By Maureen N. McLane
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374217495, 288pp.)
Publication Date: June 19, 2012
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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A thrillingly original exploration of a life lived under poetry’s uniquely seductive spell
“Oh! there are spirits of the air,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley. In this stunningly original book Maureen N. McLane channels the spirits and voices that make up the music in one poet’s mind. Weaving criticism and memoir, My Poets explores a life reading and a life read. McLane invokes in My Poets not necessarily the best poets, nor the most important poets (whoever these might be), but those writers who, in possessing her, made her. “I am marking here what most marked me,” she writes. Ranging from Chaucer to H.D. to William Carlos Williams to Louise Glück to Shelley (among others), McLane tracks the “growth of a poet’s mind,” as Wordsworth put it in The Prelude. In a poetical prose both probing and incantatory, McLane has written a radical book of experimental criticism. Susan Sontag called for an “erotics of interpretation”: this is it. Part Bildung, part dithyramb, part exegesis, My Poets extends an implicit invitation to you, dear reader, to consider who your “my poets,” or “my novelists,” or “my filmmakers,” or “my pop stars,” might be.
Maureen N. McLane is the author of two collections of poetry, Same Life (FSG, 2008) and World Enough (FSG, 2010). My Poets (FSG, 2012) was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.
“To read McLane is to be reminded that the brain may be an organ, but the mind is a muscle. Hers is a roving, amphibious intelligence; she’s at home in the essay and the fragment, the polemic and the elegy. She can be confessional and clinical and ludic—sometimes all in the same sentence. What I’m trying to say is that McLane has moves. In her new book, My Poets, she invites us to read over her shoulder as she combs through ‘her’ poets, including Chaucer, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück. It’s a work of personal and poetic archaeology . . . The prose is thick with quotation and self-interrogation . . . Forensically close readings dovetail with spirited defenses of the poets posterity has misunderstood, fresh readings of the familiar, and formal experiments . . . It’s a visceral kind of criticism, sexy, strange, suspenseful . . . Language enters McLane’s body like a current. Her whole body bucks and shudders. Her responses are forcefully somatic . . . and matched by the syntactical sophistication of her thought, her attraction to contradiction . . . McLane’s personality, her laconic wit and iconoclasm, suffuse this book . . . There is explicit autobiography here, too, painful self-disclosure, that gives the book its emotional torque . . . This isn’t the language of criticism; this is the language of seduction, a celebration of yearning, of not-knowing and not-having . . . Susan Sontag called for an erotics of art. My Poets is that more; it is an erotics of epistemology. A celebration of meaning and mystification, of the pleasures and necessity of kankedort. As McLane writes, ‘All honor to those who wave the pure flag of a difficult joy.’” —Parul Sehgal, Bookforum
“[A] beguiling new book . . . Genially, charismatically subversive . . . In this book McLane comes into contact—repeatedly, playfully, and with great seriousness—with verbal art, and is changed by it. My Poets is a delightful shock. It’s also a friendly book, inviting readers by its own example to let poems change them too . . . McLane recognizes that we all read with baggage. She reports on that baggage, miraculously without the cloistered narcissism typical of memoir. It’s part of this book’s strength, and its broad appeal, that McLane is willing to get personal while also tossing off niftily worded assessments of poems . . . My Poets is McLane’s story of learning to embrace the ambivalence of her own taste in poems and in people, and of learning to live and read in contradiction . . . Poetry clarifies our loneliness, restores textures to life’s flatness and abysses, makes the world bigger, and closer. Perhaps it makes us interesting, even beautiful, or anyway, human. McLane’s many dictions and registers, her playful digressions and pouncing aperçus, her fast foot-work that takes her from sorrow to arch amusement in half a sentence, work to demonstrate that.” —Daisy Fried, The New York Times Book Review “Those seeking a critical introduction to Chaucer, Elizabeth