In advertising, the imperative is out. Instead, we consumers must be made to suspect the thingy in question somehow already belongs to us, and that the nature of said thingy has more to do with personal possibility than practical purpose: “What’s in your wallet?”; “How do you spell relief?”; “Where do you want to go today?”; “How do you eat a Reese’s?”
So it goes for poetry. The fastest way to kill a budding interest in poems is to insist on how they must be read. The destruction that can be wrought on poems by poor explanation is as irreparable as that done on dreams by waking. Teaching poetry, then, must be about regulating a reader’s balance of direction and abandon, trial and trance, error and ecstasy.
Or, put in the kind of gnarled, knuckly, Steinian language that might tickle Maureen N. McLane, the thing about the thing itself is always less than the thing itself.
Over the course of the 15 chapters of “My P
oets,” 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. Thus, each chapter is casually and pre-emptively personalized (“My H.D.”; “My Wallace Stevens”; “My Fanny Howe”) in service of an unpushed point: 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. If it looks something like the wild, that’s because it should.
Which is not to suggest that McLane’s readings are untamed, shaggy things. If anything, they highlight her impressive directness and clarity, her keen ear for language, and a deep well of memory. A respected poet and critic herself — who won the National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 2002 — reading McLane’s readings is like following the faint lines of a crude map she drew as she forged intuitively along.
A chapter titled “My Impasses” reassuringly recounts the turmoil McLane experienced as a student at Harvard, pulled between the poles of her professors’ poetics, with Helen Vendler’s “Poems, Poets, Poetry” representing “the apogee of a certain form of exegesis” and William Corbett’s wild and woolly poetry course proving “one could learn a lot about poems, and about the impact of poetry, by osmosis.” She bangs her head against Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara – even showing us the scars in the form of some blushworthy scrawlings from her notebook. It’s not so much a blooper reel as an honest appraisal of a halting first encounter: “To make visible my presumptions: this is what breakdowns and impasses allowed,” she writes.
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. She reads Emily Dickinson through Susan Howe, George Oppen, and (convincingly) the language of the war on terror. She travels to England to immerse herself in the tradition, only to long for William Carlos Williams (“Going to England is a fast way to become American”). And her account of reading Chaucer takes a delightful circular detour around a single pebble of his oeuvre: the word kankedort — a term for an awkward situation which appears once in “Troilus and Criseyde” and seemingly nowhere else in all of our “Englysshe.” Elsewhere, a three-page chapter on Wallace Stevens feels – perhaps appropriately – more like a Wallace Stevens tattoo; an indelible mark on her reading life, sure, but seemingly no biggie.
Her stunning centerpiece on Marianne Moore handily toggles between the rose of her “Roses Only” and H.D.’s “Sea Rose,” admiring each as a different petal (or thorn) of the same modernist bloom. And it’s not dryly posited as a thesis; it’s marked as a point of wonder for McLane – you can feel the pleasure she must have felt when first hearing their two unlikely voices tangled in associative chorus. “At her worst,” she observes at one point, “[Moore] is twee, or, alternately, insistent.” McLane hears the lesson in this, and follows it faithfully.
When she does get playful – as in “My Elizabeth Bishop / (My Gertrude Stein),” where she channels her grappling with Bishop’s complexities through the mantric/manic iterations that propel Stein’s lines – she doesn’t damage either in the process, and knows when to cap the cute. Some of her more whimsical chapters feel like Sunday puzzles, from the hit-single sampling intro provided by “Proem in the Form of a Q&A” to her sly investigation of the lenses of translation in “My Translated: An Abecedary” (“My Beowulf is Seamus Heaney”; “My Li Po is sometimes Ezra Pound”; “My Anne Carson is Anne Carson”). “My Poets II: An Envoi in the Form of a Cento” is an especially plush weave of footnotes and inspirations.
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.”