Poetry News

Poets Make the Greatest Critics: Adam Fitzgerald Interviews Maureen McLane

By Harriet Staff

Adam Fitzgerald interviews poet and critic Maureen McLane for this month's Brooklyn Rail. By way of introduction, Fitzgerald writes:

...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. . . .

First off, Fitzgerald asks McLane about her teaching--she responds that she has her students read widely, from Lisa Robertson in conjunction with Wordsworth and Coleridge to "Christian Bök to Anne Carson to Inger Christensen to Paul Muldoon or Whitman or Rachel Zucker or Shelley...." They also read Tom Pickard, of whom she speaks in greater detail:

McLane: ...Pickard’s a northern English poet and he has this great book [Ballad of Jamie Allan]; 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.

Fitzgerald also asks McLane where she finds interesting criticism:

McLane: ...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?

Read it all here.

Originally Published: October 19th, 2012