Poetry criticism in our time has suffered a steady marginalization of print attention, to the greater disadvantage of poets, poetry enthusiasts, and the general reader. Even so, the last generation’s kingmakers—Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler—have loosened their grip on reliably championing the newest and most vital contemporary poetry (yet, of course, here there are exceptions: as evidenced with Marjorie Perloff’s rigorous, at times monotone, championing of conceptual poetics practiced today). Interestingly, many of the noted next-generation critics such as Stephen Burt and William Logan, whatever one makes of their too-soft or too-hard sells, are poets themselves. But if the old standard line about the best criticism being appreciative criticism means anything, if poets still make the greatest critics because of their firsthand sensitivity to the craft, Maureen McLane’s newest book, My Poets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012), signals a much-needed injection into the pulse of mainstream discourse. Noticeably, McLane’s tack is not as “book reviewer” in this volume (though she has done distinguished work in that field, bringing to bear judgment sans kneejerk polemics); rather, she comes across as a digressive and astute close-reader, full of autobiographical pith and a relaxedly cheeky tone. What readers may find most interesting in her study of poets living and dead that mean most to her are her eclecticism (Gertrude Stein doesn’t usually sit side-by-side with the likes of Elizabeth Bishop, but why not!) and her almost Menippean formal ingenuity—the chapters are centos, rhapsodies, encounters rooted in memory and knowing pastiche. When I sat down with McLane last spring, I felt myself more aware than ever of how much poetry criticism needs such a return to personal investment and greater formal intelligence. The T. S. Eliot-Respectable-Man-of-Letters act is stale, and has been for half-a-century. Yet lucky for us, My Poets is anything but. These essays return the zeal and creativity to criticism—like that of Susan Howe’s classic My Emily Dickinson, which McLane’s title pays tribute to—with abundant skill.
Adam Fitzgerald (Rail): Maureen, I’m familiar with your poetry and essays, but tell me what you teach exactly?
Maureen McLane: I teach a range of things—literature and cultural and critical theory and more specifically Romanticism, balladry, some Modernism and 20th and 21st century poetry.
Rail: Is that what you’re doing this semester?
McLane: This semester I’m doing both an undergraduate seminar and a graduate seminar, different versions of a course I think of as Romanticisms/Modernisms/Now—about genealogical relationships, cross-pollinations, and conjunctions among periods and poets. Students spend a lot of time around 1800, on Wordsworth and Burns and Coleridge and Shelley, on poetics, on ballad collections, and on ideas about Romanticism and debates about poetry in the period. Then we jump ahead—or rather explore various galleries of intentionally and polemically juxtaposed materials—to trace several lines of force: we see how several emergent predicaments facing poets circa 1800 persist and are transformed in the works of modernist poets (Eliot, Pound, H. D., MacDiarmid) and in contemporary poetry and poetics. Is poetry dead? Should it be? Must “poetry” be in verse? What is the “proper language” of and for poetry? Throughout the term we explore questions about the status of “the vernacular,” common life, and debates about the purpose and place of poetry; students see that these issues have a much longer history than, say, the latest issue of Poetry magazine.
Rail: And what contemporary poets figure into the course?
McLane: We read a real mix—Ann Lauterbach, Lisa Robertson, Tyehimba Jess, Tom Pickard, Bob Perelman, Inger Christensen: all chosen because they are somehow in conversation with poetry and poetics as elaborated around 1800, and because I like them! There’s some Olena Kalytiak Davis in the mix too because she has an excellent ranging poem that among many other things takes up the critic M. H. Abrams on the greater Romantic lyric.
Rail: Isn’t it crazy he’s still alive! He was Harold Bloom’s first teacher at Cornell.
McLane: I know! He’s like 102. So, we read Lisa Robertson’s The Weather in conjunction with Wordsworth and Coleridge; the book itself is in interesting dialogue with Wordsworth’s Prelude as well as with emergent taxonomies of clouds (which were first codified by Luke Howard in the early 19th century). We read Lauterbach’s “Alice in the Wasteland.” In other classes we read other things; in most classes I do feel like it’s my job to expose students to a range of poetries and ways of reading, so we’ll read everything from Christian Bök to Anne Carson to Inger Christensen to Paul Muldoon or Whitman or Rachel Zucker or Shelley. So it’s varied. I tend to offer galleries of materials: in this class we read Tyehimba Jess’s book leadbelly because we think a lot about poetry and song, poetry and the vernacular, form and history, poetry and dis/possession; we also read Tom Pickard’s Ballad of Jamie Allan for analogous reasons. Pickard’s a northern English poet and he has this great book; I like it very much and it’s also wonderful for my purposes because it takes up a late 18th century outlaw, a piper and horsethief named Jamie Allan: it’s a book-length work arising from Pickard’s work in the archive and his own lyric imagination—it’s a Flood Editions book.
Rail: They make such beautiful books.
McLane: They make beautiful books and Pickard’s a wonderful poet who doesn’t quite fit in standard accounts of contemporary British poetry. He’s the person who actually got Bunting to write again, in the early-‘60s
Rail: Really? Good Lord.
McLane: Yeah, at 16 years old he looks up Bunting somewhere in the north of England and gets him to read at the reading series he launched at Morden Tower. Pickard’s an amazing figure.
