on My Poets by Maureen N. McLane (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

When an interviewer asked the poet and critic Maureen McLane if her “critical eye” plays a part in her poetry, she replied, “I’m uncomfortable with the notion -- especially prevalent in American discourse -- that there is a kind of division of labor, the critical eye being part of the intellectual zone, the poetic eye something else — emotional, lyrical, sensual, and so forth, but not a thinking eye. I’m very keen on the possibility of undissociated sensibilities.”

McLane_Cover.jpgHer new book, My Poets, is animated by the ambition to prove the point. Her prose both narrows and minds the gap between genres: criticism, memoir, list-making, and notebook-style jottings which, taken together, track McLane’s development as a reader of poetry from her undergraduate days in the mid-1980’s. “Poems aren’t for teaching,” she says, “they insinuate.” Or, they teach by insinuation, and so does My Poets. McLane places an emphasis on the sound of one’s relationship to poetry – how in speaking of it, for instance, one’s thoughts and phrases seem to reach ahead of oneself.

For McLane, poetry has led the way into the ambiguities of adulthood. My Poets includes illuminating passages on poets and poetry, and also run-on fragments, wordplay, speed-quoting, list-making, style-channeling, bursts of micro-memoir, and sonic exegeses – performed to persuade the reader that “the shock of the new is not only a modernist mantra or an art-historical slogan but an ever-present potential charge,” and that such shocks may profoundly influence one’s perceptions, resolutions and changes of heart.

McLane.jpgShe begins with “Proem in the Form of a Q&A,” classic questions answered by classic lines: “Why do you read poetry? / I have wasted my life” or “Why do you write poetry? / I sing to use the Waiting.” My Poets revives the precocious responses we all experience in the early days of our exposure to the wildness of poetry – while also honoring the patterned presence of blockages and irresolutions, enjoining the art and the lives of its followers. Chapter 3, titled “My Impasses,” begins the personal element of the narrative – in which “unknowing yet wanting-to-know” is established as the mutual instinct of poem and reader. She recalls her first poetry classes taken in 1985, taught by Helen Vendler and William Corbett – encountering Donne, Blake, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats, Eliot, Olson, O’Hara, Ginsburg. “If it’s true that a poem can plausibly sustain and indeed surprise several interpretations,” she says, “it is also true that a poem may elicit any number of bad readings.” In this way, she recalls “not only a prior self but a prior reading self – which for me, as for many whose subjectivities were formed in dialogue with literature, have long been close to identical.”

SteinHoriz.jpegMy Poets is a book for readers with such “subjectivities” – it isn’t a primer, it doesn’t pause or circle back to check for absorbency. Although McLane’s attitude is essentially appreciative, the unpredictability and intellectual swerve of form and content create the sensation of action more than sedate reflection. “To make visible my presumptions: this is what breakdowns and impasses allowed,” she writes. One presumption, generally reinforced by the poetry culture, is that a reader can’t have divided loyalties of affiliation, say, to both Gertrude Stein and Elizabeth Bishop. McLane revisits her initial exposure to both poets: Stein is famous for saying “Inside and outside and identity is a great bother,” deflating the old habit of steady personae (sincere or masked) – while Bishop’s hesitancy to illuminate her presence leads McLane to say, “I do not know what I know about Bishop but what I came to through Bishop” who, it turned out, was not “an easier test than Stein” even though Bishop “will not cut off your nuts or bare her vagina.” This essay comprises a long series of allusive statements-as-outbursts, a stacking of sentences leaping like Stein while sticking to detailed fact like Bishop. There is no idolatry: Bishop’s “The Fish” sometimes strikes her as “coercively tidy and moral and obligatorily sickening” while on other days it seems “a parable for living or rather attending.”

MooreCockatoo.jpegHer chapters on Marianne Moore and H.D. have been noted as her best. As stand-alone essays, they are superb and underscore the associative brilliance of McLane’s critical eye. But they also deepen the book’s shrewdly groping effort towards formal and textural realization. Marriage and its contradictions (presumed unity despite the evidence) move in and out of focus, along with McLane’s whiplash self-critique. What a fine antidote to those facile memoirs that keep arriving, prepackaged with “earned” knowledge and singed with past sufferings. The clashing forces in these poets’ work, the ways in which they are at their best and their worst, point to a tensile acceptance, a coming to terms.

Here is a sample of McLane’s rapid-fire cataloguing of traits, H.D. versus Moore:

“Incantation versus argument; lyric versus discourse; a strongly Anglo-Saxon lexical core versus a flagrantly Latinate repertoire. The vatic inward versus the detailed observed. The hieratic versus the potentially conversable. The presented versus the argued. The immanent versus the unfolded and deferred. The metaphoric versus the metonymic. The whole versus the part: ‘your thorns are the best part of you,’ you with your ‘infinitesimal pieces of … mind.” The organic image versus the anatomized topos. The Romantic versus the Augustan. The sung versus the said. The felt versus the thought.”

Antithetical instincts, yoked, yield power. In Moore, she sees “the artist whose work is infamously complex, a poet who strikingly outflanks paraphrase, is also critical of false complexities.” In H.D., she recognizes the thrill and danger of extremity:

HD.jpeg“Here is a poet whose narrow yet prodigious strengths run perilously close to her weaknesses. A poet of passionate intensity, she must rely on perfect pitch. When there is a strain in her work, she runs the risk of a false or willed swooning, a mandated abjection. Yet among the states she is so brilliant at evoking is the transfigured and transfiguring abjection of the lover. That this posture is all too familiar for women makes for some uncomfortable reading – not because women should not explore erotic abjection but because its rendering can become quite predictably banal. “

GluckMclane.jpegNext come her chapters on Louise Glück, Fanny Howe, Emily Dickinson, and the Romantics (with a focus on Shelley). In Glück, she finds a “higher ambivalence … the mature fruit of a long considered looking at the case.” She aptly describes the keynotes: “the asking of the elemental questions, the touching of the basic tones, without forgoing the rigors of thought,” as well as “the maniacal protective ecstasies of refusal and then refusing refusal.” To advance the element of personal narrative in My Poets, this chapter seems more attuned to the poet's use of the first person and finding a solace and courage in “the bitter exhilaration of negation” triggered within and by Glück’s work. “Romance is what I most struggle to be free of,” Glück wrote, and that attitude is what resonated most with the younger McLane.

William Meredith said, “Criticism, when it is attentive and appreciative, is a record of one man’s encounter with the enduring personality of another.” At turns movingly and playfully (and sometimes at once), McLane has devised her own mode of recording the force of those fatefully altering meet-ups. While some critics behave as if their role is to defend poetry, McLane writes through the confirmation that it is poetry’s job to defend us all.

[Published June 19, 2012. 265 pages, $25.00 hardcover]

You may find the interview with Maureen McLane in More Intelligent Life by clicking here.

My Poets and Louise Gluck

I love this book and want to add one thing. Although you say that My Poets has no idolatry, the chapter on Louise Gluck differs from the ones on Marianne M and HD. The author has obviously read the poems with great care and hears them with sharp ears. But with Gluck, she is less critical. There is a reason why Gluck is more quotable than the other two. She is more consciously mannered and conservative where the other two go all out. If the author saw the difference, and I'm sure she did and does, she seems to shy away from it in favor of other Gluck traits. Maybe that's what you mean by McLane being more interested in the use of the first-person as if LG was offering a pattern of persona that the young Maureen could use when younger. My Poets is a fun book and has gotten me interested in McLane's poetry which I had never looked into. Thank you for this notice.