Keats and Shelley House” in Rome, but I also followed him around the island, and one of the most interesting parts of that journey was the trail that he followed; the walk he took every day.
At the very end of his life in Winchester, before he wrote To Autumn.
And you will be writing more about him. It is a biography?
No. It?s got biographical material in it. It?s another kind of meditation I suppose. It?s really a meditation on immortality; how it works, and in a way, how mortal immortality is, and how accidental, really.
I like what Robert Pinsky says about the book. that you 'honor John Keats with the informed intimacy of actual practice. These essays reveal the mysterious drama of great poetry." This book should be in college classrooms, and maybe can be.
Well, wouldn?t that be great.
It just came out this year so we?ll see .We are at the Library of Congress. We wish to honor Stanley's work which has informed the world -- and it is the greatest pleasure that we hear his next poem.
This is a poem called, Naps.
In a dream or fantasy I see my mother,
having put me down, leaning over me,
pulling the door shut twice, and if I rise
again, locking it. In school we were told
to put our heads down on the desks and think
of it as prayer or to lie on our left
sides on the floor, an inch between the pound
weight of the heart and passage of the earth.
We were told to listen to the silence,
not to talk, and breathe in slowly, slowly,
and pretend, if we had to, it was dark.
Already on our own we?d learned to study
out the window, to cogitate the tree
within the cloud, the long sunlit fingers
of the crow, and how to hold an object
in the mind and let it turn until it
turned the other life it wanted, the way
a doorknob with its facet-gaze of glass
becomes a diamond or a crystal,
and as you fall asleep, disintegrates,
snow in a paperweight. And now we were
intuiting sleeping in the future,
the disconnected nights, the dawn-light wakings,
the shadow puzzles clouding up the windows,
the hardwood study table and chair,
gravity?s floor 3333‹4444 a lifetime?s worth of all
the afternoons we?d lose or lose part of
trying to recover what was lost. So
we?d use our hands and arms to blind the eyes,
and then the mind to separate ourselves.
Then wait the voice outside calling our return,
the same voice as the moment of instruction:
to lie down in the middle of the day,
dream fragmentary, dusk-enhancing dreams,
be the body-of-the-one-looked-upon,
come back to life, O startled, distant child.
How do you get there? How do you get there?
Well, I think the oldest and the sagest advise is always practice, practice, practice. I think you have to hear the poem for a long, long time in your head, and on the page to make sure it has...
has arrived where you want it to be.
I?m also talking about the place where it starts. I know that you practice yoga. I think you said, for seven years.
Well, now about ten years.
But your work before then had this meditative quality.
Yes, well, that?s part of, maybe my Quaker heritage. I started doing that a long, long time ago. Even when I didn?t want to do it. You were sort of forced into it, sitting on those hard benches for a couple of hours.
But the silence that you capture, and the light and the shadows and the dark, make for haunting work. I think the highest kind of lyricism being written into today?s poetry. Does anyone tell you that?
I?ve heard that before, yes. Thank you.
Let?s hear another.
This is a poem called Mercy, and some in the audience may recognize a line in the poem that I?ve borrowed from Emily Dickinson.
A murder of crows,
what I saw on a spindle of dead white oak,
two or three of them, at different times,
hectoring the head of the sick one,
the old one, the weak one apart.
From school those Eskimo stories
in which leathery grandfathers and grandmothers
are left behind or set afloat.
They?d freeze, Mr. Steinman said, from the extremities in.
Thinking about what they must have been thinking,
I imagined the brain last
on the ascending list
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow
I read, in chilling poetry,
years later. Even at twelve,
the concept seemed distant, efficient,
in keeping with the clarity
and killing cold of vast, undifferentiated arctic spaces.
In keeping with the landscape of the old.
In the language of the desert Navajo,
the old man didn?t drown,
the water came up to get him.
That?s how I imagined freezing,
as a kind of incremental drowning,
a sort of slow, word by word submersion,
then, at last, the pulling under, rings on water.
The killed crow fell the sixty feet in seconds,
less, though in the while it took
to find it, it had moved. My mother,
alive in the machine,
becalmed on hard white sheets,
the narrative of legs, arms,
animal centers stilled,
some starlight in the mind glittering off
and on, couldn?t tell me
whether or not to leave her.