Bishop, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H.D., Louise Glück, Fanny Howe, Dickinson or Shelley—Ms. McLane’s titular poets—will find something much more exhilarating . . . and impassioned. At a time when execrable “lyric essays” flourish as an excuse to avoid critical thinking, Ms. McLane has written lyrical essays that justify the genre . . . Ms. McLane’s discussions of her poets are interwoven with autobiographical accounts of what was going on in her life when she discovered them . . . she is able to elucidate why poetry can matter to a life without straining for the unconvincing uplift that mars so many books on poetry written for a general audience . . . [McLane] is clearly having fun . . . If you already love poetry, Ms. McLane’s book will rekindle old passions and ignite new ones. And if you don’t already love poetry, well, the central insight of My Poets, as of all literary criticism, is laid out in Ms. McLane’s chapter on ‘My Shelley / (My Romantics)’: ‘I had no imagination so I sought out the imaginers’ . . . There’s no way to convince a young person who doesn’t read that in order to have an imagination one must first seek out the imaginers, that without them a life is less. You can only place a book in her hands and hope for a spark. This book would do.” —Michael Robbins, The New York Observer
“Over the course of the 15 chapters of My Poets, McLane leads us (and herself) back down the paths she took to the poets and poems she loves, showing us where she stumbled along the way—and in doing so, authorizing us to trip and fall, too. (Or, perhaps, to veer off course entirely.) Throughout, McLane stays true to that proven tenet of poetic practice: Show, don’t tell . . . This isn’t just McLane clicking “Like” on a pantheon of poetry all-stars. These are her readings, her connections, her poets, and her weird, winding trail from one to the other . . . They highlight her impressive directness and clarity, her keen ear for language, and a deep well of memory . . . reading McLane’s readings is like following the faint lines of a crude map she drew as she forged intuitively along . . . One of the most enjoyable features of My Poets is the sheer agility of McLane’s poetic imagination, the ease with which one line awakens another . . . An invigorating mix of criticism, memoir, and marginalia from a writing life, My Poets wisely avoids slapping another sales pitch on poetry. If anything, McLane shows that poetry, and the wonders within, have been ours all along. She reminds us that poetry is bigger than all of us, yet exclusive to each of us; and that, when faced with a difficult poem, the reader’s role is never to tame it, but perhaps to simply heed some other wise words from Moore: ‘The thing is to see the vision and not deny it; to care and admit that we do.’” —Michael Andor Brodeur, The Boston Globe
“Throughout My Poets, her collection of beautiful, experimental essays, McLane's thinking through and appraising other poets is the central, commanding event . . . McLane's native attitude is soulful, metaphysical and witty . . . Together in the haze, McLane and her poets possess each other . . . thinking through these lines for meaning, syncopating confession with critique, McLane demonstrates across this gorgeous, humming collection, that we turn to poetry, as Dickinson sings, ‘To Keep the Dark away.’” —Walton Muyumba, NPR
“McLane is deliriously in love with poetry, and My Poets is an audacious, challenging, endearing work that defies all categorization . . . McLane’s spiky, precise prose veers, slips and blooms into poetry and back again. Her choices are self-declaredly personal and deeply idiosyncratic. Ranging widely over the English and American literary tradition, McLane underscores the arbitrariness of what in a writer strikes us, moves us, grips us, lingers with us . . . Like her beloved Dickinson, McLane is a fearless explorer of the ‘liminal zone’ in both life and art. Hers is a book about haunting, possession, and the fluidity of identity: ‘you are never sure what you might be made by.’ McLane makes herself vulnerable, again and again, to poetry’s surprising power and allows herself to be transformed, shaken up, transfigured by it . . . My Poets is at once an exuberant, even giddy, reveling in poetic fecundity and a carefully controlled and highly crafted analysis of individual poets and poems. Searching and at times sentimental but never wimpy, impassioned but never strident, it’s a little history not only of the growth of a poet’s mind but also of the shaping of a sensibility, an ethic and a character. And it’s a testament to the vital relevance of literature to our daily lives.” —Priscilla Gilman, The Chicago Tribune
