By Lydialyle Gibson, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Jason Smith

Editor’s note: This is adapted from the May/June 2014 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.

The poet Maureen McLane, PhD’97, was warming up to a fiery, forceful rant. About poetic ideals and independence, the politics of imposing aesthetic standards on an art form, how T. S. Eliot is never going to be Downton Abbey, and how Garrison Keillor’s on-air poetry readings, which sometimes tend toward the mawkish, don’t, fundamentally, have much to do with the art itself.

Sitting in her tiny New York University office, which a malfunctioning heating system had turned into a sauna, she glowed hot thinking about the assertion—circulated by well-meaning public thinkers and endorsed by well-meaning others—that poetry ought to be a kind of chicken soup for America, a civic and social panacea: anodyne, innocuous, medicinal. The idea that people should read poetry because it will make them better citizens, and that poetry should reciprocate by being readily digestible. She noted that these idealized expectations do not weigh on other forms of art.

“Poetry isn’t like vitamins,” McLane said. “It isn’t good for you. Read it or don’t read it. I feel that very passionately. If you want some kind of linguistic intensity in your life, then read poetry. But if you don’t feel a need for that, then you don’t feel a need for that.”

Not that she believes poetry shouldn’t be taught and disseminated and advocated for, or that fun and creative public programs shouldn’t be built around it. Or that reading poetry to children in day care wouldn’t be a good way of “extending the reach and feel of the language.” Or that adults, many of whom last read a poem in high school and remember it as “an annoying trigonometry problem they never want to look at again,” wouldn’t benefit from a renewed and less rigid exposure to poetry. She thinks, in fact, that it might change their lives.

After all, for more than a decade, McLane—a scholar of British romanticism, whose third poetry collection, This Blue (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), came out in April—wrote book reviews for the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Boston Review, in part to say to readers: Look, there’s poetry out there, and it’s good. “Joseph Brodsky had this project when he was poet laureate,” she says, “to have the equivalent of a Gideon Bible in every hotel room, except it would be a collection of poems instead. And that seems to me kind of wonderful. That’s about putting stuff out there.”

Tug-of-war between science, poetry

Growing up outside of Syracuse, N.Y., McLane wrote poems—“most of them, I’m sure, were pretty terrible”—and graduated from a large public high school full of smart, driven working-class kids. She went to Harvard, where she learned the art of close reading in classes with the famous poetry critic Helen Vendler and poet and essayist William Corbett. From there she went on to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1991 McLane came to the University of Chicago.

It was in Hyde Park that she fell in with the poets of the Romantic period. At Harvard and Oxford and in high school, McLane had read mostly 20th-century poetry—modern, if not quite contemporary—and had begun exploring philosophy and psychoanalysis. Reading the Romantics was an awakening. She saw her own present-day questions about art and “the human” posed just as urgently in the words of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Words­worth. “I realized that a lot of the things I was interested in in modernism have a prehistory going back to 1750, 1800.”

Among them, questions about poetry’s relevance and whether it was waning. Or whether it was lost. “People have been declaring poetry dead for over 200 years,” McLane says. Anxieties that today inspire calls for simpler, safer, easier-to-understand poems also plagued the British Romantics. At the turn of the 19th century, they felt their territory invaded by emerging natural and social sciences: chemistry, biology, moral philosophy, political economy. These new disciplines claimed to explain humanity in an overarching, comprehensive way that previously had belonged to the poets. “They were having to rethink the question of what is poetry and why bother with poetry,” McLane says. There was a growing sense that the sciences “were the master discourses,” she says, and that poetry “was going to be just this nice little entertaining thing on the side.”

Wordsworth’s response, in 1800, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, was to plant a flag. “He says the knowledge of the poet is a general inheritance, and the poet is a man speaking to men and can speak to the human more broadly,” McLane says. Scientific knowledge, he claimed, was not so expansive and universal, but merely specific and individual. “Words­worth was very much arguing that the poet’s job was to bind together with passion and knowledge all the disparate fields that humans are pursuing.”

This tug-of-war between poetry and science became the subject of McLane’s dissertation, and later her first scholarly book, Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the Species (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Stories turn personal

McLane is a forager of forms, whose essays contain elements of poetry and whose poems are infused with scholarship. She writes in form and free verse—and sometimes both and neither all at once, a passing haiku, the echo of a ballad. Her subjects are both cosmic and terrestrial, intimate and public, domestic and civic. “The shapes of McLane’s sentences—real, complete sentences are rare here—often have a sculptural quality, shifting in both form and meaning as we peruse them,” wrote Tess Taylor, reviewing McLane’s first two poetry collections for the Boston Review. Elsewhere Taylor observes, “McLane’s poems express a wish not for wholeness, but for the sufficiency of what little we can hold on to.” Similar strains run through This Blue, a book whose poems ruminate often on the idea of time and finitude, and on a world that remains ancient even as it’s made new, forever broken while also full of fresh possibilities.

Her notebooks, a kind of cauldron where new poems percolate, are collages of book titles (both read and to be read), grocery lists, snatches of overheard conversations, quotes from anything and everything McLane happens to be reading. There are shards of her own poems, partial stanzas, and passing thoughts. Notes and sketches from art exhibits. Doodles. The covers of McLane’s notebooks look like literal collages, with postcards from travel and writing retreats taped to the front. “They’re this really weird hybrid work where they’re somewhere between commonplace books and draft spaces,” she says.

The book that perhaps most fully illustrates McLane’s approach to poetry isn’t actually a book of poems—and yet it also somehow is. In 2012 she published My Poets (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), a collection of autobiographical essays that combines memoir with criticism and with poetry itself. A finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award, My Poets feels experimental and old-fashioned at once. It traces McLane’s reading life from early adulthood (those close-reading classes with Vendler and Corbett) onward as it coincided with her private life. She goes to college and then to Europe; she marries, and her marriage breaks apart when she falls in love with someone else, a woman. Her life moves on.

These personal stories are not so much told as darted toward in oblique and luminous flashes, and enmeshed within them are meditations on poetry. Marianne Moore sees McLane through her wedding, and Louise Glück sustains her through the divorce. Emily Dickinson, a poet of the Civil War and of terror, who wrote “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—,” helps McLane make sense of 9/11 and its aftermath. Amid the glut of mythmaking that engulfed the country after the trauma of the attacks, the stories and images that slid “too easily into a banal repertoire, commodified shock,” McLane finds clarity and comfort in Dickinson’s “ceaseless instinct for negation, distinction, refinement, annihilation.”

Originally published on December 1, 2014.