Across six collections of poetry, Maureen N. McLane has given us an art that is contemporary and ancient, raw and formal, open and deep. She seems to balance elements that too many poets these days rarely even attempt to bind together, and she does so in such satisfying ways. McLane is as much Frank O’Hara as Sappho, part-Mina Loy, part-Frederick Seidel. McLane has built songs that lacerate our polite society to wake it—us—up to language, which is life. To give us our breath back. FSG has brought out More Anon: Selected Poems, and the book—with its pun on anonymity and time, on being nobody and at the same time being the promise of something soon—brings back to the page groups of poems from five of these collections, gathering in one place McLane’s earlier, now iconic work—poems like “Core Samples,” “Excursion Susan Sontag,” or “Saratoga August”—with relatively newer discoveries, like her “Mz N” poems or “Girls in Bed.” The result is a cornucopia, and a fuller look at the radiant candor that is her oeuvre.
“When I met you I was eighteen,” begins “Core Samples,” published in Same Life fourteen years ago: “bitter as the bolted lettuce / neglected in the garden. / Your laugh had a hiss.” The next stanza:
You lay in the bathtub
choosing between me and her,
both of us singers.
For some reason she would not sleep with you.
The poem’s third section adds a literary context—McLane is the child of librarians, though she points out that didn’t make them, oddly enough, any fonder of her being a poet—and the literary context she brings is, characteristically, freighted with the erotic frisson of influence, “influence” being a word that refers to what pours into us like starlight, and McLane adds such layers to these complicated amores with this quatrain:
It was under the spell of Yeats I fell
in love with you, though it may have gone back
to Chaucer. One night I had a dream
I was a heroine in Spenser
and woke up burnt, branded
by your imagined touch …
McLane is, in fact, a singer, and her poems sing—they are music at once quick and impeccable—in ways that could be said to brand the mind. Here’s a passage from “Mz N: the serial,” published a few years later, shedding punctuation and patience, but continuing, it almost seems, the same bathtub conversation:
one day after sex
in a century of bad sex
the other one asked Mz N
did I leave you
on the edge
never having had an orgasm
as far as she knew
how would she know
such an edge
are you sure
the other persisted
Mz N thought again
she could say
oh yes here I am on the edge
where you left me …
In her newest work the edge is sharp as ever, and the poet’s begun to flirt with rhyme more openly, happy to take it up or abandon it—like punctuation—even line by line, as the moment requires. Here’s the opening of “Girls in Bed,” classical, punchy, stylish:
You are in bed
and Antigone’s dead
once again though offstage
and alive on the previous page
doomed proud girl
Sappho, another elective fatalist, is often the poet people speak of in relation to McLane, but the biting song, beautiful in its bitterness, and very funny in a very serious way, is I think the gift of Catullus. As in this epigram by McLane, an epigram not just on one relationship but maybe on all of them, the pithy music of what we do to one another, a two-liner called “Taking a Walk in the Woods After Having Taken a Walk in the Woods with You”:
Now I cannot not see
the blight everywhere
JESSE NATHAN: What is your feeling, aesthetic or otherwise, about the idea of romanticism (or Romanticism)? Are you a romantic? a romantic poet?
MAUREEN N. McLANE: Oh, I suppose I have many feelings, and thoughts, about romanticism (or Romanticism!). I still carry a torch for lowercase romanticism, in the spirit of the Jena Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, e.g. Friedrich Schlegel, who wrote of poetry in his Athenaeum Fragment 116: “It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free” (trans. Peter Firchow). This is, some might say, an idealization, a mystification, a load of b.s.—which is a centuries-old charge against romanticism and romantic poets (see T. S. Eliot, for example, on what he considered the adolescent puerility of Shelley: sheesh.)
I’ve spent many years reading, teaching, wrestling with so-called romantic poets in varieties of English—Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Blake, Clare, Burns, Byron—and with other writers of the period (Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Robert Malthus, William Godwin, Mary Shelley, Thomas Love Peacock). Years ago I backed into this terrain, so to speak, having been oriented primarily to modernist poets (H. D., Moore, Stein, Williams), inflected by contemporary concerns. The more I read the more it seemed to me that writers in this period, 1750ish to 1830, identified and laid out and agonized over crucial conundrums of poetry, modernity, and futurity: was poetry dead? should it be? how should it be written, and for whom? whither pleasure? and knowledge? and “the human”? or “Man” (sic)? (See signal documents of the period: The Declaration of the Rights of Man, The Declaration of Independence, etc.) And what of revolution? These questions are not dead, though romantic poets are often infamously dead (we’ve just passed the two hundredth anniversary of Percy Shelley’s death by drowning).
Inasmuch as romanticism carries within it the promise of romance, and the possibility of erotic adventure, then I suppose I am something of a still-romantic poet. And I’ve been interested for a long time in the fragment, a mode often associated with romanticism. But if by romanticism you mean woolly-minded swooning, or hazy poeticizing, or world-historical grandstanding (looking at you, Shelley): no. (These are some of the typical libels against romantic poetry, from Scottish critic Francis Jeffrey to Matthew Arnold to Ezra Pound onward. Let me say here that, despite all, I heart Shelley.)
I am profoundly ambivalent about a lot of romantic poets’ work—Wordsworth’s especially, but it’s a productive ambivalence, an ongoing irritant-cum-inspiration, poets to think with and against and alongside.
I sometimes think any serious poet cannot but be a “romantic” poet, even against herself: “for in a certain sense” (as Schlegel wrote) “all poetry is or should be romantic.” Romantic poets model for us, or at least for me, the possibility of rigorous, difficult hope; of space-clearing negations; of song and critique; and of aesthetic emergence: such a poetry “should forever be becoming and never be perfected.” That’s an openness, a venturesomeness, I respond to in contemporary poets as well, from Anne Boyer to Tonya Foster to Kay Gabriel to Edgar Garcia to Peter Gizzi to Oli Hazzard to Fanny Howe to MC Hyland to Devin Johnston to August Kleinzahler to Katie Peterson to Rachel Mannheimer to Maggie Millner to Srikanth Reddy to Donna Stonecipher and beyond. And I hope in my own work, in my own way, to channel these “spirits of the air” (Shelley).