If you were to think about how it is that you can get so close the reader, can you put your finger on what that is, in your work?
Well, I don?t know, that?s. . .
You really get next to the reader.
Yeah, I guess because one, at some point in the career of the poem, has to become that reader. At least ones own ideal reader. And it?s an odd paradox. You have to be separated from the work, and yet love what you do at the same time. You?re almost in a kind of schizophrenia about yourself.
There?s an intimacy about your work...
...It is what makes us draw in so close.
Absolutely, but the separation is part of that intimacy.
I don?t know anyone else achieving this as much as W.S. Merwin, and maybe Mark Strand
Those are two poets I admire a great deal. .
So let?s hear another poem.
A great American subject, this one, I think. Debt.
Pound, for whom collateral was metaphor,
Stevens, for whom poetry was a kind of money,
Eliot, who counted money in a bank - O
let them be the three or four dour men
standing around the outside of the house
funereally in overcoats, stamping their feet,
staring or looking down, faintly breathing
fire. It?s a hard Ohio morning, snowing.
My father?s out there too, in shirtsleeves,
hands in his pockets, two or three tired years
past thirty. Then one of the men is writing
in a book that makes me think of school,
the others drawing pictures in the air,
which is the still gray grainy white of paper.
What else: except they measure off the fencerows.
Walk the acre frontage, wade a sort of circle
of the house as if they?re going to buy it.
What else: except the window ice and cold
and hole enough to see through; secrecy, fell
silence, and intermittent, fragmentary snow,
fields of it, and half a mile or less the B & O.
Pound defined usury as the tax on borrowed time
by those who own mortality. I wish Pound
had been there. I wish someone like him.
He had the moment?s right mad temperament
and the animal face of the prophet. Wallace
Stevens as well in that grave wool worsted
coat he wore on his wintry walks to work. The w?s
like angels in the snow. The greatest poverty,
he said, is not to live within a physical world.
Great poverty is what it felt like when they
stood like winter itself in the middle
of the room talking figures. I was nine
or ten and twenty years from poetry, when Eliot
said imagination is different from fulfillment.
A Doctrine of Signatures is the title of this book, in which that poem is found. And who else would put those three guys together anyway, around money, with of course the recurring theme, the exalted father. The exalted father comes in here again. That is your signature, isn?t it?
Well, he is both personal and archetypal, I think. A double life.
I agree, and also this is a very good poem to know about your work, because it is without judgement.
I think that?s a good point Grace. You?re right. I don?t think about that, but that?s the result.
I was looking again at your work, and I just saw my note, no judgement.” And that may be about the way you live your life too, I?m not sure. But you can speak of the terror of voices, in your work, and some memories that are not pretty. But you never judge.
Quakers have a word for that. It?s called giving witness.” I think you?re absolutely correct, and in the moment you begin to judge, you cut off certain possibilities; certain options. And you really begin to close down the imaginative part of your thinking.
Why can?t we learn that first, rather than last?
Well it is something you do learn. This is a poem called, Simile.
This heart I found at lowtide this morning,
accurate to a fault, hand-sized, heart-shaped,
with the thick weight of a heart, a perfect
piece of limestone cut by hand by the sea
who knows how long, brought up from the bottom
again and again, split like our own hearts,
nicked from the top half down, as if in another
life it had been real, stone atrium, stone sorrow,
stone ventricles, stone arteries and veins.
And these glittering halves of oyster shells
I picked this afternoon, like the stones
worn into shape, swirled, half-eaten-out, still
oiled and pearly-wet, with edges sharp enough
to clean a fish. Imagine that the oysters
have survived, like eyes of the otherworldly
or symbols of some sexual potency, look-alikes
for testicles of a woman?s soft insides,
as we drink them down by swallowing them whole...
In the doctrine of signatures things become
themselves as something else, as we are who
we are word of mouth. Then I found a bird,
a kind of gull, eaten by the fish and other birds,
one missing wing, one eye, the rest of it
so rendered past resemblance you throw it back,
into the void, the chaos it came from,
yet the moment it goes under it?s a memory,
a metaphor, we say, for what we can?t quite
name, tip of the tongue, whistle in the bone,
death in its variety, its part-by-piece detail.