Rail: How old is he now?
McLane: He might be just around 60 and as a very young guy he worked as a mason, I think. Or maybe I’m thinking of the mason in Bunting’s “Briggflatts!” Pickard has a working class background, is a real roustabout guy, with an incredible ear; he apprenticed himself to Bunting and some American poets. He married young and he and his then-wife set up a reading series in Newcastle and it was quite a place; he’s very interesting.
Rail: Idiosyncratic, too! Speaking of interesting, I wanted to commend you for your smart interview with Timothy Donnelly in the Boston Review, in which you rightly detected his weariness with a certain style of contemporary lyric that is meant to be, “adorably” so, all Spiritual Uplift.
McLane: I think there’s a lot of defense against reading. I think there’s a lot of either acclaim or disclaim that’s bullshit because people don’t actually read, they just opinionate—to be really frank—and I’m just endlessly amazed by that. I shouldn’t be amazed, but I am; it’s a striking phenomenon.
Rail: You mean among fellow writers?
McLane: Oh yes, I mean writers. That’s what’s most shocking of course. It shouldn’t be—but I do feel like, oh God! You must be kidding! People’s ideas about things stand in for an encounter with the thing.
Rail: So tell me about your life and career as a book reviewer.
McLane: I definitely felt fortunate to have the chance to review things over the years; reviews were opportunities for me to think through books and poems and horizons and to write in another key, to be more oriented to questions of accessibility, to have useful deadlines, to offer some take on an encounter with something (a book of poems, a novel, a work on sexuality) for an audience, however notional. I’m interested in writing in several modalities and thinking in several modalities and I wanted to shift a bit into some new modes. I’d written a couple of things that were somewhat unclassifiable or were hovering somewhere between essay, memoir, and meditation—and I liked that. And then there were plenty of other books that do analogous things—Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson or Anne Carson’s work or Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. I’m sure other things were in the background and at a certain point I thought, well, I want to pursue this: and my decision was to focus on certain poets or constellations of poets, chosen by the criterion of their importance for me at a particular juncture in my life. These poets became, if only for a time, often for a very long time, vehicles through which I thought about things and often still think about things. Certain life moments will always be marked for me by an encounter with, say, Bishop or Shelley; I’ll always think about certain places or life junctures through certain lines of some poets. For other people key touchstones would be specific moments in films or TV shows or certain songs: so what I hope is that this book is a kind of extension to the reader. I imagine that most people who would have any interest in the book would probably have a prior interest in poetry, but I also feel that if I can be interested in somebody who is crazy about chemistry and he writes really interestingly about it and about how he had an adolescent epiphany about the periodic table—or the ways Oliver Sacks talks about being a child chemist—you too might be interested in this book My Poets. I feel like people’s interests are interesting if they make them interesting. So, I hope that this book is a way both to honor interests and passions, but also to communicate interests and passions to those who might not have a prior stake either in these people or in poetry. Of course, the book is an homage as well as a critique of some of these poets; it is also a way of exploring different formal possibilities. There’s a lot of poetry in the book as well as prose: that was an increasingly important thing for me, its structure and its different keys.
Rail: When did you start writing My Poets?
McLane: Well, I had published one or two pieces in 2008 or 2009—the Emily Dickinson chapter and the Fanny Howe chapter, which came out of a meditation on her work for an event in Cambridge honoring her. I had never met her, but I had read a certain chapbook of hers. I’m blanking right now on what it was called, but I have a very vivid image of this pink cover and of being arrested by, riveted by, this chapbook. Bill Corbett, a wonderful writer, poet, and memoirist, was involved in planning an event honoring Howe with Jim Behrle, who’s now, I believe, in Brooklyn, a great spirit and poet and impresario: Bill and Jim were cooking up a Fanny Howe event sometime around 2005 or 2006, and they asked various people if they wanted to say something. So I thought, alright, I’m going to go back to that chapbook: and I drafted some thoughts about it, about the time of reading it, when I was depressed and divorcing and living in Chicago and generally shattered, and that became the core of the piece you now have in the book. More and more I found myself steering toward meditations on the time of reading, inter-weaving life experience and reading experience, or exploring reading experience as life experience. The chapter “My Emily Dickinson” is a bit like that too—in that one I don’t talk much about the time of reading Dickinson, although there’s a lot in the essay about what it meant to be thinking about Dickinson after 9/11. But in terms of understanding myself as having a discrete project, I would say it crystallized in 2009. I spent three intensive summers and other long stretches during those years sitting with and in different poets and also thinking about my own chronology and my own chronology of reading and just very complicated encounters. I know you’ve read the book, so you know that any chapter is about many things and many other poets—that, for example, there’s a lot of Wordsworth running around in this book even though there’s not a Wordsworth chapter per se; and there’s a lot of Yeats popping up too. It’s interesting how the chapters became vessels to carry certain kinds of meditations about a variety of poets as well as certain life junctures.
Rail: That’s exactly what I’m curious about. For instance, I can’t think of another essay where Stein and Bishop are so intimately discussed. Was Howe’s creative criticism a model for your own? My Emily Dickinson remains a monument of its kind.
