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.
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About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
By Maureen N. McLane
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 Maureen N. McLane
All rights reserved.
PROEM IN THE FORM OF A Q&A
How long have you written poetry?
Since then —'tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity —
Why do you read poetry?
I caught this morning morning's minion.
Why do you read poetry?
Batter my heart.
Why do you read poetry?
I have wasted my life.
Why do you read poetry?
Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour!
What is the first poem you remember?
She sailed away one sunny summer day
on the back of a crocodile?
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
Anyone lived in a pretty how town?
The great light cage has broken up in the air,
freeing, I think, about a million birds.
I sang in my chains like the sea.
Where there is personal liking we go.
Poetry sheds no tears "such as Angels weep," but natural and human tears;
she can boast of no celestial Ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from
those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of them
Poetry is connate with the origin of man.
Of all things of thought, poetry is closest to thought.
The immortal Mind craves objects that endure.
The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
We've lived quietly among the stars, knowing money isn't what matters.
A day is not a day of mind
Until all lifetime is repaired despair.
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
A need for poetry.
Why do you write poetry?
I am a native in this world
And think in it as a native thinks.
Why do you write poetry?
Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to make
something — if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives.
Why do you write poetry?
Odi et amo.
Why do you write poetry?
My purpose here is to advance into
the sense of the weather.
Why do you write poetry?
I sing to use the Waiting.
I. M. JULIA BRIGGS
Was Troilus nought in a kankedort? Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, II. 1752
Isolate, peculiar, rare, obsolete, it surfaces in the language only once, according to the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. "Kankedort": speculatively defined as a "difficult situation" by Larry D. Benson, editor of The Riverside Chaucer; further glossed in the OED as "a state of suspense; a critical position; an awkward affair."
A lonely word whose definition can be inferred only from its single, immediate context in Chaucer's poem: Troilus awaits his beloved, Criseyde, who is being led by her uncle Pandarus to Troilus's room for their first love-meeting. Pandarus — who throughout the poem behaves like unto his name, serving as pander, go-between, near-pimp of Criseyde. Here, at the very end of Book II, the lovesick Troilus awaits his long-sought love and nervously considers how to declare his passion:
And was the firste tyme he shulde hire preye
Of love; O mighty God, what shal he seye?
Was Troilus nought in a kankedort? Was he not at a difficult, critical moment, that abyssal moment before erotic disclosure? Was he not worrying about the right words to say, the right words to elicit the right response, the lover's answering love, the body perhaps then pledged, then possessed? It's only humans as far as we know who can use words to get bodies together. The word as the body evanesced in a breath, a breath bearing intelligible sound. What shal he seye? What does he say?
Lo, the alderfirste word that hym asterte
Was, twyes, "Mercy, mercy, swete herte!"
"Language is fossil poetry," Emerson declared in his essay "The Poet" (1844); some poetry becomes the amber in which the delicate fossils of a language are embedded. Was Troilus nought in a kankedort?
"A dream of a common language," Adrienne Rich imagined, a difficult dream. Kankedort falls out of this dream. Words become obsolete, languages die, texts the tombs of the dead only some learn to reanimate. Kankedort: A hapax legomenon, to invoke a technical term of the Greek grammarians, themselves interested especially in those words that appeared only once in the Homeric corpus. Kankedort a hapax in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde but also in the English language itself. The OED marks kankedort as not only rare but obsolete.
You find yourself in a "difficult situation."
You're asked to choose a word that has meant something to you, an invitation that lends itself to thoughts of the exceptional word, the unusual word, of a word that lodged itself like a mystery, a word that gathered around it associations so personal and ramifying that the word itself becomes the sign of an epoch not only in Troilus's life but in yours. There are words that the dictionary deems "rare," "obsolete," "slang," "obscene": lexicographers can debate such classifications and have. There are words that are "rare" for the general and words that are "rare" for you, words that are "obsolete" in the language and those that are "obsolete" for you: "Christian"; "fuck-wad"; "wife." That your mind runs this way, running aground on the reef of "kankedort," of "dulcarnoun" (Troilus and Criseyde, III.931), of "spatchcocked," "onomastics," and other such shoals, shows your tendency toward verbal fetishism, or more precisely lexical fetishism: one could ponder the depths of the commonest words — "thing," or "think" (as Wordsworth does, incessantly); "love," "kind" (see Shakespeare); the overwhelming power encoded in the humblest parts of speech, prepositions or articles, through which every basic relation shines forth. On. With. Together. Toward. Between. The the (Wallace Stevens).
