washingtonpost.com
Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, September 9, 2007

A rookie poet might fear to write poems that included the names of other poets, as though the life of art were not quite part of life. The veteran master may feel more confident about that. Stanley Plumly's rich, assured new book includes poems about poets of his own generation, living and dead, and of the past. Plumly's "Keatsian," a sonnet of subtly muffled rhymes, disarms by beginning with a sentence fragment that describes a scene seemingly far from Keats's "Ode to A Nightingale." But the word "English" is a smiling allusion, and the child's counting bicycle turns, then poetic forms, reminds us that an old term for verse was "numbers":

KEATSIAN

My brand-new Schwinn, its narrow English wheel.

I'd turn and circle figure eights until

I couldn't see or fell, the deep sun lost

behind the trees. I was as tall as Keats.

The game was numbers or the alphabet.

Later sorts of sonnets, quatrains, couplets.

Nobody died, as someone's mother or

mother-in-law would say about divorce.

At the end, sailing to south Italy,

grown-up Keats writes Brown that while "Land and Sea,

weakness and decline are . . . seperators . . .

death is the great divorcer forever."

In his marriage of the poem to matter,

written in stone if written in water.

"Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water" is the phrase Keats asked to be inscribed on his headstone. Those words written in stone are a brilliant paradox, reflecting the young poet's awareness that he might -- or might not -- be the kind of artist we call "immortal." Plumly's tribute has a similar quality of quiet depths, something like a sublime wryness.

Paradox and the relation between enduring stone and fluid life also characterize Plumly's meditation on the great Italian modernist Eugenio Montale:

HERMETICISM

The tiering up the hillside, the tearing up, too,

from so much sunlight, so much man-made beauty.

Marianna, Montale's sister, describes the family villa

as a sequence of gardens, multiples of trees,

and staircase after staircase climbing -- masses of sage,

broom, and white and yellow flax, and palms mixed in

with poplars, holly oaks, (lemons), and candle-lit magnolias,

while higher up, placed between the olives and the pears,

valerian and cyclamen -- then views of "little villages

grouped among the cliffs, hanging over the sea,"

the blue-eyed Mediterranean: all of it, to Montale,

imprisonment, a "counter-eloquence" of the mind at noon,

the sealed heart almost too deep for the sun. Summer's

language like sunlight on stone, light itself the stone.

The interplay between words and reality, mortal imagination and the lasting world, shimmers in these poems.

(Stanley Plumly's poems "Hermeticism" and "Keatsian" can be found in his new book "Old Heart: Poems." Norton.

Copyright 2007 by Stanley Plumly.)

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company