McLane: It’s a book I hugely admire and I think I internalize and re-internalize it. I read it when I was in college and then re-read it some years later and taught it in some classes over the past eight years. So in a way it’s one clear precedent. Howe herself talks about her own precedents, whether William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain or Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael. I think a lot about Anne Carson’s work and actually I had in mind Edmund White’s book, My Lives—with its sections on “My Hustlers,” “My Shrinks,” etc. I liked that sense that you could imagine kinds of grouping, meditating in a memoiristic way on experience that was not overtly chronological and that had to do with peculiar thematic groupings. One could look at things psycho-dynamically, or thematically: life throws up a lot, so I felt like there was no overt patterning in advance, other than that generated by the time of reading key poets. I think that Howe’s book was and remains an incredibly vibrant example of a dynamic, writerly, beautiful “critical” project. I mean there’s a lot more overt memoirish stuff in my book, and I wanted there to be: and also it’s a gallery of people and thoughts and not a sustained excavation of one writer, but certainly My Emily Dickinson was very much a book I had lived with; it’s explicitly invoked in the Dickinson chapter. I think there are a lot of things in the mix. I think there are a lot of things I was conscious of and probably a lot of things I wasn’t conscious of.
Rail: Now that your book’s soon to be published, do you retroactively recognize any other unexpected influences on your process?
McLane: To be honest with you, once I had kind of locked into this conceit of “my poets,” I knew the principle of selection wouldn’t necessarily be those poets that are the best poets, whoever those are. I mean that’s a conversation one could have over wine—who are “the best” poets—but ultimately that is not that interesting to me. The way I put it in the H. D. chapter is this: “I’m marking here what most marked me.” And there are some other poets I could have definitely written a lot more about—Yeats, Wordsworth, Spenser, Anne Carson—I could have definitely written more because they were weirdly powerful figures for me at various junctures; but I ultimately didn’t. Certainly there’s a lot of Stein running around, overtly in the stylistic modality in the Elizabeth Bishop chapter, which is also the “My Gertrude Stein” chapter. I always felt that you might discover a stylistic register partly by thinking with and through these writers, so that was also important to me. Finding the different stylistic or formal modalities for each chapter was a real project. The two centos in the book are very important to me as core chapters—“centos” are poems made out of, stitched out of, quotations from other works, and in a sense, the whole book is a kind of elaborate weaving and stitching of quotation. The “My Translated” episode is an Abecedary—so this and the centos and the poems were all ways of exploring formally different modes of address and engagement.
Rail: The truism of criticism is that we usually don’t expect to discuss the critic’s own style, their apparent or lack of writerly massaging of language. Even in a recent introduction for Susan Stewart at the 92nd Street Y, I noticed almost Skeltonic rhymes, much like the sentence rhythms and end-line clicking of sound and syllable from your Stein-Bishop chapter. Criticism in your hands becomes quite the performance. Is this something you are, however implicitly, challenging us to pay attention, the routine split between creative and critical modes?
McLane: I didn’t set out to do X or Y or Z. The book wasn’t meant to be, as it were, corrective, or programmatic; it did grow in part out of my own sense of being—for myself—tired or impatient with a certain pre-restricted mode of writing. I think there are a lot of partitions that are understandable for various reasons—in terms of, say, which journals support criticism and experimental essays, which people or organizations want to publish something that looks like a poem, or looks like an essay or looks like a whatever. That’s what happens, genres become genres become fixed and intermittently there are spaces for emergent hybrid works, but often you don’t know what they look like until after they’ve been written and so I sort of felt like, alright, we’ll see how this goes. Let’s write into the blank. And Jonathan Galassi was a terrific supporter of the project, which was key.
Rail: Where do you turn to find criticism with such, I don’t know, unapologetic spunk and kick to it?
McLane: A Public Space will publish really interesting and wonderful things and the Boston Review published a few of my essays and always has interesting and strong work; and jubilat and other sparky journals do too. You’re not going to get that in newspapers per se but in some literary journals I think people are very receptive to genre-bending work. I find a lot of the “creative” versus “critical” discussion mind-numbingly, annihilatingly boring, and yet that’s what one is always presented with, and I just feel like, fuck that. I feel a big fuck that.
Rail: Yet as a sound-bite distinction it’s still so rigidly there in us. Why?
McLane: Because people get professionalized and people are anxious—that’s why. [Laughs.] People are funneled into different kinds of territories which seem as if they are not communicating and they could be communicating. I have no agenda at all other than my book and also reading other things I find interesting; I’m always super skeptical of calls for what poetry should do or be and I feel the same thing about criticism. Whatever! Either people will want to read things or they won’t, and you can’t make it like vitamins.
Rail: So who are the critics working in a like mode that you turn to?
McLane: I don’t really make that distinction per se. In a lot of criticism one defaults to a kind of instrumental prose; that’s what’s often implicitly asked for. The most rewarding thing I read last year was the translation of Barthes’s Preparation of the Novel—his last lecture course at the Collège de France. The lectures are somewhat truncated and peculiar but they’re also rich and elegant; the first part is on haiku, the second on the novel, and this was new to me and I loved it. And again here you find a writerly meditation on things, asking profound and often really eccentric questions, which I found arresting and syntonic. I feel agnostic about poetry versus criticism versus fiction; I’m as happy to read an exciting critic as I am to read an exciting poet. So for me it’s about what’s going on within a text. I know that feels like a little bit of an evasion but it’s what I actually feel. And, to be honest, a lot of what I read is from the Romantic period because I spend a lot of time there as a teacher and scholar.
