A Great Stag, Broad-Antlered: Rediscovering Hyam Plutzik


On Poetry

Plutzik as a professor at the University of Rochester, around 1950. This photo was taken by one of his students.

The conclusion of Hyam Plutzik’s 1962 poem, Horatio, provide an apt commentary on Plutzik’s own unobtrusive presence in the world of American letters:

A great stag came out of the woods,
Broad-antlered, approaching slowly on the moonlit field,
And looked about him like a king and re-entered the dark.

The seismic shifts in American culture since 1960 have made footing precarious indeed for those broad-antlered poets who wrote in a hieratic and philosophic diction. Eschewing the more vernacular excursions of the Beats or the confessional poets of the 1970s, Plutzik published three full collections of poems, the last, Horatio, an eighty-nine-page dramatic poem in which Hamlet’s friend grapples with the charge to “report me and my cause aright.”

Louis Untermeyer and Stanley Kunitz served as the jurors for the 1962 Pulitzer, which went to Alan Dugan. In their report, Untermeyer wrote of Horatio as a “fascinating puzzle” and a “book not to be disposed of lightly,” one that is “primarily a tour de force.” With the 2009 publication, in Germany, of Heinz-Dietrich Fischer’s Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry, we have now learned that Plutzik’s earlier collections had also been shortlisted for the prestigious award. In 1950, though the Pulitzer went to Gwendolyn Brooks, Henry Seidel Canby wrote in his confidential report on behalf of that year’s nominating committee (which consisted of himself, Untermeyer, and Alfred Kreymborg) that Plutzik’s Aspects of Proteus was among seven runners-up, “all of them of high competence, and all deserving great praise.” Ten years later, Kreymborg wrote in his report for the 1960 prize (awarded to W. D. Snodgrass) that “we have another original in Hyam Plutzik[’s] Apples from Shinar.” Kreymbourg added, “While he is not a musical poet like most of his contemporaries he more than compensates by the strength and depth of his writing and the power of his visions and personality.”

Thus, Plutzik seems to have been on his way to a firmer place on “the moonlit field” of American poetry when he died at the age of fifty, on January 8, 1962. Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn included him in their anthology Five American Poets, introducing him to British readers alongside Howard Nemerov, Edgar Bowers, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. More recently, he is praised in interviews given by Grace Schulman, Galway Kinnell, Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, and Stanley Kunitz in the 2007 documentary Hyam Plutzik: American Poet. Though the two never met in person, Hall came to know and admire Plutzik’s work in his role as poetry editor of The Paris Review and as a member of the editorial board of Wesleyan University Press. Wesleyan published Plutzik’s Apples from Shinar as one of the first titles in its acclaimed Poetry Series in 1959 and reissued the book in a centenary edition in October 2011. In a new afterword, Shakespeare scholar David Scott Kastan declares, “In the 1950s Plutzik was clearly recognized as among the generation of poets claiming the mantle of Frost and Jeffers, Stevens and MacLeish.”

We will never know what Plutzik might have yet written had he lived longer, but those who know his work agree that a significant literary voice was prematurely silenced. When Plutzik’s Collected Poems was published in 1987, Ted Hughes wrote of how Plutzik had “engag[ed] the modern world as a stripped soul—with a point-blank, wholehearted simplicity of voice. His visions are authentic and piercing, and the song in them is strange—dense and harrowing, with unforgettable tones. The best of his work seems to me marvelously achieved, a sacred book.”

Hyam Plutzik was born in Brooklyn to recent immigrants from Belarus who soon moved to a farm near Bristol, Connecticut, and for much of his childhood spoke only Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew at home. Plutzik attended Trinity College in Hartford, where his mentor, Odell Shepard, had himself won a Pulitzer in 1938 for his biography of Bronson Alcott, finishing his studies at Yale University. Plutzik twice won Yale’s highest award for poetry (then called the Cooke Prize), the only person to have done so: first in 1933 for “The Three” and next in 1941 for “Death at the Purple Rim.”

Hyam Plutzik as a student at Trinity College around 1930.

The long narrative poem “Death at the Purple Rim” was penned during a year-long “Thoreauvian existence” in the Connecticut countryside in 1937. The poem took form when Plutzik identified an intruder on his paradisiacal turf: an aggravating woodchuck that came to be his nemesis. As Plutzik wrote to Odell Shepard in 1941, “There was a sort of agony in his desire, and I suppose I was not being too sententious when I saw in this brutish creature the kin and symbol of mankind, bestial in form but aspiring to heaven … Yet it was inevitable that I should kill this beast, and so it happened.”