Like the skull washed up one lost-and-found
new year, fallen from the ocean sky,
dead off the moon, something to conjure with,
now set on the desk on the bony back of its
head, neither human nor animal but brilliant white
brain-coral, pitted, scalloped, furrowed
at the brow, its stone, teardrop-shaped face
a mask for mourning. Unlike the shapely clouds,
changeable, emotional, a skein of moving mare?s-
tails, a skimmer?s broken wing, cumulonimbus
places where once-and-future beings act out
their human longing. I went down to the sea,
the source of life, it was filled to overflowing.
The blue horizon line, however many miles,
parted nothing more than air from bluer water,
though it was poetry to say what it looked like.
Is that the title poem? A Doctrine of Signatures? It should be.
I guess it is. I didn?t mean for it to be, but it turned out to be. You know this is typical of me. All those objects exist. I have them in my office. They?re real objects. I could not write a poem like this unless I had the real thing in front of me. That?s just how my imagination works.
The oyster shells.
The oyster shells. But ... I have this marvelous piece of limestone. Perfect heart shape, with this crack right down the middle, to about three quarters. I have this skull shaped brain corral too, that?s the size of a head, human head, which I found in Florida.
So your image vocabulary is from objects, many times.
Oh, absolutely. But from real objects and things that have entered my life involuntarily.
But then there?s always a Stanley Plumly question. 'We are what we are by word of mouth.' Is that the way we are?
I think we are.
Is that how we get put together?
Exactly. You can take that all the way back to the book of Genesis. The breath.
They say many things about you. They say you are " a modern elegiac poet, successor to James Wright and John Keats.". Rita Dove said that.. And those are your credentials, whether you recognize them or not. That?s what we got by word of mouth. So let?s go on.
Here?s a poem that is, you might say, very local. Farragut North, which is a Metro stop, among other things, here in Washington.
In the tunnel light at the top of the station two or three
figures huddled under tarps built against the wind crossing
Connecticut and K. It?ll be noon before they rise in their
Navajo blankets, trinkets, ski masks and gloves to start
the day, noon before the oil slicks of ice on the sidewalks thaw.
In the forties, after the war, in the Land of Uz, when
somebody came to the house for a handout, my mother?d
give him milk money or bread money as well as bread and milk.
To her each day was the thirties. The men at the door had
the hard-boiled faces of veterans, soldiers of the enemy.
My mother saw something in them, homelessness the condition
of some happiness, as if in the faces of these drifters could be
read pieces of parts of herself still missing: like the Indian
woman in Whitman?s Sleepers who comes to his mother?s door
looking for work when thee is no work yet is set by the fire
and fed: so that for my mother, the first time she left,
it became a question of whom to identify with most,
the wanderer or the welcomer. The stunted sycamores on K are
terminal, though they?ll outlast the hairline fractures marbling
the gravestones of the buildings. Under the perfect pavement
of the sky the figures frozen in this landscape contemplate
the verities too fundamentally for city or country: their isolation
is complete, like the dead or gods. When I think of a day with
nothing in it, a string of such days, I think of the gray life of
buildings, of walking out of my life in a direction just
invented, or, since some of us survive within the mental wards
of our own third worlds, I see myself disguised for constant
winter, withdrawn into the inability to act on the least impulse
save anger and hear myself in street-talk talking street-time.
Such is the freedom of transformation, letting the deep
voice climb on its own; such is the shell of the body broken,
falling away like money?s new clothes; such is my mother?s
truant spirit, moving dead leaves with the wind among the shadows . . . .
I'm interested in those devices that get you where you need to go. As in the Pound poem. "What else," you said, "what else?" Are you aware of how you?re doing that? How you get us from one place to another? You are aware. So we get the language of your experience; we have incidents of your life; but then in each poem, they come together in a moment. There?s always a moment in your poem, where it all comes together. This time it?s your mother giving out something to the hobo?s of the S?40's. And then, the poem fans out again to more meanings. Do you feel that is true, in each poem?
