“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 Bildungs, 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.
“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“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 . . . 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“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“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 . . . 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“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., 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“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.”—Library Journal“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 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
Maureen N. McLane is the author of two collections of poetry, Same Life and World Enough.