Madness and Marginalia: Maureen McLane on "My Poets"

To those who admire her, Maureen McLane already seemed a powerful and disarming polymath — critic, professor, academic, and poet. With the arrival of her first book of poetry, Same Life, in 2008, a star long on the rise crested. In that book, glittering forms whir with the flux of contemporary life:

for here or to go– 

a glass mug,

a paper cup — 

life is fast, art slow


only a few years 

before all I am blows

free, subatomic

But what does it mean for life to be fast and art slow? McLane has spent a great deal of time thinking about shapes art might take now, both in Same Life and in World Enough, a second book of poems that appeared in 2010, and in essays and criticism that appear in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, The Washington Post, and American Poet.
Now, 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.

In an exchange of emails Maureen McLane spoke with me about this revealing work and the thinking behind its innovative, intellectual play. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Tess Taylor

Barnes & Noble Review: My Poets seems to be a book of criticism, but it’s also an autobiography of your reading life. In it, your essays employ a number of tones — scholarly  but also personal and also occasionally “raving hysterical mad” — to quote Ginsberg. How did the voices for each essay present themselves? McLane: Any writer is first a reader; these are reciprocal activities. The book tracks and enacts the ways that reading and writing are enmeshed. Some chapters are formal homages to writers — channelings of them: the Gertrude Stein-y idiom of the Bishop/Stein chapter is the most obvious case. My formal and tonal variety arises in part from my sense that strong works are viruses that may possibly infect you. I’ve always had a tendency to adopt the mode of a writer I was immersed in; some works are contagious. My Poets plays with that — not the anxiety but the ecstasy of influence. (That last phrase is the title of a recent Jonathan Lethem book….)
I’m increasingly committed to not-knowing, or to not-knowing-prematurely, to not-having-to-know, and to making that kind of space available to friends, students, readers, myself. Confusion, impasse, misapprehension have been core elements of my reading life and my life in general — so these seemed crucial to address in the book. My early marginalia were pretty hilariously dreadful and obtuse, an example of being an idiot while hoping to become less of one. The world exerts such pressure to be expert, knowing, yet so much that is powerful in life happens in other modes and conditions.
BNR: This collection of “my poets” has wonderful poets any aspiring writer would benefit from reading: Shelley, Bishop, Moore, Glück. But these are really “your poets,” the ones that mattered to you. When did you see this as a project? Is there anyone you wanted to  include who ultimately got left out?  

MM: I realized “My Poets” was a specific project sometime in 2009; I’d been interested in writing more exploratory, experimental prose and was making forays in that direction. I’d already written a couple essays with the working title “My X” — “My Fanny Howe,” “My Emily Dickinson.” I’m sure in the back of my mind were works like Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, Claudia Rankine’s work, Anne Carson’s, William Carlos Williams’s, and other things like Edmund White’s My Lives. Marina Tsvetaeva has a wonderful essay, “My Pushkin,” I encountered part way through the project. As for who might have gotten left out: I had various lists and constellations of poets and works, chosen because they were crucial companions for me at some life juncture. What ended up happening is that each chapter exerted its own gravitational pull, such that core poets ended up governing other writers, works, and concerns. Stein and Lowell and Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf show up in the Bishop chapter; Alice Notley and Anne Carson appear in “My William Carlos Williams,” and so on. The chapter “My Shelley” rotates through many Romantic-period writers. A few years ago, I published a book on balladry and Romantic poetry, so I thought there might be more in this book on English and Scottish ballads. But while I’ve spent a lot of reading and thinking time with ballads, they didn’t resonate in my life in the same ways as the works I foregrounded in My Poets. Wordsworth and Pound and Yeats and Sappho pop up in several chapters, though none has his or her own chapter. The proems and centos were another place where poets I didn’t extensively discuss — Frank Bidart, Rachel Zucker, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Harryette Mullen, George Herbert — made their appearance.
BNR: As you mention, the book is not only essays but is studded with found poems — proems and centos, crafted of lines of poems that matter to you. What role do the poems take in the book? Why include them?  

MM: Those movements are central for me, part of my commitment to formal variousness — a wager that “poetry” and “prose” might sometimes hybridize, that one could still write what Baudelaire called for, a poetical prose. I thought a lot about the total composition — how to move among chapters, what to introduce when, questions of tempo, when to rest; I thought structurally, musically. The proem was one of the last things I wrote — a way to invoke and parry questions about why I (or anyone might) write and read poetry. The proem — the opening movement — is a tissue of quotations, an overture for the whole book. It introduces the reader to quotation as a mode of exploration, including self-exploration. The centos also distill a method of  self-composition-via-quotation. The final cento took a long time  — I had a clear sense of its narrative arc, that it should be a kind of dream vision, a soaring or blasting off. I’ve since realized that it’s a very strange elegy, or self-elegy — a saying hello and a saying goodbye to the world through poetry.
BNR: In an essay on Dickinson and Susan Howe you mention “a lineage of  poets’ criticism extending  from William Carlos Williams to Charles Olson to Susan Howe.” How does the criticism of poets differ from the criticism of scholars?

MM: One could answer that question for our own moment or think more historically. Aristotle wasn’t a poet, but Horace was, and Pope was; all wrote important criticism. Criticism now appears mainly in prose, but in eighteenth-century Britain, and in Augustan Rome, a lot of criticism appeared as verse. I’m not interested in making hard-and-fast distinctions between poets’ and scholars’ criticism. A lot of these differences arise because of a writer’s imagined audience: is she writing within the academy, for the general reader, other writers? For a deadline next week? To defend her own work or to offer a broader defense of poetry, like Shelley’s?

BNR: In one  of  the poems we just discussed  you have a few of the lines of “poetry”  that come from a critical essay by Emile Benveniste. Is criticism poetry, too?     

MM: I guess I’d say that, in certain cases, poetry can eat “criticism” just the way some prose can eat poetry. If it’s good, it’s good — all good!