Well, I think of course that?s part of its root system. I feel very committed to what I say to my students, is the interrupted narrative. Narrative can be pretty boring when it?s merely recited, and a repeated experience, so to speak, or a repeated version of experience. Because there are no straight lines in nature, and there aren?t, I think, in true organic writing. So I describe it as a meander, which is a natural movement. The way a river moves, or a snake moves, or whatever. It?s what generates the energy. In a way the diversion is part of the most interesting aspect of the writing.
And also the way you?re teaching John Keats, and I know you have a graduate class waiting for you right now--so you'll go back and, you say, comfort them. Because they are studying Keats? odes.
Exactly. They?re in the process of writing final papers right now.
Right this minute.
We spent this semester surrounding the odes with, I hope, relevant information, and then examining them ode by ode; really line by line, over the course of the term.
And are you hoping that they?ll bring something to that, which is new?
Yes, I want them to write, not research papers, they know that. Something fairly original, which will be supported by evidence of course, but... G: Can you be surprised by someone saying something that you haven?t thought of?
Oh, sure! I hope so.
And it happens?
Yeah, we do that in class all the time. When I ask a question in class, it?s usually because I want an answer; I?m not certain myself.
Do you have a lot of hope about these young people?
Oh yeah, definitely.
Are they PhD?s? MA?s? Graduates?
Some are, some MA?s, some PhD?s, some MFA?s.
We?re talking about the University of Maryland at College Park. And we?re at the Library of Congress with Stanley Plumly; I?m Grace Cavalieri. He is reading from two books. One his collected poems, Now that My Father Lies Down Beside Me, and that?s Harper Collins Echo. And then the new manuscript, which is A Doctrine of Signatures, which is a premiere. Now I want to talk about Stanley Plumly, the naturalist
Well, I don?t know about that, but I love the natural world in a way that I can understand it, yeah.
And you have patience with it.
Well, you don?t have much choice.
You could walk away from it. ,
Well, you could, but if you?re going to enjoy it, you have to sit in it, you have to walk in it, you have to be in it, and you have to be in time with it. In sync with it, I think is the way to put it.
And that?s what I see in the essays Argument & Song, because you take us into the woods with you, and describe every flora and fauna and bird and tree, and you know so much? Or you learned so much.
Well, both. I mean, you see and then you have to figure out what it is you?re seeing. That?s a kind of reflective act. But cities, too, are nature. They may be artifice, and they may be man- made, but they have their own natural aspect. Or we turn them into nature. We have a need to do that, and will. Hence in New York those avenues, those great avenues, become canyons. The way the wind works in those streets. You know, sometime walking along in a place like New York, there?ll be stillness. And you cross the street, go around a corner, and you?ll be hit with this incredible force of wind coming off the park, or who knows, off the Hudson. Whatever. Well, that?s nature. You look up, and those buildings have divided the sky in a certain way. It forces you to focus on a segment of sky you wouldn?t notice somewhere else. Certainly way out in the world; in Montana somewhere, or Wyoming. And so you?ll notice the shape of a cloud that you might not have been interested in, in another context.
If you were a painter we wouldn?t get any poetry.
Well, that?s actually how I started out. I was a lousy painter. That was my first job, teaching painting. My first teaching job.
You and Mark Strand
Yeah, well I fell into it. I think he had plans. I had no plans.
You know how to see.
That?s one thing taking painting classes does teach you. It teaches you what to look for. This is a poem in a different direction. Infidelity.
The two-toned Olds swinging sideways out of
the drive, the bone-white gravel kicked up in
a shot, my mother in the death seat half
out the door, the door half shutshe?s being
pushed or wants to jump, I don?t remember.
The Olds is two kinds of green, hand-painted,
and blows black smoke like a coal-oil fire. I?m
stunned and feel a wind, like a machine, pass
through me, through my heart and mouth; I?m standing
in a field not fifty feet away, the
wheel of the wind closing the distance.
Then suddenly the car stops and my mother
falls with nothing, nothing to break the fall. . . .
One of those moments we give too much to,
like the moment of acknowledgment of
betrayal, when the one who?s faithless has
nothing more to say and the silence is
terrifying since you must choose between
one or the other emptiness. I know
my mother?s face was covered black with blood
and that when she rose she too said nothing.
Language is a darkness pulled out of us.