Rail: Who did it better than Coleridge?
McLane: Yeah, and Hazlitt is a wonderful essayist. In this period you see the birth of an essay form toggling between an academic and a journalistic mode of talking about new literature and cultural phenomena; you get a new kind of reviewing discourse from people like Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review. And you’ll get these great conversable essays from Hazlitt and Lamb.
Rail: Which freely mix theory and memoir——
McLane: Yes, modulating in and out of anecdote. In terms of people having traction with contemporary poetry, I certainly appreciate what David Orr is writing and Stephen Burt and Ange Mlinko; I feel that if one has an interest in contemporary poetry these are good guides—they have their own lenses. Adam Kirsch is a real man of letters, with a grip on history and philosophy as well as literature. Vanessa Place is insane in the best way. And there are a lot of people in the London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement whom I’ll read because they’re beaming down from a different planet and they’re great. Just for his dyspeptic, amusing screeds I’ll read William Logan. I think you are asking me something else. I don’t read criticism just to read criticism, I don’t read anything to read anything at this point; if the desire isn’t there, why bother? I love the Russian Formalists; I love Fredric Jameson; I love Virginia Woolf. It’s not like if Vendler publishes a new book I’m going to run out and go get it, that’s not how it works for me—that’s not how it works for me with almost anything. Something comes across your path and you’re like, “Oh.” I feel that way maybe about a few writers, for example Hilary Mantel: I’d be very interested in anything she wrote just to see what she was doing.
Rail: And who are your go-to poets, when they come out with a new book, you’re there?
McLane: I’d feel that way about Anne Carson; I’d feel that way about Frank Bidart, Devin Johnston, Katie Peterson, August Kleinzahler, Alison Bechdel—but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to love everything they do; it means that I have a longstanding interest in and am enormously engaged by their work and there are a bunch of people who are friends who I’m also consistently engaged by. I read a lot of things in translation. I don’t give a shit about being on top of things; I’m not interested in that pressure, and I’m not interested in sponsoring that among my students or friends.
Rail: Did you feel that pressure as a graduate student?
McLane: Well there’s always this implicit pressure—“being on top of what constitutes critical discourse”—and I found it disgusting. I hated the instrumental language of graduate school, I passionately despised it. I have a life-long campaign against that. Pragmatically of course you don’t want to re-invent the wheel or have your students re-invent the critical wheel—the idea that one is in conversation with people and discourses and the past and the possible future is hugely important, but there are better and worse ways to model that. Somebody said to me at the University of Chicago, “So how are you going to commodify your brain” I found that diagnostic and repellent and I am maniacally opposed to that. So I have an anti-fashionable ethos in a certain way.
Rail: The book opens up with this beautiful discussion about Vendler and Corbett as opposing streams that you refused to be polarized by or strictly partisan to. Which is so very refreshing. Even in your choices within My Poets—experimental, mainstream, classical, marginal—you don’t seem too interested in choosing between camps or schools.
McLane: I despise it. I know that’s the way things make sense for a lot people but it never made sense to me. I always felt like, well, I read this thing and that thing and supposedly these things are irreconcilable. And I sort of felt like, well, I read them both and liked them both for different reasons. In a way I was very much in my own bubble. I wasn’t in creative writing classes; I might have been exposed to doctrinaire teachers, but I didn’t experience them as doctrinaire. I was always taken aback to realize these matters of taste were matters of doctrine. As somebody who was intimately acquainted with doctrine—having been brought up Catholic—I’m extremely impatient with that; I know all too well certain modes of excommunication. So for me it was like, why would anyone do that? Why would anyone pre-structure their opinions or pre-restrict their reading? There are plenty of reasons, psychologically, to do this, but for me it was odd and I came to realize I was in an increasingly odd relation to that stuff. But I don’t care. Not only do I not care, at this point I feel I am polemically eclectic. One responds to specific things and one doesn’t have to apologize for it. I am not interested in the Stalinist policing of the boundaries of the avant-garde nor am I interested in the equally Stalinist policing of “verse.” Some people have strong investments in fixed genealogies and in creating them, and they are wonderful advocates for that, but there are other ways to swim.
Rail: Has it always been that way for you?
McLane: Absolutely. Instinctively, even I hadn’t always articulated it as such. A lot of my reading and writing experience I experience as intimate and private—but of course any reading you do is a social act; you’re taking in an already internalized world that a writer has metabolized for you. But I always felt that it was a gift to be lonely in poetry. I wasn’t sitting around talking about contemporary poetry with my peers; I hardly read any contemporary poetry when I was younger. In the book I talk about how a lot of things were opaque to me: the New York School was totally opaque to me—“what the fuck are they talking about?” There are ways things became less opaque to me, and that is a story in itself about socialization and the academy and probably it’s also about just having broader horizons of reference and living longer. If anything poetry for me held a space precisely opposed to position-taking, and anything that smacked of that made me run for the hills. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t take positions, that I haven’t written plenty of reviews and don’t have a lot to say in other keys about this: but just in terms of feeling that one is carrying the flag for something or beating the drum for something, that never seemed that appealing to me—except as a way of sharing things with friends or students: “here is something I think is of interest and excellent; see if you think it is of interest.” I’m interested in what is it to pay attention to things without pre-interpreting them, though that is an endlessly receding horizon of possibility. But as somebody who has had a lot of things come over the transmitter, I often don’t know what the hell they are but I’m interested in them. I feel like that is a useful experience to try to preserve, you know that one could be interested in something——
Rail: Your impasse.
