by Elisabeth Watson The single “illustration” in Maureen N. McLane’s 2012 book, My Poets, (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2012) is a reproduction of page 200 from her undergraduate Norton Anthology of English Literature: Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”, surrounded by a college freshman’s cloud of marginalia, or as McLane calls it, “a series of failed attempts, graspings, and gropings.” The immediate impression that the one “image” makes is very much the same as that which My Poets builds over the course of the book. To revisit the “painstakingly bubble-written marginalia is to revisit not only a prior self but a prior reading self--which for me, as for many whose subjectivities were formed in dialogue with literature, have long been close to identical.” McLane undertakes to interrogate and critique her own voice as it has existed beside those other Voices, and yet to realize, in wonder, that, had it not risen to answer--however wrongheadedly--those other voices, her voice as she knows it would not exist at all.
The memoir-as-reading list is certainly no innovative project. But in reading McLane’s memoir, I began to suspect that the distinction between books that shape a life and writers who shape a life is not an insignificant distinction and one worth preserving. My Poets is defined by being just that and not My Poems. Most of the book’s chapters are devoted to a single poet or group of related poets as seen through the lens of one poet (“My Shelley/ My Romantics”), and each essay is relatively dependent upon the sprawling messiness and transformations that characterize a lifetime of writing poetry (as opposed to any completion sought out in a single poem or even a published collection of poetry). The line between written works and writing lives--McLane’s very much included--is necessarily blurred when one chooses to wrestle with poets’ voices as expressed across years and decades as opposed to the deceptively timeless and more portable form of beloved poem.
Most notable in McLane’s prose style throughout the memoir is her attempt to echo those “voices” she’s discussing in her own writing. This is obviously a risky business: who, for example, has not read an attempt to vetriloquize Gertrude Stein, and who, having done so, ever wants to repeat that experience? But, working through McLane’s project, I came to admire this occasionally embarrassing risk she took, if only because how true such a risk is to her project as a whole: when we find ourselves, over years and lifetimes, bound to specific poets, are we following anything so much as specific voices, even as those voices change? And beyond any objective appreciation or benefits, what does the reading “ear” take in that doesn’t somehow enter the writing “voice?”
I was made to consider what exactly I’ve been clinging to ever since I stumbled across a copy of The Wild Iris as a teenager in the public library, and in the decade since that has never found my nightstand without a changing cast of Louise Glück’s books keeping Iris company. It’s not so much that I want to write “like” Glück, as I want my own writing always to be changed by whatever runs through her voice and her vision. McLane’s willingness to change her voice with the voices she’s evoking might at times be tiresome, but her motivation feels true to the always imperfectly met desire to hear our own voices transformed by the voices we’ve heard and loved.
Those more “purely” poetic projects that interrupt the book’s essays certainly fit into this theme of “voice,” but are, perhaps, the least effective parts of the whole. In particular, the two centos, lines taken both from those poets who have essays dedicated to them in the book and those who do not, are, among other things, confusing because of how obvious they seem--a poem whose voice is composed of the mingling of other voices...but then what? In contrast, the poetic interlude of “My Translated: An Abecedary” is specific enough, and clearly necessary, angle on the theme of the whole as to be effective on both an rhetorical and emotional level. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the power and ache of translation so perfectly evoked by something so simple, little more than a list of names: “My Dante is Dorothy Sayers, still. / My Mahmoud Darwish is Fady Joudah and also Catherine Cobham and Sinan Antoon. /...My Fredrico Garcia Lorca is a vast field of devotion, including W.S. Merwin, Stephen Spender, and Lysander Kemp.” And on and on.
The story of her life that McLane weaves through her exploration of the poetic voices that have shaped it is fractured and tantalizing. If I could have increased any aspect part of this book, it would have been the author’s own story. But if the tale she tells of herself, refracted through many other voices, is not always compact, its own kind of clarity emerges, always vivid. Most memorable to me, months after I read a preview version of the chapter “My Marianne Moore” in Poetry, was McLane’s winsome whiplash of rhetoric, no matter what her topic, by which she shows mercy toward a thing she has just damned, or, more accurately, toward that which she has just tempted the reader into damning:
“My great vocation was not to feel ambivalent. This was, of course, childish. It bespoke the vain purity of the child. Which I should have honored.”
Or, “Wholehearted, wholehearted! That is all you longed to be. Everything would be sacrificed for that. Not least your marriage. And rightly so. You thought. And still think.”
And again: “late twentieth-century boosters who look to poetry to ‘save us,’ as if we could be saved, as if we were designed to be saved, and perhaps we are--”
“Life is surprising like that so is poetry,” she writes. “Most people do not wish to be surprised especially once they have announced their team and bought their team uniforms.” With characteristic playfulness, McLane never undermines the sometimes-devastating stakes of that surprise. But only the return to past difficulties, an act inherent to both autobiography and re-readings of difficult poems, grants access to what surprise has the power to do: “To make visible my presumptions: this is what breakdowns and impasses allowed.” And, one would certainly add, what poetry allows as well.