Though he was then still in his twenties, Plutzik was already displaying one of the attributes that would characterize his oeuvre, a sense of life at the quick: “the tension of Being in all things” (from his poem “Entropy”) or “the long lank shadow pacing under the meadow” (from “Abner Bellow”). Anthony Hecht saw “Purple Rim” as “a rather wonderful tour de force, deliberately cast in a high, nineteenth-century diction, and a lush, expansive blank verse such as Tennyson was the master of.”

Unlike some other poets of the postwar years, Plutzik chose the life of a suburban family man far from the raucous haunts of Greenwich Village or San Francisco. As one of the first Jewish faculty members in a major American university, he was acutely aware of the currents eddying through American academe during the cold-war era. To Plutzik, issues of cultural identity and intellectual authenticity were paramount, even if his poetry rarely commented on current events—exceptions being “Hiroshima” and “For T.S.E. Only,” in which he invited dialogue with T. S. Eliot over the latter’s blatant anti-Semitism (“come, Thomas, let us weep together for our exile”). Writing against the backdrop of the cold-war era, Plutzik emerged, in the words of Edward Brunner, as a poet “fighting to be heard, keeping alive the concept of high public communication in poetry.”

Writing in 2002, critic Eric Ormsby describes the cultural factors that led to the poet’s “re-entering the dark” after the publication of Horatio. “Take the case of the late Hyam Plutzik,” he wrote, “a marvelous poet whom Ted Hughes and others championed. He tried to recreate a credible Shakespearean voice in American verse but his success doomed his verse to obscurity.”

In 2011 and 2012, Plutzik is reemerging onto the field. Last July would have been Plutzik’s one hundredth birthday, and 2012 is the fiftieth year of the Plutzik Reading Series established in his memory at the University of Rochester. Wesleyan’s new edition of Apples from Shinar is one of a series of projects aimed at celebrating these occasions and bringing Plutzik’s work to new readers, in venues as varied as the University of Rochester and The Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach, now a literary destination whose programs feature prominent contemporary poets and scholars which, since 2010, has hosted the annual symposium of the Society for Jewish American and Holocaust Literature.

Not only an accomplished poet, Plutzik was revered among students as a teacher at Rochester. One of his students, Arnulf Zweig (Class of 1952), wrote, “His honest, accurate criticism taught me more, as a future teacher and scholar, than any applause would have done.” And students there today are encountering his work in interesting ways. The University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library Department of Special Collections houses the archive of Hyam Plutzik’s papers, which were showcased last October in a pair of exhibitions titled “Hyam Plutzik: Poet” and “Rochester Students Read Plutzik,” engaging students in critical conversations around the poet’s manuscripts and finished works.

While teaching at UR, Plutzik organized frequent readings for students and community members, creating a tradition which is continued to this day in the Plutzik Reading Series. Currently in its 50th year, the Plutzik Series is the longest-running of its kind in the U.S.

In homage to what the University of Rochester is calling the 50/100 (recognizing milestones for both the poetry series and the poet), Nigel Maister, artistic director of the UR International Theatre Program, presented a dramatic reading of Horatio on March 26. The rapt audience included Al Kremer, seventy-five, who recalled his experience of listening to Plutzik read from Horatio in that very same room, in 1960. “Horatio hadn’t yet been published; he was reading it from his manuscript,” Kremer writes. “It was unforgettable … He had repeatedly said, and rightly so, poetry was a form of music and only truly appreciated when read out loud.”

Plutzik’s belief in the power and necessity of oral poetry inspired the regular readings on campus that are continued to this day in the Plutzik Reading Series, which, at fifty years, is the longest-running collegiate reading series in the country. Its roster of nearly three hundred past readers includes four Nobel laureates, thirty-six winners of the Pulitzer prizes for poetry and fiction, and twenty-two former U.S. Poets Laureates. This centennial year has seen a superb schedule of readers, including U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine. Plutzik’s work is also increasingly available to a twenty-first-century readership on the Web. The newly renovated Web site includes all of Plutzik’s published works and a schedule of events for the Hyam Plutzik Centennial, which continues until December 31, 2012.

Plutzik, a lifelong nature lover and avid fisherman, is seen here engaged in contemplative reflection during the 1950s.

In closing his poem “On Hearing that My Poems Were Being Studied in a Distant Place,” Plutzik wrote, “Out of my life I fashioned a fistful of words. / When I opened my hand, they flew away.” The poem was not published until 1972, ten years after the poet’s death. His words may have flown away, but they have not disappeared: they remain in the world, waiting to be rediscovered and given new life.

Edward Moran is a New York–based writer who was literary consultant for the documentary film Hyam Plutzik: American Poet. Phillip Witte is a special-project assistant to the Rush Rhees Library Department of Rare Books (University of Rochester), home of the Hyam Plutzik Archives.