Stanley Plumly, lyrical poet influenced by Keats, dies at 79

NEW YORK — Stanley Plumly, an award-winning former poet laureate of Maryland whose poignant narratives were inspired by the beauty and transcendence of John Keats’s lyrical verse, died Thursday at his home in Frederick, Md. He was 79.

His wife, Margaret (Forian) Plumly, said the cause was complications of multiple myeloma.

Mr. Plumly used rich language imbued with precise syntax in 11 volumes of poetry that often touched on aspects of his life, including growing up poor in rural Ohio; his alcoholic father, who became a muse; and the polio epidemic that struck some classmates.

In “Poliomyelitis” — one of several poems he wrote on the subject — Mr. Plumly linked the children he knew with polio to the most famous person to have the disease, President Franklin D. Roosevelt:


A man said Roosevelt, at the end, looked like the most dead man alive

he’d ever seen: the girl in the iron lung, too, resembling what children

imagine death

in the satin of its coffin looks like, her face roughed up

with rouge, her soft brown hair straightened, the rest of her forgotten.

Mr. Plumly admired many poets. But Keats, the 19th-century English Romantic who died at 25, was in some ways his spiritual guide.

“Keats, for me, represents the integrity of the mission of the poet,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic in 2003, “which is to say he represents the value of poetry itself.”

Mr. Plumly said that he occasionally beseeched Keats for a little help.

“Periodically, I’ll say to Keats, ‘Get thee behind me,’ and then I’ll just start writing poems,” he said in an interview in 1995 with Boston Review, a political and literary publication.

In his poem “Posthumous Keats” (1983), Mr. Plumly depicted a tubercular Keats “swallowing blood and the best of the bad food” on a rocky carriage ride to Rome with his close friend, artist Joseph Severn.


In his head he is writing a letter

about failure and money and the ten-

thousand lines that could not save his brother.

But he might as well be back at Gravesend

with the smell of the sea and cold sea rain,

waiting out the weather and the tide

Mr. Plumly’s fascination with Keats stretched beyond his poetry. In a book of interlocking essays titled “Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography” (2008), he ruminated on the poet’s fame, failures and vindication through posterity.

Reviewing “Posthumous Keats” in the Los Angeles Times, author Nicholas Delbanco called it a “beautiful book” in which “one has the sense of an artist, two centuries later, acting as a conduit for a great predecessor and breathing him back to life.”

Mr. Plumly followed “Posthumous Keats” with “The Immortal Evening” (2014), a book that imagines a dinner attended by Keats and two other English poets, William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb. And he returned to the English Romantic era with “Elegy Landscapes” (2016), a dual biography of the landscape painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.

Stanley Ross Plumly was born in Barnesville, Ohio, and grew up in Winchester, Va., and Piqua, Ohio. His father, Herman, was a lumberjack, machinist, and farmer. His mother, Esther, was a homemaker.

As a child, Stanley was quiet and meditative, influenced by Quaker teachings.

His interest in poetry was piqued in high school. While studying art and poetry at Wilmington College in Ohio, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, he moved to focus on poetry because he did not think his drawing was good enough. His early poems in college were filled with anger toward his father, but he learned to temper that anger when he was 23, the same age his father had been when Stanley was born.


“A little empathy went a long way toward insight there,” he told Boston Review, leading to “Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me,” which he called his “first real poem.” In it, Mr. Plumly wrote:

I dream we lie under water,

caught in our own sure drift.

A window, white shadow, trembles over us.

Light breaks into a moving circle.

He would not speak and I would not touch him.

Mr. Plumly, who studied for a PhD at Ohio University but did not complete his doctorate, taught at various universities, most prominently at the University of Maryland, where he was a professor of English and director of the creative writing program for master’s students. He was the state’s poet laureate from 2009 until last year.

In addition to his wife, he leaves his stepdaughters, Elizabeth Stevenson and Mackenzie Stevenson Sconyers, and a sister, Susan Clement. His previous two marriages, one to the poet and memoirist Deborah Digges, ended in divorce.