To focus on the word is to focus on "a part of speech"; yet no one I know ever spontaneously spoke the word "kankedort." Perhaps only Chaucer himself ever spoke the word "kankedort." He was charting his way through one of the four major dialects then jostling for the privilege of ascending into a more standard "Englysshe": Chaucer's "Englysshe" will beat out John Gower's, and that of the Ancrene Wisse, and other fourteenth-century variants then available on the island of Britain. If you concentrate, you can almost read Chaucer without a gloss, even if contemporary "English" — whatever that might be — is your only language.
what shal he seye?
What should I say of kankedort other than the word constellates a time, a time of reading, a time of slow dawning and changing, of delicate then desperate realizing over many months and belatedly that I was in a kankedort; I was sick with love; I was in love with another; I knew not what to do; I did almost nothing; I found myself at dulcarnoun, at my wittes end; I almost did something bold; I didn't; then I did; then the plot changed, or its true drift was revealed — if only in retrospect.
Myn owen swete herte.
The harsh Teutonic consonants surfacing amid Chaucer's romance syllables, his rhyme words more typically the elegant courtly polysyllables of a Norman French: mischaunce; purveiaunce; daliance. Kankedort seems to leave Romance languages behind, calling up that other register of an emergent English, drawing upon Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic wells. It is striking that when Criseyde later finds herself at ... wittes end, in a dilemma, she invokes a technical term from medieval Latin, itself derived from Arabic: I am ... at dulcarnoun, she declares — dulcarnoun a term that seems to arise from a crux in geometry. It was always mixing, appropriating, bedeviling, this Englysshe.
The woman with whom I read Troilus and Criseyde and through whom I discovered kankedort died recently; she is beyond worldly care; I could hope that like Troilus her
... lighte goost ful blissfully is went
Up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere
but that such metaphysics would falsify what I took to be her enthusiastic embrace of this single palpable world. After his death Troilus is stellified — that is, he is turned into a star, circling in the heavens, now stoic, now amazed to ponder human folly:
And in hymself he lough right at the wo
Of hem that wepten for his deth so faste.
Before she died she told a friend she planned to return as an owl. I can imagine her like Troilus surveying this litel spot of erthe, though she would be willing, unlike Troilus, to perch on merely earthly branches.CHAPTER 3
ON NOT BEING ABLE TO READ POETRY
In 1985 I took two poetry classes. I was a freshman in college and signed up for a class Professor Helen Vendler was offering (and still does) in the core curriculum: "Poems, Poets, Poetry." This was a large lecture class of some three-hundred-plus students; never did I meet Vendler (that is, until many years later). I also took a required freshman writing class, the dreaded expository writing ("Expos"); I signed up for a poetry section taught by the poet, memoirist, and art critic William Corbett.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood ...
I have been faithful to both in my fashion.
With Vendler things were clear, if intricate, sailing: the poems were rigged tight, perfect vessels expertly anthologized under the Norton name, beautifully read in her beautiful voice, three poems per class illuminated, the light of her intelligence shining through them, drawing their movements on the surface of the receptive mind. What I recall: her reading of Keats's "To Autumn," the way the numerous gnats are still descending in her voice; her reading of Yeats's "The Circus Animal's Desertion," the sublime descent into the foul rag and bone shop of the heart; her patient unweaving and reweaving of the brilliant sorrowful virtuosic strands of Milton's "Lycidas"; her casual but incisive way with a line, a fact, an insight. Who knew that funeral customs included the strewing of flowers, that "photograph" could be etymologized as light-writing, that this was a point of entry into Lowell's "Epilogue"? One understood that Vendler was remote from Pound, friendly to Eliot; that she adored Donne and Keats and Yeats and humored Allen Ginsberg like a kindly aunt; that she revered Lowell and Bishop, who had been her friends; that a rose in English smelled and sounded and sang like no rose in any other language. Ther is no rose of swych vertu. Poetry was untranslatable, unparaphrasable, and yet each week she accomplished before us virtuosic paraphrases. There was the thing itself, the poem compellingly read; there was a pause; and there was analysis — a dwelling on, a dwelling in, the fairer house than prose.
If Vendler's course represented the apogee of a certain form of exegesis, William Corbett's high-voltage poetry course quickly revealed the limits of close reading, or at least of my close readings.
Let us broaden the frame.