“This is a vital, personal book about books, the idiosyncratic poetics of poets and poems. My Poets reminds us that the realm of letters remains a republic, in which the books we read tell the stories of our own lives . . . My Poets emphasizes its adjective and its noun alike. McLane offers openly—and brilliantly—what some critics refuse to admit: Her idiosyncrasies are her only way of reading, as mine are mine, yours yours.” —Dave Lucas, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets is a strange, provocative hybrid of criticism, memoir and poetry . . . in many ways strikingly original, My Poets charts the genesis of McLane’s development as a reader and writer, from the baffled Harvard undergraduate encountering Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara for the first time (she bravely offers us her youthful marginalia to the “The Day Lady Died”) to her current position as a poet and critic of great sensitivity and sophistication . . . Often McLane allows her prose to be contaminated by her subjects, or, rather, sets herself the task of animating them, a kind of ventriloquism that works both as homage and as a springboard for a flexible, suggestive form of criticism whose possibilities extend beyond those of more traditional exegesis . . . The subtlety and humour with which McLane traces these elusive dialogues between a large cast of poets, all the while describing their entanglement with and influence on the course of her own life and thought, make for an exhilarating, and often very moving, book.” —Oli Hazzard, The Times Literary Supplement“[An] incandescent new collection of criticism . . . a book that may do more to change the way we think and write about poems than any since Paul Muldoon’s The End of the Poem . . . [A] willingness to let the heart lead the head (or sound lead sense) is a temperament that permeates McLane’s essays . . . The achievement of My Poets is the convincing case it makes that a reader’s real strength is her ability to cultivate an inconsistency of taste, which McLane argues is the inheritance of maturity. The goal is not to circle the square of one’s incongruities, but rather, when thinking alone will not bridge the partitioned self, to trust in feeling . . . My Poets is not just criticism, but art.” —Michael Lista, The National Post
“This is no layman’s guide to poetry. In this unusual book that can only be described as a love song—written in a jumpy yet satisfying mixture of prose criticism, memoir, anecdote, and imitative verse written in tribute—McLane, herself a poet and acclaimed critic of poetry, presents an esoteric tour of her personal pantheon, the poets that have shaped her life. McLane (World Enough) devotes a chapter to one or two poets at a time, and while her picks are not surprising, they are all treated surprisingly: McLane forever associates Chaucer, for instance, with the word “Kankedort,” “a lonely word whose definition can only be inferred from its single, immediate context in Chaucer’s poem.” In “My Elizabeth Bishop / (My Gertrude Stein),” McLane makes another unlikely pairing when her failed undergraduate thesis on Stein leads her to a lifelong love of Bishop, casting the essay in flowing, a-grammatical Stein sentences: “Why did I want to be made by Stein. / She is of course very fine. Everyone thinks so except those who don’t.” Those who know a lot about contemporary poetry will find this book packed to the gills with in-jokes, deep knowledge, and scars and scuff marks from a life lived in poetry’s trenches. Newer poetry readers will be lured deeper by McLane’s boundless enthusiasm.” —Publishers Weekly
“The author of two collections (2010’s World Enough was an LJ Best Poetry Book), McLane writes musically astute lines that deliver a sharp and gratifying sense of story, character, or place; her poems are wonderful to dwell in. So it’s a delight to learn that she’s offering this book, not a study of poetry but of how certain poets have shaped her writing, her thinking, her very life. She thus presents her own story and literary exegesis as two sides of the same bright coin, and we meet her as we meet Chaucer, Shelley, Louise Glück, and more. I’m expecting a lot of this book.” —Library Journal
