“My Poets” by Maureen McLane

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Maureen McLane has published two daring, original collections of poetry, and a book called Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry, from Cambridge University Press. Balladeering, with sometimes sluggish, academic prose, is worth effort for anyone wishing greater understanding of traditions that have influenced romantic poetry and the poetry that has come after it : in other words, anyone who cares about literature.

McLane brings to My Poets a rigorous education from Harvard and Oxford, large quantities of curiosity, courage, raw emotion and a welcome concern for effects on others of her complicated predicaments. These predicaments were made more difficult by her realization that when she was about to marry a kind, smart man who appreciated her, she fell in love with a woman. She is to be praised for decency, interpersonal ethics and for glorious associations in this incoherent book.

The book is partially categorized as Poets, American-Biography, Poetry-Influence. Poetry-History and Criticism. McLane is not the first person of letters to create a piece that is not easy to pigeonhole, but this one disappoints, though a writer who feels the magnet pull of the words “spatchcocked” and “kankedort” should be wished well, cheered on, despite the “buts” I’ll discuss.

Her treatment of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell says nothing new. Bishop’s alcoholism, lesbianism, reticence, modest output, often flawless technique. Check. Lowell’s manias. Check. What’s more troubling about McLane’s material on Bishop is that though she mentions having studied with Helen Vendler at Harvard, she says nothing about Vendler’s outrage at publication of the Bishop volume from which she, McLane, quotes. That volume came after Bishop’s death, and contains poems Vendler carefully examined, making an excellent case for their exclusion, an exclusion supported by Bishop’s refusal to publish them in her lifetime. This was a brouhaha worth acknowledging, and worth examination by committed readers of poetry.

McLane’s musings on Gertrude Stein are more satisfying, as are those on H. D. Both are women whose seriousness is too often mocked and who hold up to a strong magnifying glass. McLane understands that they lived and wrote boldly, that their crafts were groundbreaking gifts of lasting value. And then we get to (former U. S. Poet Laureate) Louise Gluck.

McLane read Gluck in great need, announcing, “Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris was a companion more intimate than any living friend, a murmur and a rasp and balm in the mind those months the structures of living you yourself had erected were now collapsing, the foundations battered by your yourself. Your depression was florid, ardent, a sick fever of desired annihilation when any flicker of energy served only to fuel and intensify despair.” Note the second person, which comes and goes throughout this book. Note also a valid gratitude for Gluck’s lines such as

Hear me out : That which you call death
I remember.
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

This is the title poem in Gluck’s volume and one of many examples mirroring McLane’s agonies while illustrating fine taste. So its irritating when suddenly, a few pages later McLane, again in the second person, is sitting in “one of Hyde Park’s landmark bookstores,” leafing through Gluck’s Proofs and Theories : Essays on Poetry, admiring “the exacting account of the education; the anorexia, the analysis, the maniacal protective ecstasies of refusal and then refusing refusal,” when a famous novelist arrives, comments on what she’s reading , and “unspools how she married for this and divorced for that and how the long-ago affair for this one blew up.“ I’m not above gossip, even the salacious sort, though as salacious goes, this is pretty mild. It’s also a tease because she doesn’t name the novelist. I’ve pondered why it’s here and come up empty.

Moving right along, McLane’s look at Fanny Howe correctly places her rigorous, melodic and profoundly, questingly American work as among the very best of an era. Howe is less accessible than many predecessors, but no less necessary and rewarding. She is, McLane declares, “an American singer of the singular, contradictory song.” Then we get “An Interlude In the Form of a Cento,” which is fun, with convincing, admiring nods to, among others, Gluck, Alice Notley, Elizabeth Alexander, Denise Levertov, William Blake and Anne Carson. But again, I am disappointed, wishing for more poets of color. C.S. Giscombe, former U. S Poet Laureate Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks come quickly to mind.

And so (apologies Kurt Vonnegut) it goes, with some welcome, concentrated dazzle toward the end when McLane delves into Emily Dickinson. McLane has little to add here, which is not a misdemeanor, largely because she highlights the neglected Susan Howe, whose treatment of Dickinson is a classic. This is the kind of “femmage” Muriel Rukeyser and others of that generation would surely have welcomed as much as I do. I also believe they would have wished for much more material in “My Romantics,” though it is always gratifying to be reminded how far Wordsworth and Shelley were prepared to go, and how international political upheavals and inner turmoil affected what they penned.

“And certainly Shelley was keen to fuse psychological and sexual with political aspirations, and he was insufficiently mindful that political commitments might well channel non-or pre-political needs.” This sentence is hugely resonant, displaying McLane at her best.

Frederick Seidel. Rae Dalven’s Cavafy translation. August Kleinzahler. Paul Muldoon (who has published McLane in The New Yorker), Seamus Heaney , and Marianne Moore, who receives worthy treatment in these pages. Frederick Seidel is a gilded, glittery acrobat with substance beneath each surface, and McLane surely knows how to elaborate on his gifts. She doesn’t. Nor does she with Dalven’s Cavafy , groundbreaking in its day, with a superb preface by Auden. Mc Lane just lists and lists sometimes, leaving me breathlessly vexed and unsatisfied by this quivering, sometimes brilliant book.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →