"Beauty Persists and Flares" — Maureen N. McLane

Maureen N. McLane speaks with managing editor Charlie Lee about ecological dread, the ecstasy of influence, and her new book, More Anon: Selected Poems

Credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Charlie Lee:

I’d like to start with a line from your book of autobiographical criticism, My Poets — something that’s stuck with me ever since I first read it five or six years ago.

“The very things that made me good at school — a talent for aligning with authority, or for knowing what it wanted; a capacity for self-­estranging self-discipline; an ability to use anxiety as a fuel; an ­overidentification with established codes — were precisely the things that might render me not a writer, not a poet.”

Reading over More Anon: Selected Poems, I’m struck by how powerfully that all seems to have been overcome. There is an irreverence, a feeling of original presence or personality in your work. How do you feel that relationship to authority has changed over the years through your writing?

Maureen N. McLane:

It's so interesting to me that those lines stayed with you, because over the years I’ve heard that they've stayed with some other friends and readers, too. They must strike a nerve among people who are literarily talented, and good at school, and not starting punk anarchist collectives at age 15. And all props to the people who are doing that! Anyway, I don't know that I would frame this trajectory in terms of overcoming a relation to authority. There's no way I've fully psychologically divested myself of that. But I'm really happy if the work — in any key, prose or poetry — feels fresh or vivid in ways that aren't merely reproductive of other norms or expressions. I don't see this shifting relation to authority as an overcoming, but rather as an unfinished, interminable project.

It's also no accident that I make my living as a teacher, thinking about relationality through texts and through attentiveness. I was enabled by some wonderful teachers. So this wasn't necessarily about having extraordinarily authoritarian adults in my life, although there were those. I had a powerful dose of that early on, and I realized that there exists this very strong capacity to identify with authority. Take the sometimes beautiful, sometimes devastating structures of the Catholic Church, for example. Susan Howe, in her book My Emily Dickinson, traces a (Protestant) antinomian line in American literature and culture, which is something I found resonant. I've often responded strongly to the dance between antinomianism and an embrace of a given structure, whether it was theological or aesthetic or erotic. There are moments in which I like forms, I like rituals, I like structures. But I also feel very keenly when they reify, become rigid or congealed, either in me, or around me, or for other people. We can talk about that in terms of poems, but of course it also applies to life. What feels very enabling at a certain moment in one's development can feel like a constraint later on.

CL: Do you feel that your relationship to this sort of institutional authority is different from how you experience the weight of literary expectations or a poetic tradition? I know that much of your academic work focuses on the legacy of the romantics, for example. Is that something you conceive of in terms of how it might enable or hang over your own writing?

MNM: I mean, I don't experience poetic tradition as something hanging overhead — which is perhaps itself a privilege. There’s a way of feeling oneself in relation to other works, a relation that can be discovered and not assumed. I think that's true for many artists across different media. There are discourses around that in rap and country music, for example, and others in, quote unquote, mainstream poetry. I'm sympathetic to the notion that Jonathan Lethem coined a while back, the “ecstasy of influence.” Or I think of the Italian feminist practice of “affidamento,” mentorship, feminist solidarity — Eileen Myles writes about this, and Maggie Nelson. These are relationships I'm much more familiar with and interested in than the Oedipal struggle of Harold Bloom's “anxiety of influence.” Bloom's model may be accurate for some writers, but it doesn't have much purchase for me as a reader or a writer. And of course, tradition isn't a given! Tradition is constantly being remade. One thinks of, say, Terrance Hayes' new selection of Wanda Coleman's works. Or the way Kat Addis is torquing the work of the sixteenth-century French poet Louise Labé and Petrarch.

I'm more oriented to elective affinities, and to the ways writers and musicians and visual artists find those affinities among others, alive or dead. Some writers or artists draw on others who may seem traditional in some official sense, but who actually do something weird for them. For example, Jeff Dolven has a book, Senses of Style, in which he puts Frank O'Hara and Thomas Wyatt into this extraordinary conversation. Ever since reading that book, I've thought about both of them very differently. In another key: I think you read Antigone or Hegel differently after reading Judith Butler. Gertrude Stein looks different after and with Harryette Mullen, Hannah Arendt after and with Fred Moten. Anthologies can really remake your horizons — as in Ilya Kaminsky’s and Susan Harris’s Anthology of International Poetry, or the new Norton anthology of Native Nations poetry (When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through), edited by Joy Harjo. So I'm very resistant to this idea that one must be emplotted by a notional or official tradition. Maybe that's the case, maybe it isn't. Whose traditions? Toward what futurities?

CL: Speaking of that distinction you made between the anxiety and the ecstasy of influence, one of the things I've been struck by in reading your work is how you describe the experience of reading poetry in very visceral terms. There seems to be this sense of poems as provoking an embodied, rather than purely cerebral, reaction. Is that something you think about in your own work?

MNM: I think that's absolutely right. That's a good description of a kind of physiology of responsiveness. I felt this visceral thrumming when reading certain poems in high school — Donne’s “Batter My Heart,” some things by cummings, Frost, Dickinson. I wouldn't have been able to paraphrase those poems, but the force of their acoustics, of their rhythms, would just land on the nerve endings. I think many poets and musicians have a sensorium particularly attuned to the materiality and rhythms of language, its undertones and overtones, not necessarily even in terms of semantic content. So while I certainly have spent a lot of time writing and thinking and reading in a more expository critical mode, that's not a mode that entirely captures the activation of the responsive readerly body. And when I say activated, I mean it — it feels very visceral. Matisse has a remark that resonated for me: something about how making even a humble pen drawing would successfully relieve him of the emotion that brought him to do it ("I was emptied of the emotion that made me begin it" — je me trouvais déchargé de l’émotion).

So I feel a bit estranged from these distinctions people make between body and mind, or between somatics and semantics. These are not so easily disarticulatable, at least in my experience, though they can certainly lead to very different textures of writing and thought.

CL: In terms of the extent to which you can or cannot disarticulate the cerebral and visceral, something that comes up in a number of your poems — I'm thinking in particular of "OK Let's Go," or "Crux/Fern Park," or "Mesh" — is this fixation on the question of what forms of knowledge poetry might offer.

MNM: A fixation! I like that formulation, though I hope it’s not an excessively rigid interest in this question. I think it's one of the reasons I responded to some romantic-era poets — Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley — who similarly wrestle with the relationship between poetry and knowledge. Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads is all about that; Shelley’s Defence as well. More locally, or compositionally, the idea that a poem isn't known in advance is pretty native to how I tend to both read and write. There's a sense of being moved or lured forward by the emergent rhythmic or sonic impulses that one is discovering or overhearing. I think of a line from Valéry: a rhythm seizes me. This all may happen before any propositional content is registered. While some poems may have powerful propositional content, and that's great, that's not usually the first priority for me. Of course, that doesn't mean that I think these are mutually exclusive domains.

But I am drawn to this idea of negative capability, or what Anahid Nersessian, a romanticist and literary critic, calls "nescience," not knowing. I'm interested in this psychodynamically and psychoanalytically, too. What does it take to hold a feeling of not knowing, or not knowing yet? I'm interested in honoring an agnosticism in all dimensions without that becoming an escape hatch in itself. Some of my more thinky poems dwell in that kind of crux. Perhaps I'll end up feeling that this has its own limitations. I'm also interested in these different trapdoors of negation and negativity, as in the poems you mentioned — knowing how to know and unknow. That's something you see all over Shelley, with all his stuff about "the dark future's ever-flowing urn” (in Laon and Cythna), or the “unseen” and “unknown” Power in his “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Thinking about the negative space of what you think or feel, and how there's an emergent underside to these things. That is perhaps an intellectualized way of putting it. Maybe another way is in terms of Wallace Stevens' line about how a "poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully." I'm interested in that combined attraction to and resistance of the intelligence, and in how there's a space of play there. But a serious play. So yes, maybe this is a fixation — at the very least you can say it recurs.

CL: I wonder if perhaps that recurring aspect is crucial. I read a great line recently — I can’t remember where it was — about how negative capability is something about which many critics have trouble exercising any negative capability, if that makes sense. So maybe it's necessary to conceive of it in this continual sense, so it's more of a discipline than a prescriptive source of value?

MNM: Oh, that's an excellent formulation. Yes, I think in some ways it's a dispositional thing. One gets called back into it. But, of course, negative capability can also be fetishized. There's hardly a more meme-able phrase than negative capability, right? And yet there is something particularly significant about it in the context of thinking about long modernity. Questions of the limits and pathologies of knowledge that get right to the heart of post-Enlightenment thought.

CL: I know that you've written about the relationship between literature and the human sciences, and how different disciplines or forms of knowledge-production inform each other. Is that something you think about in relation to your own work, given your position within the academy?

MNM: I'm certainly very interested in the interaction of discourses that inflect poetry in any given period. I remember being fascinated at a certain point, for example, with various modernist poets' relation to psychoanalysis and ethnography, and with what that was doing to their work and vice versa. So, thinking about the human sciences now as compared to 1800 or 1900, what are they? It's a worthwhile question. Perhaps — oh god — perhaps it's aligned with big tech “scalable” discourse. Or ecological discourses, or artificial intelligence, or bioinformatics. In a way, you don't get to think outside of the regnant discourses, or what Foucault and others would call epistemes. That's often the medium you're swimming in, even when you don't know it. These things inflect one's senses, in the way that, for some religious poets, the different relations of faith, knowledge, and poetry might.

But in terms of poetry and the academy, I do mostly tend to teach on the lit. side of things, as opposed to the creative writing/workshop side, though I've done that as well. I want to keep that proportion weighted heavily towards the lit. side, in part because of the way it sponsors generative opportunities for reading and attentiveness and conversation. Of course, that can happen in creative writing classes too, but people come with different structures of desire to literature classes. Aspiring to be a poet or a fiction writer is different from the desires officially prompted in taking a class on romantic poetry or literary theory. This shapes the kinds of conversations and transferences that are possible. Also, I don’t like grading poems. Responding to them, sure.

CL: I definitely get the sense in reading your work that one of those inescapable contemporary epistemes is ecological or climatological. Is there a tension for you between this distinct feeling of ecological dread and a romantic concern for the status of beauty? Those often seem intermingled in these poems.

MNM: It's funny, I was just thinking today on a walk about when I first felt that my consciousness was supersaturated by ecological dread. As a child, I had all kinds of dread, but insofar as that dread was socio-historical or political, it was more attached to things like nuclear winter, nuclear war. That was my prevailing horizon of disaster. I don't know that this is at all accurate — it's like attempting a sort of retroactive emotional cognitive autobiography, thinking about when that dread shifted towards its present environmental orientation. But in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was absolutely this shifting of one's inner tectonic plates.

To return to your question, it's definitely the case that if you have been reading romantic literature and scholarship on romanticism, you will have been exposed to a kind of environmental awareness all along — John Clare’s enclosed fields, Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (hello pandemic apocalypse). There's a supposedly particular romantic-era relation to “Nature,” which has since been displaced or adjusted by successive waves of ecological and materialist criticism and thinkers aligned with “dark ecology.” One might think of people like Timothy Morton, who came out of romantic scholarship and went elsewhere in his meditations on “the ecological thought,” hyperobjects, and the ecological sublime. Or the recent book by Nersessian, The Calamity Form, which puts pressure on a too-ready assimilation of our concerns about the Anthropocene to romantic-era concerns (about, say, industrialization, capitalism, massification, alienation). One might say that the romantics were in the Anthropocene but not of it. This is all to say, I think the category of the beautiful as an 18th-century idea is pretty blown up at this point. But beauty persists and flares. And the sublime? This also raises an interesting question about whether we're all being forced into a unitary mandatory apocalypticism. I often wonder, whose apocalypticism is this? One thing that's certain is that the effects of all this are not going to be evenly distributed.