McLane: Yes, and not know actually what it means, but that it might resonate with you in some way that could unspool in time differently as you came to understand different things about it or about yourself or about the reading experience. I thought David Orr was really elegant in the way he constructed his chapters in Beautiful and Pointless to try to address what people talk about when they talk about poetry and what does it mean to try to think about form, what does it mean to think about “poetry communities,” and where do people derail and opt out and decide “this is a crazy crew and it’s not for me”.
Rail: Did you have teachers that you felt were infectiously eclectic or that were unpredictably charting a kind of sensibility or taste that avoided a programmatic aesthetic?
McLane: You only know something is eclectic if you know what the terrain is, and since I didn’t know the terrain or that there was a terrain everything was a new thing to me. What I had were teachers who were very engaged and committed and wonderfully expressive and that was infectious, and I was very fortunate in that. For example, I went to Vendler’s lectures and she was a marvelous lecturer; that really installed a whole number of things in my mind or helped install them. The idea of having taste at all was so far from my horizon of self-understanding that I couldn’t have answered that question, though I was aware that people had different kinds of commitments. Bill Corbett was teaching in his class poets I did not know; I had heard of Keats and Donne when I was 17 but I hadn’t heard of Frank O’Hara. I had a very traditional, Old Norton Anthology understanding of what poetry was, and that was and is a great thing; and then I was confronted with another genealogy and I was both interested and alienated which is a very common existential condition for me. So I had some dim intimations that these people had different tastes, but I also felt very strongly that they were wonderful communicators of their enthusiasms and advocates for these poets.
I mentioned Janice Knight—she’s such a wonderful person (she works on Colonial America); she also had a great familiarity with 20th century poetry. She’s the one who introduced me to Susan Howe and she also knew a lot about Robert Lowell and Charles Olson. For me reading was all so personal and privatized that I didn’t understand what the stakes were; I understood dimly that there were stakes but I didn’t understand what the stakes were and I had an instinctive aversion to official position-taking on art. It was sub-articulate, but still, I just fled from that. So I think that in a way I was very self-protective and I was fortunate in having both articulate and enthusiastic teachers who put a lot in my purview. Then I became a more independent reader after college and read different things and was thinking about them and was often baffled by things. I was always reading as a poet too, whatever that means.
Rail: So a hierarchal, polemical stance of a Bloom or Eliot would have been adverse to you?
McLane: I would have loved those guys, I would’ve drunk that Kool-Aid. I would have read a few things by Bloom back when I was in college but not The Anxiety of Influence. I would’ve encountered him on Bishop: I mean, there’s nobody he hadn’t or hasn’t written about. I had become aware that there was a “Stevens line” in American poetry that somebody like Bloom would advocate; and I was aware that there was a “Pound line” that somebody like Perloff would be championing; I was aware of that, but it was just an epiphenomenal thing for me—as in, that’s the stuff they are worried about and one knows about it but whatever.
Rail: I know that John Ashbery talks about being at Harvard as an undergraduate and it was very clear what everyone’s stance was: you were under the banner of either Eliot, Yeats, or Auden.
McLane: But again he would have been very actively and publicly self-identified as a poet and I wasn’t even part of those conversations. There’s this very strong antinomian impulse in me; if there’s going to be a set of camps and orthodoxies I would feel that my inner freedom was being shut down if I had to align with any of them. I’m sure there were plenty of orthodoxies when I was in college but I wasn’t much aware of them. I wasn’t super involved in discourse on contemporary poetry. I had more of a sense of things up to Bishop and Lowell, and then it all kind of stopped.
Rail: And now you’ve entered the discourse, two volumes of poetry later, among other published works on poetry. Yet you’re not out to advocate any particular mode; create a certain shift; narrow the field to a few select names.
McLane: I think that’s 100 percent right. The only thing I would say is that maybe it is useful to endorse being open to a whole variety of works, although there is still a lot of anxiety about, “how can you like this one and that one?” Just talking to people—certainly of Ashbery’s generation but even two generations after—I feel like maybe things are a little more relaxed now, but there are other kinds of policing that go on under other names. Someone like Christian Bök thinks that most lyric poetry is unbelievably for shit and ideologically bankrupt: what I think is interesting about that is that you actually might have to take that on, if you are a serious writer—you don’t get to pretend that it isn’t out there. It’s been out there since before the Frankfurt school; it’s been out there since Thomas Love Peacock bashed romantic poets in 1820. Although plenty of people would say: put Bök in his conceptual box and mail him back to Canada. But I feel like he’s got a point, he actually has a point, as did the language poets, and if you’ve read post-Marxist anything you have to concede that—but I don’t think it’s the only point. I often respond to things in terms of “yes-but” or “both-and,” which can seem wishy-washy. There are a lot of really excellent things and a lot of incredibly mediocre things and a lot of really excellent things in very disparate spaces and those are the things I’m interested in. Just having that space and time to encounter those things has been a great privilege and just the thing that I want. And also if I can help sponsor that for other people that seems to me useful—not in the sense of, “oh, you should all now go read X or Y,” but in the sense of, is your or my resistance to something a kind of premature dismissal, or one can hold in mind several contradictory things and find it need not be annihilating but useful.