If it's true that a poem can plausibly sustain and indeed survive several interpretations, it is also true that a poem may elicit any number of bad readings.
I can tell from my misgivings when listening to some students' interpretations of poems, or when revisiting my own readings or those of some critics, that in some precinct of my mind I retain the fantasy of the Platonic reading of a poem, against which all instantiated readings are mere shadows flickering on our shared, half-illumined cave. At other times, possessed of the urge to shout "That's just wrong! Wrong Wrong Wrong!" I have had to wonder whether I don't secretly harbor a scientist's — or at least a Popperian's — view of the matter, treating critical readings as verifiable and falsifiable hypotheses.
There are many ways of not getting it. And many ways of getting it can look, years or decades or centuries later, like a symptomatic way of not getting it.
How could they not have gotten Blake? Or Dickinson? Or Stein?
Most didn't, and now some do. What happened?
One could offer numerous literary-historical, cultural, and institutional reasons for such developments, in all their specificity, and scholars have done so. What we can also say is that certain works become readable (or newly or differently readable) under certain conditions; they take up their place not exactly "in the true," as Michel Foucault describes the epistemic reconfiguration of the human sciences, but rather "in the readable," which is to say the receivable.
I am fascinated by that threshold where one hovers, not getting it yet wanting to get it. Where a tentative desire contends with frustration. Where frustration may be converted into desire, and desire into some provisional illumination. As a poet, as a student, as a critic, as a teacher, as a citizen, I have found this vale of unknowing yet wanting-to-know to be a fruitful vale, a dwelling place worth sharing, pondering. This uncomfortable yet not completely unpleasurable affective and cognitive situation presents itself to me as a somatic condition that feels rather like an environment — a kind of tensed haze. I no sooner felt than I sought to understand (Coleridge).
Many of the poets and poems now important to me were completely and maddeningly elusive when I first encountered them.
The shock of the new is not only a modernist mantra or an art-historical slogan but an ever-present potential charge, if you are a teacher, a student, a baby, or peculiarly receptive to opportunities for derangement.
When as a college freshman I signed up for Corbett's expository writing course, I thought I was heading for safe harbor, the heaven-haven of conventional exegesis. I would read some new poems, maybe revisit a few I knew and deepen my understanding of them. I would scan the lines, grapple with forms, wrestle with conceits, hunt down allusions, unpack metaphors, and be on the lookout for ironies. I was ready.
Excerpted from My Poets by Maureen N. McLane. Copyright © 2012 Maureen N. McLane. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
1 Proem In The Form Of A Q&A 3
2 My Chaucer/Kankedort 7
3 My Impasses: on Not Being able to Read Poetry 13
4 My Elizabeth Bishop/(My Gertrude Stein) 26
5 My Wallace Stevens 54
6 My William Carlos Williams 57
7 My Marianne Moore 69
8 My H.D. 109
9 My Translated: An Abecedary 148
10 My Louise Glück 152
11 My Fanny Howe 175
12 My Poets I: An Interlude in the Form of a Cento 186
13 My Emily Dickinson/My Emily Dickinson 193
14 My Shelley/(My Romantics) 205
15 My Poets II: An Envoi; in the Form of a Cento 243
Works Consulted or Remembered and Further Reading 255
My Acknowledgments 265
Madness and Marginalia: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Maureen McLane
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 speak to the speed at which many of us live:
for here or to go 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. McLane won the National Book Critics Circle's Balakian Award for Excellence in Book Reviewing in 2003. She has also taught at Harvard, the University of Chicago, MIT, and the East Harlem Poetry Project.
a glass mug, a paper cup
life is fast, art slow
only a few years
before all I am blows
Now, bridging the many worlds she's traveled, McLane brings us My Poets, part autobiography of a reading life, part prose and part poem. In it, she treats her own life as a reader and writer of poetry, asking what it means to try to account for the mind that works through texts. The book is hybrid, allowing us into her uncertainties, her notes, and the poets who have "infected" her. In its generosity sharing the actions of the mind at work, it blurs boundaries between genres and includes us in the process by which art shapes thought. In moments we also, luckily, glimpse how new art might come into being.
In an exchange of emails Maureen McLane spoke with us 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?
Maureen 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!
July 5, 2012
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bought after reading a review by a poet in the NYTs Book Review. Left me more than a little baffled, after 20 pages. Anxious to see it reviewed by someone else, perhaps a Poet? cannot recommend pro or con as I did not finish the book.