This is a bit of a meandering answer. But I think the fact that it's meandering is emblematic of how these currents of thought move through me. I don't have answers. I have responses and questions, and poems sometimes offer ways of distilling those kinds of complexes of emotion and thought. There's an excellent book by Samuel Scheffler called Death and the Afterlife, which I thought beautifully formulated why it can feel so cognitively and emotionally overwhelming to consider the radical provisionality and precarity and mortality of things. Generally speaking, he argued that, whether or not you're a person who believes in an afterlife on an individual level, the futurity of the species actually carries tremendous emotional and philosophical weight for us. This idea chimes interestingly with the struggles that many Anglophone poets and writers were having around 1800, as they fell away from Christian orthodoxy. It's hard to overestimate the psychic and cultural shock of that moment, and of this one as well. Much as people might reconcile themselves to their own individual mortalities, to reconcile themselves to species mortality is a whole other ballgame. (Whether we should divest ourselves of attachment to “species” is yet another set of questions.) The ways that I've explored these things have taken on different kinds of coloration depending on where I am in my life and what's most prominent in my thinking and conversations, but it's definitely something I've been wrestling with.

CL: I'm curious about the more personal side of how all of these ideas get taken up and expressed through your work. Both your poetry and your other writing seem to function in some sense as forms of life-writing — what different roles have these modes played in your own life?

MNM: Well, I definitely think that category of life-writing could cut across a lot of the writing I've done, especially the poetry and My Poets. I did a lot of reviewing in the 90s for newspapers and journals, which ended up being a really important other dimension for me while I was working on a dissertation and immersed in the norms of academic prose. Reviewing was an important way to develop some other prose capabilities — writing 750 or 1500 words dedicated to communication, imagining a notionally common reader, which is not necessarily the primary aim, shall we say, of academic writing. But at a certain point I became tired of writing on spec, in part because I realized I didn't spend less time writing or thinking about the 250-word piece than the 5000-word piece — though that probably was on me. I also got a little tired of writing "village explainer" prose about poetry. So I started writing in a more mixed, sometimes first-person, experimental key, gave a few talks, and I realized that this was a modality that had a lot of potential. It had a kind of kinship with some of my poetry, poems like "Excursion Susan Sontag," which offers a rhythmic vehicle for processing a lot of ideas.

Writing My Poets, I was interested in writing a book that could toggle between several different registers, some of them autobiographical, others informed by normative criticism. My hope was that the book could hold all those things and offer different kinds of pleasure. I think that in any mode of life-writing, it's possible that one understands one's self as an allegorical figure. It may be particular to you, but it's also always allegorical. That's something I've always felt, though it may be a peculiar formulation.

CL: Within certain individual books, at least, there has sometimes been a sort of Bildung narrative that gets expressed. Putting together these Selected Poems, did you have any sense of a Bildung or other narrative of development here?

MNM: Well, I think that writing My Poets opened up a space for writing Mz N, which definitely had some kinship with Bildung or Künstlerroman narratives. Looking over the Selected Poems, there's certainly a lot of continuities, though of course many things got left on the cutting room floor. But I do think it's a good representation of the kinds of work I've done, both in terms of very short works and some longer, more sustained ones, some works that at least notionally adhere to certain forms and others that are much freer. There's definitely a not-particularly-covert autobiography in the work. I'm interested in how autobiography can move across many different dimensions, how there are times when you're writing about others, when in fact you're also writing about yourself. I have a vivid sense of where and how the books came to be, but I don't necessarily have a clear line I can trace through them all. I’m reminded of a great, hilarious line of Louise Glück’s, about how after one of her books she decided to swear off words like "pond" and "moon." I understand how one doesn't want to recycle things, though I'm also a big believer in recycling, and I believe that saying something again always means saying it differently. So I'm of many minds on that.

CL: Do you know what’s next for your work?

MNM: Well, I should say that I don't feel that topics are ever exhausted. For the past few years I’ve been working on what has become a poetry manuscript tentatively titled “Sea-Drift.” And my partner and I hope to do some more collaborative translations, perhaps of Greek epigrams. Beyond that, for a while now I've been feeling that I'd like to write another kind of through-composed book, and do more collaborations with artists and composers. I don't know what that would look like, but maybe that's the promise or threat in the title of this book, More Anon. We'll see!

Charlie Lee

co-founded Soft Punk with Jacob Barnes in the summer of 2019. He is an assistant editor at Harper's Magazine.

All contributions from Charlie Lee

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