Criticism & Features

Year 2012: 30 Books

Mark Athitakis on Maureen N. McLane’s “My Poets”

By Mark Athitakis

In the weeks leading up to the February 28 announcement of the 2012 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today in our series, NBCC board member Mark Athitakis offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist My Poets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), by Maureen N. McLane.

Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets opens with a catechism of sorts. She lays out a string of questions that repeat and intensify—Why do you read poetry? Why do you read poetry? Why poetry? Why poetry? The answers McLane provides come exclusively from others’ poems—Wordsworth, Thomas, Ashbery, more—a strategy that hints at the slippery, elegant blend of memoir and criticism this remarkable book offers. For McLane, poetry is at once a refuge from her life and its definition, an end unto itself. Why poetry? Why poetry? Because poetry, that’s why.

As she explains early on, this clarity about poetry’s essential place in her life was hard-fought-for. “Many of the poets and poems now important to me were completely and maddeningly elusive when I first encountered them,” she writes, as she shares her dilettantish student scribblings in the margins of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died.” In time she gains a suppleness of thought that at times is powered by angst and infused with the styles of the poems that affect her: “So before I lost my mind in Gertrude Stein and found my way to Bishop I had found a way into Bishop by losing her way in disaster.” But there’s ambition and humor in her newfound freedom too. Seduced by William Carlos Williams’ European escapades, she aspires to an omnivorous American voice of her own: “I would write a goddamn long American poem!…It would have Indians!…It would have documents!”

McLane’s memories shift from witty self-deprecation to private anguish—the latter most forcefully displayed as she considers her failed marriage through the lens of Marianne Moore’s work. Her extended exploration of Moore’s poem “Marriage” puts her critical skills on full display, but the chapter has a deeply personal aspect too. “The poem is simultaneously a celebration of opposition-in-marriage and requiem for the possibility of its ever actually flourishing,” she writes, an observation that’s all the more potent for its framing around her own story.

This is the magic of My Poets: The way it weaves the wisdom of a career of close reading with a lifetime of intense feeling. She is at once satellite camera and microscope, capable of the all-encompassing viewpoint and the intimate observation, and she practices both with a remarkable fluidity. In Dickinson she can find a stockpile of post-9/11 allegories, and in Shelley she can explore the transgression and empowerment that defined her own feminist liberation. My Poets rambles: it leaps from poet to poet and experiment to experiment, cobbles poems together from others’ lines and cracks open some of her own life in the process. Yet the personal and the poetic are consistently fused. When her husband’s brother asks her in a bar, “So it’s the bisexual thing that’s the reason for the divorce?” all she can think of are a handful of lines from H.D. What would a directly personal answer accomplish? Why not say what H.D. said, if H.D. said it better?

So My Poets is not a memoir in the strictest sense; McLane isn’t recalling a series of events and calibrating them for heft and meaning. But she’s crafted a way into memoir that’s more freeing than the genre’s conventions. In her candor about her “failed attempts, graspings, and gropings,” as a reader of poetry, and in her remembrance of how those graspings and gropings evolved for her as a writer and as a person, she’s discovered a kind of personal essay writing that exposes identity in an original and transfixing way. That’s a liberation for us, the readers, as well.


McLane bio, New York University:

Parul Sehgal in Bookforum:

Daisy Fried in the New York Times Book Review:

Barbara Berman in the Rumpus:

Interview with the Barnes & Noble Review:

Excerpt from