In terms of essays I’ve been excited about, I love Elif Batuman’s work, and Sarah Manguso and Eula Biss. Manguso had an essay on being a singer and choral singing which I saw in A Public Space and I really liked. Terry Castle is terrifying and great. Jenny Diski. I love Perry Anderson who’s just so ferocious over at the London Review of Books; a lot of their essayists blow other writers out of the water. They don’t have to submit to the anti-intellectual mediocritizing regime that dominates many of our so-called leading literary and political journals.
Rail: There’s a pragmatic, technical, autobiographical drive in My Poets, but no overt incorporation of theory.
McLane: No. I think theory can be like anything else, tools for living and tools for thinking, and the question is, do you choose to write in a register that is more typically associated with “theory,” or do you choose not to in a particular book? I was just doing what I was doing based on the constellation of figures and issues I wanted to talk about. It also depends on what gets reified into the category “theory.” I mean, there’s a lot of Foucault behind Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. For me this is related to a resistance to partitionings, to the notion that the only way you “do theory” is to perform certain theoretical jujitsu moves. But it’s not like I decided: now I will not write theoretically. I feel like people have many simultaneous interests and discourses they’ve encountered and metabolized in different ways and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t surface in many writerly places. And whether it’s in poems or whether it’s in essays it could be fine. But in this book you won’t find it hyper-marked, like a Lacanian reading of Louise Glück, you know [laughs], which could be a very interesting essay, but that’s not the essay I was writing.
Rail: Is that a critical mode for poetry that captivates you as a reader?
McLane: I mean, if it was a brilliant essay, sure—not as an a priori thing, but I have no prejudice against such a thing. I always felt equally potentially interested in, say, intensely historicist essays on poetry, intensely psychoanalytically-oriented essays, media theory. I do a lot of scholarly writing and so I’ve navigated that in a different way there. And I feel like these several modes of writing are channels, they’re channels out in the culture, and you can kind of tune into a channel and you might be on that channel and other people will be on that channel, and they’ll expect there to be a certain register of footnotes, et cetera, and that’s fine, you’re all together on that channel. That’s what I feel about all this stuff.
Rail: But it didn’t factor into this book’s close readings, reminiscences, reappraisals, and helpful scoopings of literary biography.
McLane: No, it’s another channel entirely. But I feel like these aren’t mutually exclusive, I just feel like this was another kind of register, or collocation of registers that I wanted to inhabit in this book. I think a lot of people perceive things as problems that I think are not problems and I’m sort of like, how is this a problem? I put Émile Benveniste in my cento, and Foucault crops up in an essay, and Badiou in another one: and implicitly I’m like, deal with it. I know you can, reader! This apparent mixing actually isn’t a problem, or need not be a problem, although it can feel that way. Look, there’s a lot of poetry phobia, there’s theory phobia, and it’s understandable: these feel like very specialist terrains and to some extent they are. To some extent it’s also true that, if something, somehow, reaches out and grabs you, then whatever it is, it does grab you, and one might be grabbed by surprising things. And it might be some really brilliant biography of a nuclear scientist, which I would never automatically think was a thing I would want to read, but maybe it is excellent.
Rail: I say this because for all the assumed disconnects between thinkers like Vendler and Corbett, aesthetically, they still favor a pragmatically American handling of the poem.
McLane: It’s pretty hilarious because neither of them would have understood themselves that way at all. And also, they were hugely differentiated in the academy, and Bill’s writing or working as a writer in a certain key——
Rail: And a publisher.
McLane: Right. So it’s really quite funny because I don’t think either he or Helen Vendler would have understood themselves in this way—but that’s another thing that historical distance gives you, it gives you a different perspective. In a 40-year frame, these people don’t look so opposed. And a lot of stuff comes out in the wash. A lot of these crazy internecine debates of the ‘80s look really—–
McLane: A) dated, and B) super micro, fueled by a narcissism of small differences. When I was in graduate school there was a sense that psychoanalysis was so over and here was this or that hermeneutic that had more analytic prestige. And again, I had, as it were, no dogs in that fight but I couldn’t stand it that somebody was saying that this theory has more cultural capital than that theory, and nothing makes me crazier than that kind of thing, so I’m like, fuck that. During my education, certainly I was aware of, but had no real relation to, this enormous interest in post-structuralist stuff in the ’80s and ’90s. I felt that was a very intimidating domain and I was in an undergraduate program that wasn’t overtly theoretical—people who did that were over in Literature. And I wasn’t in Literature.
Rail: Where were you?
