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For Members Only
on January 1, 2013
At times it was like crashing the gates of a private club or MFA Poetry program and reading bylaws meant for members only (more on that in a moment). And at times it was like reading someone's (OK, Maureen McLane's) thesis paper on this poet or that. And my, but McLane writes in a pretty how town way. Professorial stuff:
"Through Sappho she explored as well a kind of somatic poetics, a kind of sensually incarnational NOW." (Huh?)
"The vatic inward versus the detailed observed. The hieratic versus the potentially conversable." (Say wha-?)
"Much of the force of great modernist works arises from their desublimating impulse channeled into shatteringly, newly adequate forms..." (Again?)
Very impressive indeed, these $10 gibbers and $5 -ishes. I hadn't a clue, but I nodded at all the right moments. Some chapters dragged on forever. "My Marianne Moore and Moore and More and More and Will She Ever Stop?" That and one to "H.D." Hilda Doolittle? I'd never known this poet. I wear my ignorance on my sleeve but, deep in my vest, wanted to learn -- if only I could clear the vatic hurdles of incarnational, desublimating language.
In another chapter called "My Translated: An Abecedary," McLane deluges the reader with four pages of one liners, each saying things like "My Alcaeus is David A. Campbell," "My Akhmatova is Judith Hemschemeyer," "My Durs Grunbein is Michael Hofmann," "My Paul Muldoon is Paul Muldoon." Of course there are some poets the layreader will recognize, but they are few and far between, and seldom will many readers recognize both names in McLane's apparently clever pairs.
On and on it goes like an insider's wink, and I can't help but regret how this type of thing sets poetry back anew, perpetuating the belief that poetry is rarefied air meant only for rarefied lungs. It's as if McLane is signaling to others in her club, others who will recognize her each allusion and her every dropped historic and contemporary name, nodding knowingly like priests at a secret temple. Don't we put the eru- in -dite, the winks seem to say. We, the Keepers of Truth and Beauty in a great, unwashed world of bestseller-readers or (more horrifying still) TV-watchers and Youtube addicts.
Throughout the book lines of many poets are shared, though seldom in the entirety of the poem they are taken from. Often McLane tries some of her own poetry on for size. (It doesn't fit.) Some of the professional poems are in bold print, others in italics. Often I can't tell which line belongs to whom. Is this McLane? Is it the featured poet in question? Is it other poets brought in as background vocals for harmony?
But I liked OK the chapter (short) on Emily D., the Belle of Amherst. And the one on Shelley, too, but only because McLane talked mostly about his adolescent-like obsessions for free love or lust and half-priced revolutions, and not so much about his poetry. It's as if she took a wrong turn, found herself in the realm of biography, and the natives cheered.
Two of the chapters were found poems. Giant, 85-line poems, each line purloined from a poet's great work. It's a wonderful parlor game, but I wasn't about to trudge through all 85 lines in either case. Like excerpts from symphonies on public radio, all stitched together, it was. Gogol's overcoat, chapter and verse.
Marvelous moments, yes. Ambitious idea, surely. And I was grateful to catch glimpses of some lovely lines previously unknown. But, in the end, the book gets bogged down by too much ivory and too much tower. If you read poetry for a living and don't need a program guide (or an intermission) to get through such "learn'd astronomer's" thoughts as McLane's, you will certainly enjoy her book. Otherwise, pass. Hold tightly to what you already know and love about poems you've met and appreciated thus far in life.
And for heaven's sake, keep reading poetry.