Turnbull Lecture presents Maryland Poet Plumly

By BRIANA LAST | February 17, 2011

The first physical feature one notices about Stanley Plumly is undoubtedly his impressive beard.

Of course, the great number of audience members who filled Mudd Hall last Tuesday evening didn’t attend to see the distinguished poet’s facial hair. By the time 6:30 p.m. rolled around, most seats were taken in anticipation, all attendees eager to hear the poet speak.

Before Plumly took the stage at the Turnbull lecture, he was presented by the chair of the Writing Seminar’s Department, Dave Smith. Smith discussed his admiration for Plumly, noting that the Maryland Poet Laureate had taught some of the best contemporary authors of the time.

This is undoubtedly true as Plumly taught at the University of Iowa and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. He is currently an English professor just forty minutes from the Homewood campus, at The University of Maryland’s College Park.

However, the Turnbull lecture did not center around Plumly’s own work, though he did share a poem of his in response to an audience member’s request during the question and answer session. Instead, Plumly read and expounded upon an essay he wrote about one of his favorite poets entitled, “My Keats.”

The lecture began with an anecdote. Plumly recounted the experience of being invited by a “cadre” of New York film critics to watch and review a recent biographical movie of the life of John Keats, Bright Star.

He interwove lighthearted disdain for “movie people” as opposed to “book people . . . and certainly not poetry people.” He recalls feeling a fundamental disagreement with most of the critics.

Though he, like the others, appreciated the film, he departed from their mutual enjoyment of it in one fundamental way; Plumly was disappointed by the depiction of Keats in the film: an amalgamation of preconceived notions of the poet, void of an accurate depiction of the strong-willed person the character was meant to portray.

Plumly discussed this oversight — the discrepancy between what the movie imagines Keats to be and who he really was — throughout his lecture. He filled in the gaps that are missing in the character portrayal, and also in what the world knows about the poet whose life was so short-lived.

Plumly reminded the audience that what is known of Keats was almost entirely constructed posthumously: “He was beloved in his circle and almost obscure outside of it.”

He begrudgingly admitted that his evaluation of the actor’s ability to resemble Keats is perhaps unwarranted, as he noted that out of the one hundred portraits that depict the poet, only four were painted of his face during his lifetime.

Moreover, it is not just Jane Campion, director of the film, but the general public who share misconceptions about the poet.

According to Plumly, “Keats is the least represented in living portraiture of all major Romantics and the reason for this has everything to do with his belief, or lack of it, in the potential for his posthumous repetition.”

However, the posthumous repetition that ensued after his death would later return to spite Keats.

Artists portrayed the poet as weak and unable to withstand criticism — perhaps an emotional reaction, Plumly posits, to Keats’s fatal illness.

Inevitably, “The truth and look of who he was got placed to the side. Mistakes have a lingering life.”

It was not just Keats’s character that was transformed after his death, but even what he meant to leave behind.

Plumly discussed the grave of the poet — “the most visited grave, I think, in all literature.”

He spoke of how Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’s best friend during the poet’s life, went against his dying friend’s wishes in what he wanted as his epitaph.

Before he died, Keats requested that the sole words written on his gravestone to read, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

He did not want his name mentioned nor the dates of his birth and death.

He wanted anonymity. Yet, the epitaph on Keats’s gravestone today says, “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a Young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Plumly regarded these discontinuities — the transformation of who Keats was and who he has become — as unfortunate.

Yet, even more disappointing, he pointed out, was the brevity of Keats’s life and all the lost potential: “Keats had wanted to write epic poetry and then tragic theater. These tragic ambitions seemed to take too long, and life too short.”

Though Keats’s life was short (he died at the age of twenty-five) his legacy has managed to stir contemporary poets, such as Stanley Plumly, to constantly revisit his art and the life that surrounded it.

Plumly’s adoration for the great Romantic poet cannot be mistaken. “My Keats” was a lecture seeking to right the wrongs inflicted upon Keats after death.

And though at times the lecture tended toward the excessively meticulous, Plumly’s sentiment was overwhelmingly understood and appreciated.

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