Readers are not created equal. Frances Ferguson observed, rather dolorously, that the “reader can only read the texts that say what he already knows,” but let’s be frank: There are gifted—or maybe just thirstier—readers among us who, by dint of stamina or plain need, won’t be stymied by boredom, offense, incomprehension. There are varsity readers, and then there is Maureen N. McLane, a poet, professor, and prizewinning critic. 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. In her new book, My Poets, she invites us to read over her shoulder as she combs through “her” poets, including Chaucer, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück. It’s a work of personal and poetic archaeology—“I am marking here what most marked me,” she writes. The prose is thick with quotation and self-interrogation; voices serried and overlapping, combining in chorus, splintering into argument. Forensically close readings dovetail with spirited defenses of the poets posterity has misunderstood, fresh readings of the familiar, and formal experiments (an abecedary of her favorite translators, a cento of beloved lines). She positions Emily Dickinson as a 9/11 poet. She recasts cerebral Marianne Moore as the “the stealth weapon of American poetry” and mistress of “a languid, lethal, acrid sexuality.”
It’s a visceral kind of criticism, sexy, strange, and suspenseful. Nabokov said to read for the tingle at the tip of the spine. Dickinson spoke of poems that took off the top of her head. Language enters McLane’s body like a current. Her whole body bucks and shudders. Her responses are forcefully somatic—“Some of her poems bypassed my brain and registered directly on the nerve endings”—and matched by the syntactical sophistication of her thought, her attraction to contradiction. Witness her response to the conclusion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” (“everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go”): “Some days this seems coercively tidy and moral and obligatorily epiphanic and another instance of romantic ideology and sickening other days it seems a parable for living or rather attending.” Criticism is a temporal art, she reminds us. Our judgments are subject to mood; they are various and fickle. McLane destabilizes the authority of the critic—and the poem. “Poems aren’t for teaching; they insinuate,” she writes.
Poems insinuate and lodge themselves within McLane. The lives of the poets become blueprints. (“Elizabeth Bishop was gay and a traveler and a gay and sad traveler,” she writes. “I did not know this and I came to know this. I became this.”) She handles her poets with reverence, but also treats them as rich sources of gossip, heaping her exegeses with delicious gobbets on internecine squabbles, bloated reputations, what Alice and Gertrude got up to in bed, the “bovine worship” Bishop elicits in some circles. A splendid mimic, McLane sometimes riffs on poets in their own styles. Here she is in fine Gertrude Stein mode: “Robert Lowell is so Lowelly you must unLowell him to lower him into you. This I found. He was not sound.” On the topic of herself, she is wickedly deadpan and self-deprecating—she tots up her youthful academic success to “a talent for aligning with authority.”
McLane’s personality, her laconic wit and iconoclasm, suffuse this book; it’s as Oscar Wilde wrote, “That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul. . . . It is the only civilized form of autobiography.” But there is explicit autobiography here, too, painful self-disclosure, that gives the book its emotional torque. My Poets begins with a curious, consonant-ridden word: kankedort, defined in the OED as a “state of suspense; a critical position; an awkward affair.” Kankedort has appeared only once in the language (in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde), but resonates profoundly in McLane’s recollection of her own awkward affair. She was young and in love, and then she was no longer in love, and then she was in love with another. The man she no longer loved was kind, the woman she began to love was “a darting thing, flickering and uncapturable.” She married the man anyway (“self-directed soul-murder”) only to part with him so painfully, their separation sounding to her like an amputation.
And the woman? “The woman with whom I read Troilus and Criseyde and through whom I discovered kankedort died recently,” McLane writes.
The woman is dead, and she is everywhere, pulsing throughout My Poets. McLane’s hunger for poetry and for this woman are tangled; she desires to decipher them in order to possess them. McLane’s critical language is often flush with eros: “I thought I could make Stein mine,” she writes. “I thought I could read Bishop and could know that mind and make it mind my mind.” But such are McLane’s finely developed negative capabilities: She exalts in the waiting. “I am fascinated by that threshold where one hovers, not getting it yet wanting to get it,” she writes. “Where a tentative desire contends with frustration. Where frustration may be converted into desire, and desire into some provisional illumination.” This isn’t the language of criticism; this is the language of seduction, a celebration of yearning, of not-knowing and not-having. Asked to explain a line by Wallace Stevens—“Let be be the finale of seem”—she crows: “I didn’t know and I don’t and I was ecstatic.” Susan Sontag called for an erotics of art. My Poets is that and 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 is the books editor at NPR.org.