“An acclaimed poet considers the predecessors who shaped her art and life in this idiosyncratic mix of literary survey and intellectual biography. Using her skills as a poet and critic, McLane . . . examines the major poets of her life and the inspiration and technique she drew from each. There’s Elizabeth Bishop, ‘a sea to breathe in once the gills you needed grew and breathing grew less strange.’ From William Carlos Williams she learned to draw from her own pure and crazy American experience. She dissects Marianne Moore’s poem ‘Marriage’ at length, weighing it against her own failed marriage and subsequent same-sex relationship. She identifies with H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), the closeted lesbian, and finds that her poem ‘Oread’ ‘bespeaks our desire to commune, to hear and be heard, to make the chaos of inner feeling not only sentient but sharable.’ McLane responds to Louise Glück’s powerful willfulness and finds that Fanny Howe’s poems reveal ‘a refusal to turn away even as they seek asylum…to participate in the sick fictions of success or easy safety.’ Percy Bysshe Shelley is the muse of the author’s sexual radicalism; she loves his youth, excess and intelligence. ‘To immerse yourself in him is to move through an extraordinary medium of thinking songs, sung thoughts,’ she writes. McLane’s book is a gutsy poetic act on its own, as she writes measured, metrical prose that alters between rhythmic and affected, dropping commas or shifting perspective at will, as if in mimicry of her subjects. A perceptive reflection on the reading and writing life by a poet who has embraced her own personal anxiety of influence.” —Kirkus
“Bridging the many worlds she’s traveled, McLane brings us My Poets, an account of her own life as a reader of poetry. My Poets is itself part prose and part poem, part analysis, part autobiography. Even as she asks what it means to try to account for the mind that works through texts, her texts themselves are hybrids that allow us into her uncertainties, her notes, her obsessions with the poets who ‘infect her.’ Sharing the actions of the working mind, these new writings examine how thought and art shape one another. In lucky moments we also glimpse how new art might come into being . . . [A] revealing work . . . innovative, intellectual play.” —Tess Taylor, Barnes & Noble Review
“McLane . . . conducts a daring experiment in My Poets. It includes close readings of, among others, Marianne Moore, H.D., Fanny Howe, and Louise Glück; personal essays, poems, a marvelous abecedarian ode to translators, and tributes in the form of a cento (meaning “patchwork”)—that is, a poem constructed of lines from other poems. In sum, McLane has created an unusual book of personal responses, some measured, some excessive, all passionate efforts to capture the myriad sensations of poetry, to sustain the moment of encounter, and to avoid criticism that diminishes the effects of poetry . . . The writing . . . is exceptional throughout: vigorous, specific, and occasionally virtuosic, as in this comparison between Moore and H.D., in which the language mirrors and celebrates its subject . . . At her best, McLane is among a handful of necessary critics.” —Michael Autrey, Booklist
“‘Some poems smack of a gentility one would like in some moods to smack out of them.’ Even before I read that sentence—about the sainted Elizabeth Bishop!—I knew Maureen McLane was the poetry teacher for me. Her first book of criticism, My Poets, is the survey course of my dreams: a long, loving argument with and about everyone from Chaucer to Gertrude Stein. As befits her subject, McLane is both plainspoken and lyrical, falling at times, as if naturally, into verse as clear as her prose.” —Lorin Stein, The Paris Review Daily
“Although [My Poets] was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle award in the category of autobiography, it is more than an autobiography. It is part memoir, part literary criticism, part lyrical essay, and the funniest book about poetry that this critic has seen in a long time. And it is quite brilliant . . . In this book, she takes up her poets—poets as she has experienced them. No received wisdom or explication of a poem quickens her heart or mind. No. Each reader must read for herself, and on that original ground find what the poem means to her. This is liberating . . . This is irreverent, or cheeky, literary criticism . . . and in a very smart fashion. It is high time that poetry commentary blew the dust off of old, stale, academic jargon. This is commentary for the rest of us.” —Frederick Smock, The Louisville Courrier-Journal
Praise for World Enough
“McLane is one of those rare poets whose work is as absorbing as Friday night’s escapist fiction yet informed by a high level of craft.” —Library Journal