2007 National Book Award Finalist,

Stanley Plumly

Old Heart: Poems

W. W. Norton & Company

About the Book and Author

Plumly’s tenth collection of poems confronts and celebrates mortality—in the detailed natural world, in the immediacy of the loss of friends, and in personal encounters.

Stanley Plumly was born in 1939 in Barnesville, Ohio, to Herman and Esther Plumly. His father, a Quaker, worked in the lumber industry, and the family lived in the farming regions of Ohio and Virginia. Plumly received his B.A. from Wilmington College, and his M.A. and Ph D. from Ohio University. His first collection of poems, In the Outer Dark, was published in 1970 and was named the winner of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award by a panel of judges that included Robert Lowell. With literary critic Cleanth Brooks as his mentor, Plumly produced seven acclaimed works in next three decades. Plumly holds the Distinguished University Professorship at the University of Maryland, and his teaching career has spanned forty years at universities including Iowa, Princeton, and Columbia. His next book, due out from W. W. Norton next spring, is work of non-fiction that examines the life and legacy the Romantic poet John Keats. Plumly lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Suggested Links

Academy of American Poets Profile

Wikipedia profile


Excerpt from Old Heart: Poems


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 or 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
palaces 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.

Excerpted from Old Heart by Stanley Plumly. All rights reserved.