But I screamed that day she was almost killed,
whether I wept or ran or threw a stone,
or stood stone-still, choosing at last between
parents, one of whom was driving away.
What a tough poem. That?s one of the few where you get the narrative, and the complication, and there?s actually closure, in that. It doesn?t happen all the time. But actually, there isn?t closure, either. No, there isn?t, I take that back.
No, there are different times being elevated and juxtaposed there. Different times in ones life.
But -as I said of you - the lack of judgement and the sweet grief. There?s a grief underlying all those words. You turn it into something. How do you turn grief into something?
I don?t know if I?d use the word sweet, but it is.... I?d like to think there?s a forgiveness there, an implicit forgiveness; I guess another, fancier word would be a reconciliation.
There isn?t a complaint in any of your work.
I think that?s how memory works. It ought to teach you forgiveness.
Your memory, maybe. Well, Ghandi said it, didn?t he?
Well, I don?t know. I don?t think we have to be quite so...grand being.
He said to change your work, change your life.
To me it?s the only way that happiness works. It?s not to subtract the sadness in your life, it?s to add something else to it simultaneously.
So that?s what?s in the line.
I think part of the judgement you?re talking about is that some people feel you always have to make a choice. You don?t have to. The soul, or whatever you want to call it is capacious, and can include a great deal, I think. Even opposition. Well, now we go to visit my mother, back in Ohio. She would always report to me on the status of my former classmates, from elementary school, high school, and whatnot. It was not something I necessarily wanted to hear about, and it was amazing to me after a while, as the evidence began to pile up, how unfortunate that little group I started out with at Spring Creek Township School on the western side of Ohio; there were about twenty of us, I suppose; what percentage of those people ended up not doing well. I thought the percentage was a little outsized, and when I began to put it together, I came up with this poem. Souls of Suicides as Birds.
Because of his fierce red-orange hair,
which he hated and threatened to dye,
and did, on more than one occasion,
leaving the half-look of his head
strangely mottled, as if he had survived
scarlet fever, which, in his embarrassment,
he sometimes claimed he had, and because
he spoke and acted with a certain insect
abruptness yet showiness in spite of his
childish size, more diminutive each year,
and because Timothy is a grass, Tim the
diminution, he?s become an American Redstart,
demonstrative at the tiptop of branches,
che-wee, che-wee, che-wee. Linda Mannus,
whose intelligent, high-wire crisis voice
piqued everyone?s angst, even at twelve,
is a Chipping Sparrow, heard as well in
the backyard as among the orchard cages.
She took poison, then a razor, then ran -
Timothy Cotrell used all twenty gauges
of his gun. The farmer Elifritz drove
his tractor through a worn-out wall
of his barn, thereby piercing his throat
with old wood, and therefore is a warbler,
Black-throated Blue, who loves the swampy
interior, the dense scrub undergrowth.
Jack Butz, whose Vietnam wound was total,
like a lightening scar, lived for as long
as is possible in Piqua, Ohio, and be alive;
and Jerry Hart, star athlete, died of AIDS:
one is a Purple, one a Boat-tailed Grackle.
And when Raymond Baker flew with his Ford
Fairlane through the barrels and signs of
detour, planing his head through the wind-
shield, he became a Swift, able to dive
down chimneys and vector a straight line
of the invisible air, like an arrow aimed
at silence. And the two sisters, Alma
and Kay, each impregnated by their father,
transpired for a while as Whippoorwills,
then Doves, but found real joy as t Thrushes,
hermetic, unadorned, but adored at evening.
Kay found Alma hanging, and followed3333Ř4444
These friends from school - and there are more,
doubtless, I don't know about. And others,
almost subtle, who crafted deaths, too natural,
none of whom made it out of their thirties
and forties, none of them murdered, none
of them victims of street ire, or planes,
sticks and stones, or drugs, none of them missing
persons, all of them Starlings, or the Siren
noise, high in the Tulip Poplars.
How did you ever transform them?
Well I started with, I remembered the old concept of the bird as a symbol for the soul, going back to ancient times. And it just struck me that, why not now? Why can?t those birds be representatives now, and not just of ancient souls.