McLane: I was in History and Literature, which had a different ethos, and I was doing American history and literature, so there was much more historiography and that kind of thing, and it was presenting a very old-fashioned version of a march from the Puritans to T.S. Eliot. But I was aware just through peers and a boyfriend that all this other stuff was going on elsewhere. But to me it felt like an elsewhere. And then later on I felt, eh, you know what, it’s time to school yourself a bit both in linguistics and in feminist theory. I just read a lot on my own. I remember bringing Lacan’s Écrits on an airplane. I think I couldn’t have tolerated it if I had been reading this kind of thing in classes with people. I think I couldn’t have tolerated it. I would’ve been too anxious and too irritated. So I read a lot of things on my own when I was in England; you can imagine they weren’t teaching any of that in England. And I read it because I felt a need for it, I felt a need for better thinking, for myself: that’s a great way to read—you have a stake. Yet even if you don’t have an active interest in something in your period but you know it’s all around you, it seeps into you. So I think that’s interesting, and I think it’s interesting, too, to feel that one is maybe reading out of phase: like if you wonder, oh, what is it to be reading Derrida now? And I think most of my reading was, as it were, out of phase. It’s only much later that I was reading things as people decided they were of new and current interest; I was usually reading really out of phase. I do believe in the potential simultaneity of all things. I’m also very aware of the power of serendipity in my reading, in that certain conjunctions that seemed arbitrary became really resonant and defining. For example, reading Elaine Scarry’s Body in Pain around the same time I was reading Louise Glück’s Wild Iris: that became a weirdly resonating combination. That is just what happened. But I also feel that either the universe and/or your subconscious is directing you somewhere and so I pay strong attention to that; I pay strong attention to my inclinations. I’ll just have an inclination for something, and almost always it’s like good food. So I feel like I’ve been lucky in that, that I’ll have these sort of instincts, like, oh, I really want to do that thing. I had a dream last week and in the dream I was opening a box and in the box was a book of Heine and one by Hölderlin, and I was like, okay, I guess that’s what I’m supposed to be reading. I feel like I was telling myself something. At a certain point years ago I was like, eh, if you want to do more along this route, you probably better read some Saussure. But it wasn’t that I was going to be in classes on linguistics or poststructuralism; it was that I wanted to think more about the structure of language and wanted to see why and how this was a way that people were thinking about literature, that people ultimately were thinking about the psyche. I went to graduate school in a strongly historicist moment, which I found antipathetic but also formative. And so I will always be and not be a historicist. That’s another thing where I have felt sort of “yes, but,” about. Yes but no to historicism.
Rail: The shortest chapter in the book is Wallace Stevens.
Rail: Tell me about that. But it’s also one of the most—homage or poem—memorable sections, but I don’t want to characterize it for you!
McLane: Yeah, I guess I do think of it as a short little ditty followed by a poem. I had a longer essay on Stevens which was in a more standard critical key, and I decided, you know what, I don’t want to do that, I want to communicate the feel of the aesthetics of Stevens for me. The cross-pollination among poets and writers can be revealed, distilled, in a lot of different ways. And in this case, it goes into a poem; elsewhere in the book it might go into a more essayistic mode; and elsewhere it might flow into a weird reverie through quoting. So this was one instance where I felt, this succinct blast on and through Stevens actually for me suffices.
Rail: For me, and this is just my writerly response, but my favorite chapter was the Bishop/Stein chapter. It’s a chapter about planning to study Stein and ending up falling in love with Bishop, and yet it’s written in Stein’s voice. It just feels to me the most bizarre thing in the book. The sentences struck me almost like The Making of Americans,where there’s these consecutive sentence ending rhymes, subtle, almost muted at first reading, but growing louder as they’re sustained. You also play with a kind of verse lineation in these essays, but then you break it, as interested in sentence as you are in line-by-line sounds. It’s also the most personal chapter for its bristly and impressive formality.
McLane: Yes, and it’s partly the contingency of life handing you weird things, and that was a weird thing that either I sought out or life handed me—Stein leading to Bishop— and I wanted to talk about that and talk about this experience. First of all, how I got, as it were, diverted toward Bishop through an inability to read Stein, and then also partly the experience of writing a thesis in a certain emotional climate: I wanted to talk about that. I knew it was going to be about this conjunction of these writers and also about this time in my life, and that it would probably modulate through certain other things: what it was like to work with Bishop’s letters, and to realize the pattern of her biography in the absence of a biography. There were many, many things that I thought were probably going to be distilled in this chapter, but from the very beginning, from the first line, I somehow I keyed into that Steinian voice. And partly it was that I had been reading Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography.
Rail: While you were writing the book? Or when you’re remembering——
McLane: For the first time! I was reading Everybody’s Autobiography and that was, again, another fortuitous accident. Lawrence Joseph had given me Everybody’s Autobiography and I had taken it with me to MacDowell, the artists’ colony. I’d never read The Making of Americans. I found Everybody’s Autobiography so phenomenally rich and funny and incredible, and also an incredible mediation on art making, too.
Rail: No one talks about how funny she is, you’re so right.
McLane: She’s so funny! She’s many other things, too, and she’s horrible, but she’s a wonderful comedienne, and fucking brilliant. So I was reading this thing and I really liked it, and I was thinking about the Bishop chapter. A lot of things move from me rhythmically or musically; you know, “my Elizabeth Bishop begins with Gertrude Stein” is how the chapter launches; and then it started falling into a kind of rhyming prose, and then I knew, that is the idiom for this chapter. Later the chapter moves in and out of that register, because again, like many of the essays, it’s built out of quotations, but with very different aims in the quotation technique from chapter to chapter. But I also knew that I would not pursue that idiom in any other chapter—too exhausting and potentially annoying for the reader and for me.
