I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of literary intimacy—the relationship between a reader and the literature they love—and in particular, the intimacy between a poetry reader, and the poets they admire. I’ve gathered some anecdotal evidence and concluded that, while novels enjoy a catholic readership, books of poetry (contemporary poetry, in particular) are primarily consumed by writers. I’m sure non-writer lovers of poetry exist, but I believe they are the exception and not the rule. A working theory analogizes poetry as hard drugs, towards which an unfortunate few are predisposed; reading poetry can never be a past-time, and only a proclivity.
No, but that is adolescent, romantic foolishness. A more sensible explanation may be that poetry’s readers are often writers because these sort of people already know (suffer and thrive by) the demands of language, and poetry is often language at its most demanding. More impressive and perplexing, then, is any rigorous study of poetry. My Emily Dickinson, by Susan Howe, and My Poets, by Maureen McLane, deepen my respect and admiration for scholars. Susan Howe’s book, published almost three decades ago, reads as new and bracing as any poetry or criticism being written today. The quality of her attention tunes literary criticism to a clear and lyric pitch. I remain in awe of the way Howe fuses poetic techniques with scholarly tropes to craft a reading of Emily Dickinson that is intertextual, deeply-informed, and emotionally comprehensive. By this I mean that Howe’s analysis, without excuse or disclaimer, incorporates emotion—beyond literary psychoanalytic conventions, sound and coherent as any historicism—as a viable and legitimate facet of critical analysis. McLane, an inheritor of Howe’s radical approach, gathers in her book a group of poets privately and personally relevant to her, and gives an emotional account of the study and pleasures of poetry. Reading these chapters, one easily discerns a disciplined and well-informed scholar, but the conventions of scholarly ‘rigor’ are beside the point. In My Poets, intellect is emotional. This book doesn’t front, and it refuses to cater to anyone who believe otherwise.
These authors prove what I’ve always intuited, which is that literary scholarship is not so much the pursuit of knowledge, as it is the religious practice of a devout, complete with its rituals, doctrines, and ceremonies. To extend a conceit: these books are seized with the spirit; they are ecstatic, and speak in tongues. I’ll be focusing my attention here on the newer of these two, McLane’s hybrid work, which alchemizes literary criticism, lyric essay, memoir, and poetry, into an elementally powerful book.
The act of reading a novel absorbs, and ultimately effaces its reader. A story has the power to dissolve boundaries; one gets lost inside it, inhabits its world and its characters. In contrast, poetry’s power lies in the way it draws those lines sharper. A poem’s syntax and dis/organization clarify the edges of one’s consciousness. Regardless the apparent subject, good poetry speaks a preternatural and premonitory vision of Who-I-Am and What-I-Am-Feeling. It takes the shortest path to whatever store of emotions are accutest at that moment. Or, to use a scifi metaphor, reading a devastating line of poetry is like hearing some subliminally implanted code sequence designed to activate and control whatever neural pathways construct the ‘self’.
Which is why, when McLane interweaves moments in her life with poetic exegeses, I thrill to observe this peculiar intimacy performed and enacted. Here, McLane casting herself in the second person singular, from the chapter, “My Fanny Howe”:
“ ‘What to make of a diminished thing,’ sings Robert Frost’s ovenbird. A friend had quoted that once, as if to fortify you into a kind of stoic acceptance. But you were never good at acceptance.
The limits have wintered me
as if white trees were there to be written on.
It must be purgatory
there are so many letters and things.
Faith, hope and charity rise in the night
like the stations of an accountant.
And I remember my office, sufficiency’
But what would suffice? And wherein lies suffiency? How to survive one’s own blighting eye”
In the chapter, “My Louise Gluck”, McLane grafts her insights into quotations of verse, performing a critical reading that simultaneously speaks to, about, and with the poems themselves. After this sequence, she moves into a paragraph that explicitly addresses poet-reader intimacy:
“Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris was a companion more intimate than any living friend, a murmur and rasp and balm in the mind those months the structures of living you yourself had erected were now collapsing, the foundations battered by you yourself.
It was just last weekend, I read two especially powerful poetry books. The first was by someone I consider my poet—or, at least since I first read and fell in love with Lilies Without—Laura Kasischke’s The Infinitesimals. The second, Love, An Index, by Rebecca Lindenberg, was new to me. The experience of reading each was a voice speaking directly to my soul. I cannot help how maudlin that sounds just now. OED defines intimate as “pertaining to or connected with the inmost nature or fundamental character of a thing; essential; intrinsic” and my current vocabulary only allows that word ‘soul’ to represent the kind of communication which happens in reading poetry.
[A digression: what compels one to affix that possessive ‘my’? Is there anything to be said about these books’s titles beginning with ‘my’ and that they are written by women? Is there, in the traditionally patriarchal field of literature, a greater imperative among women to stake a claim? Or is it even simpler than that? What compels you to call a stranger, ‘mine’? Is it Selfishness? Is it Love?]
The voice of the poems in The Infinitesimals might be characterized (simpler than my post’s word count allows) as otherworldly, timeless, and oracular, and that voice in Love, An Index as worldly, contemporary, and kin to me as a beloved sibling. Both voices feel embodied and relentlessly visceral. I finished both in a single weekend, an embarrassing amount of which was spent emotionally raw and in tears. I told a friend I would not read anymore poetry about Love and Death, lest I spend any more weekends blotchy, snotty, and puffy eyed, with my chest aching. “That’s wonderful!,” he responded. “At least you know poetry still works”. And so it does, using the rhythms and movements of language, to re-work, and disassemble, and shatter, and put back together again.
[Another digression: Horse Less Press publishes books as well as an online journal in which they have a review section called OPEN: Notes & Letters of Review. Here is another project that performs the poet-reader intimacy in the form of epistolary reviews; each ‘letter’ addresses the poet directly. It’s a beautifully executed idea, and I usher you that way for some insightful and sensitive reviews.]
In the chapter, “My Shelley”, McLane writes: “Romantic poets are often disoriented. They are often struggling to orient themselves”. Reflecting on my readings and conversations in writing this post, I’m drawn to these words, as they apply to readers of poetry. I struggle to refuse the idea that reading and writing and taking pleasure in language is indulgent, and antithetical to being an engaged and responsible citizen. I fight the guilt that makes me feel any effort not spent addressing and alleviating what hurts the world right now, is a waste. Romantic poets are not the only ones afflicted by a prevailing sense of disorientation. To be of this world, and in it, is disorienting. What I do know is that after I have been reading poetry, my thinking becomes aligned and I feel returned to myself. My poets may not orient me in the sense that their poems map out a set of coordinates, but their work is emotion’s lodestone. I read, I love, I find north.