ensuring that his students were not only progressing academically but safe and healthy. Joelle Biele, who studied under Plumly from 1991 to 1998, recalled how fatherly he was toward her.

“He would check and see if I had enough money, he’d say things like, ‘You’re not just eating Cheerios, are you?’” said Biele, now a published poet, essayist and playwright. “If he thought I was not dressed properly [for the weather], he would insist I wear his coat.”

The professor’s afternoons were stacked with one-on-one meetings with students in his office, and he carefully considered each poem that came forward in workshops. Hoch remembers one time Plumly spent half of the three-hour session combing through a single student’s poem, picking out everything that was exceptional about it, everything that was a misstep and everything that was just mediocre.

This is one of the things Phillips said he will remember the most about his former teacher: the profound compliment of deep attention that he paid his students. He took them very seriously as artists, but, at the same time, did not shy away from calling them out if they took themselves too seriously — or if something they had written was not up to snuff.

“Stanley would laugh, and would laugh joyfully, at a terrible line,” Phillips said. “And some of his students took that and were wounded and could kind of slink off to the woods to die emotionally. But instead I kind of loved it because I think the spirit in which he meant it was as someone who’d spent his entire life doing this, he’d written tons of those lines … He was laughing at all of us.”

Returning to Plumly’s poems is at once a sad and a comforting experience for Hoch. He can hear his former professor’s deep, rumbling voice so clearly. He can sense the laughter and the places where Plumly would mumble a bit, while quietly moving through the poem.

“You’re walking by the beach, the ocean goes away, you turn around, the ocean still feels like it’s there,” Hoch said. “Even though he’s gone, the sense of presence he occupied in my memory, my mind, my ethos, it’s not going anywhere. His influence is not going anywhere.”

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