Jarold Ramsey's Introduction to the 1982 Plutzik Exhibition
Out of my life I fashioned a fistful of words.
When I opened my hand, they flew away.
-- "On Hearing that My Poems Were Being Studied in a Distant Place"
When Hyam Plutzik wrote these lines at the end of a haunting poem, near the end of his life, he was saying (in the way of a good poet) several things at once: how a life devoted to writing comes down to words, just words; how they tend to fly, so ungratefully, back into the common language; but how once flown they may in their “fistfuls” speak to and for other people, even strangers, far away. Which experience is one reason we cherish poetry, and at least tolerate poets-and, secondarily, why we assemble, exhibit, and study their papers, the better to understand both the fashioning and the “flying” of their words. In Plutzik’s correspondence there is a letter, dated June 1960 and postmarked Oakland, California, from a former University of Rochester colleague, Allan Wendt, reporting with glee how he had made a "Plutzikophile" out of one of his Mills College students by assigning her Plutzik’s poems to read. How this cheering bit of news from a distant place engendered such a poem in the poet's imagination back in Rochester is of course still a mystery of art—but, knowing about the letter, we know the poem better for what it is.
The Plutzik Archive is in fact a rich bewilderment of materials bearing on a distinguished poet's life and career. Dating and systematically ordering his notes, drafts, and worksheets was not, alas, Plutzik’s habit, and some of the folders in the Archive appear at first to be haystacks lacking needles; but of course they were serviceable to Plutzik and that is what counted. Coming along behind, the scholar can certainly hope to learn—as through no other means—a great deal about the character of Plutzik's imagination, about his purposes both fulfilled and unrealized, and about the true nature of his achievement as an American poet. On such mundane items as an application for a fellowship or an academic vitae, for example, the poet turns self-critic and apologist, illuminating what he has written and what he will go on to write:
I believe that there is unity behind this apparent multiplicity of things. I believe this despite the atom bomb, and the bickerings between group and group, and nation and nation. I believe that there is a veil over the surface of things; that it is presumptuous of us to feel that we see reality in our everyday, vegetative hours; that the temple is not so easily entered. And occasionally, in a fortunate moment, from some object in itself trivial—a tree, a stone, a house, a hand—the veil is brushed away, and we see the shape of truth. I believe this without the prejudgments based on the orthodoxies of some fixed psychology, religion, or system of economics. And I believe that all this should be said in poetry, now at this time. And I shall try to do so. ... (1949)
... my own ideas about poetry have changed radically. Once I looked upon it as little more than beautiful language. Later it was a way of communicating the nuances of the world. More recently I have begun to look upon poetry as the synthesizer and the humanizer of knowledge.... (1954)
... I propose to write a long poem on the most immense subject for a poem in our time: the massacre of six million Jews by Hitler. (1960)
Because Plutzik was a very good poet, at once part of his age and somewhat apart from it, the reader ofhis papers can expect to learn a considerable something about the “sociopoetics” of America between 1940 and 1960—how very hard it was in those years of World War II, Korea, and the Cold War, McCarthyism, and all sorts of rigidities in politics, literature, academia, and publishing, to make a career in poetry, especially if, like Plutzik, you aimed high and tried to follow your own proper path up. Cultural historians of the time will, I think, find this collection valuable both in outline and in details.
Few of our modern writers can ever have belonged so actively and generously to their communities as Hyam Plutzik did to Rochester—to the University, where as teacher and colleague he worked tirelessly for the ideal of a truly liberal education, poetry and science reconciled; to the Rochester community, in which his innumerable talks and readings amounted to a rare kind of academic and literary ambassadorship. And Rochester in urbe et universitate continues to honor him through the Hyam Plutzik Memorial Poetry Series, a program of public readings by major writers, now celebrating its first twenty years of life.
“A fistful of words,” indeed—it is to celebrate the continuing vitality of Hyam Plutzik's poetry, and the significance of his life and career, that this exhibition is mounted.
Professor of English
University of Rochester