Rail: But was it hard to stop? I mean, you seem to—as you move from chapter to chapter——
McLane: No, they were all extremely discrete. These chapters were.
Rail: Were they written at different times? Were any of them written simultaneously? Or consecutively?
McLane: Consecutively, but not simultaneously. This was an extremely demanding book to write. I mean, any book is a demanding book for anybody to write, but this was an extremely psychologically and formally demanding book to write, partly because most of the chapters are built around very active quotation—the chapters enact the way these works occupy you and structure your mentality. It meant that I had to re-enter these works. I mean, some of these people I hadn’t read in a long time. Some of these people weren’t my, as it were, “go-to” people at the moment I began writing the book.
McLane: Well, for example like, I hadn’t come back to Glück’s “Wild Iris” in a very long time. I will intermittently teach various Bishop poems, but I hadn’t gone back to the whole book in ages. And Williams, you know, I was going to back through his books, and going back to them in this weird temporal simultaneity, both thinking very intensely about my first encounters with them, but also how I think about them now. So there was an incredible layering. And almost every chapter is stationed in a certain life juncture, so when I was in the writing, I was really in it. I mean I was fully inhabiting prior emotional climates as well as works—I had these books right before me, it was very material and concrete; the work also demanded an intense emotional and stylistic commitment, and so I tended to write through an essay very intensively and stay in that space until I was finished. I would write maybe three in a summer, but it was just extraordinarily—and maybe properly—draining, because they’re written at a high pitch. They’re very dense, in a certain way—I hope they’re not too dense.
Rail: Not at all.
McLane: But they are dense, and they’re formally varied, et cetera. And they required a lot of me, they required a lot of me to see them through. If I found a marked stylistic register, which I did with the Bishop, that was so exciting, because it was like: this is going to be a fun register to work in! But, you know, when that was done, that was done. And that’s how they each felt. They felt like they exhausted something in me. And not my interest in the poets or the poems, or anything, but they exhausted their occasion. So it was an extremely intense book to write, I have to say.
Rail: Did any of the poets feel too close to home to write about?
McLane: Every single one of them I was newly close to. I’m trying to think if there’s somebody now that I would feel too close to that I wouldn’t want to write about or through. The book is loosely anchored in chronology, and I’ve thought about these life periods and these poets in different ways over 20 years, so I’ve had time to rotate through some thoughts; I guess it did require either having or producing a perspective. [Laughs.] I have felt sometimes like I don’t want to teach, for example, Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” because I feel like if the students don’t like it, I’m going to want to kill them. [Laughs.]. And I don’t want to be in that position. But in writing the book and thinking about difficulty, I’d say that I knew there were a lot of radioactive things that I was going to have to manage. It wasn’t just the writers of course—it was my life. There’s also a lot of thinking about poets and their reputations in these essays, but that’s a slightly different thing.
Rail: Were there any that you tried to do that you weren’t satisfied with, and didn’t end up part of the book for another reason?
McLane: No. Well, maybe that’s too definitive. It’s more that I had a sense of constellations, of groupings; I was thinking of these life junctures and important reading experiences, and some I knew from the start I’d explore—like I knew the Bishop would be in there, and I knew the Stein would be, and I knew Shelley would be, and at a certain point I wondered, Would I do something on Wordsworth? And again, it’s not “Wordsworth,” it’s “my Wordsworth,” so I was thinking, how would I do that? And I ultimately decided, no, not Wordsworth per se, though he shows up here and there. The Shelley chapter was also implicitly about a lot of other Romantic poets and their commitments, too, and so it was an interesting thing because I ended up feeling like any chapter exerted a slight gravitational pull on others, so I don’t have abandoned chapters—the writing became weirdly organic, with chapters eating parts of other floating figures. Pound, for example, shows up throughout.
Rail: It was also a pleasure to see a contemporary poet take Shelley seriously.
McLane: Yes, maybe. I guess I tried to say a little about that in terms of the fact that he often doesn’t anthologize well; you know, you can always jam five Keats odes in a book, and he’s wonderful, and there are a few Shelley poems that work that way, the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” or the “Ode to the West Wind,” but so much of what’s powerful in him is in the longer works. And also, he’s a super intellectual, super abstract poet with really radical ideas, and you don’t get to ignore that, and that makes some people crazy.
This idea of not taking him seriously, it’s there in the 19th century, Matthew Arnold calling him an ineffectual angel. So there’s a long history of hostile reception of Shelley and some of it’s political but not all of it and so that’s an interesting thing to think about too. So again I just try to touch on that a little in the essay—but he’s a titanic, complex character.
Rail: And his argument of ideas interests you still?
McLane: Yes, I do. There are plenty of intellectual problems with Shelley but he is an intellectual, and so you don’t actually get to bracket his ideas. To hive off his ideas is actually a reactionary condescending move that is not sufficiently scrutinized. I think he is a titanic theorist of the revolution and he is a very important thinking poet. My Shelley, that is.