When you were in England, you do write about birds very much there. Is there any bird there that is not here, that you can think of?
Sure there are lots. I prefer the passerine kind. That is to say, the songbirds, and the small, more insignificant types. You notice that no state claims the sparrow as its state bird. No state claims a crow, or even a blue jay which are cousins to crows, because of their personalities, and whatnot.
In Italy you hear the nightingale. But can you hear it in America?
What we call, our nightingale is a good old, democratic gray-brown bird that Whitman labels in his great elegy for Lincoln. The hermetic thrush, or the hermit thrush.
The thrush is a nightingale?
Yeah, and of course their music is in direct proportion, the beauty of their music is in direct proportion to the plainness of their being. I think of the American birds, the cardinal is the exception. It has a pretty great singing voice, in the evening especially. It chirps in the morning. The cardinal, which is the most popular state bird, even has a town in Iowa named for it?s early morning call, and that is, What cheer! What cheer! What Cheer!” And the town is called What-Cheer”. I think there?s even an exclamation point after.
Was someone really that imaginative?
If you?re driving along Route 80, you?ll see a sign. One of those green, white and green signs that will say, What Cheer!”
I give Ohio credit for that.
Let's shift gears a bit. We?ve been talking about Keats, referring to Keats. I have several poems that come out of moments of my response to his life. Little things that I think were unnoticed. This is a sort of, this poem, though, is a fantasy. Keats and John Constable lived in Hempstead at the same time. There?s no record of them having ever met. In fact, the summer after Keats writes the odes, or was revising the odes - the spring odes - Constable is in Hempstead having trouble with his career, painting the sky. He?s painting nothing but the sky. Actually, he?s painting clouds. Constable?s Clouds for Keats.
They come in off the sea peaceable masters
and hold the sea in the sky as long as they can.
And you write them down in oils because of their
brilliance, and to remember, in its turn, each one.
It?s eighteen twenty-two after the Regency,
and it would be right in the year after his death
to think of these - domed above the
Heath in their isolated chronicle - as elegies
of the spirit; right to see these forms
as melancholy hosts, even at this distance.
Yet dead Keats is amorphous, a shapelessness
re-forming in the ground, and no one you know enough
to remember. He lies in the artist?s paradise
in Rome, among the pagan souls of sheep at pasture.
You?ll lie in Hampstead where he should have stayed
to meet on your walks up Lower Terrace.
or along the crowning High Street heading home.
Your clouds grow whiter, darker, more abstract
from one elaborate study to the next,
correlatives, or close, to the real sentiment
that lives, you say, in clouds . . . subjects to counter-
weigh the airy gravity of trees and leaping horses.
Keats could have met you - you must have seen him once
against the light, at least. He could be
crossing on Christchurch Hill Road now,
then over the Elm Row and down Old Admiral?s Walk.
He could be looking at the clouds blooming between
buildings, watching the phantoms levitating stone.
He was there your first Heath summer writing odes,
feeling the weather change from warm to chill,
focused, no less than you, on daylight?s last detail,
wondering what our feelings are without us.
And if we can have a final poem, I'd like you to read Birthday
An old mortality, These evening doorways into rooms,
this door from the kitchen and there?s the yard
the grass not cut and filled with sweetness
and in the thorn the summer wounding the sun.
And locked in the shade the dove calling down.
The glare?s a little blinding still but only
for the moment of surprise, like suddenly
coming into a hall with a window at the end,
the light stacked up like scaffolding. I am
that boy again my father told not to look
at the ground so much looking at the ground.
I am the animal touched on the forehead, charmed.
In the sky the silver maple like rain in a cloud
we?ve tied: and I see myself walking from what looks like
a classroom, the floor waxed white, into my father?s
arms, who lifts me, like a discovery, out of this life.
You can hear this series on www.loc.gov/poetry"poet&poem. Grace Cavalieri is the author of several produced plays, and books of poetry, the latest, Water on the Sun (Bordighera Press, c2006) "The Poet and the Poem" now enters its 30th year on public radio. Poems from Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me, and A Doctrine Of Signatures © Stanley Plumly, are reprinted with permission of the author. Grateful acknowledgement is given to DoubleTake and Poetry Magazines in which some of these poems appeared.