My day job, so to speak, is to teach literature, most often the literature of the British romantic period (@1750-1830). I tend to focus on poetry and poetics, and over the years people have asked what this might have to do with my own poetry. (The very notion of “my own poetry” is one I’d like to put some pressure on . . .) One’s hand is dyed in the substance in which one immerses; it’s hard to undye the hand or unweave the fabric of thought in one’s poems, but yes there are loops of affinity, language, and thought there, resonances and overtones in my work that it isn’t wrong to call romantic.
In my new book This Blue, the most obvious signs of such romantic harmonics are the explicitly sounded notes—as in the long poem “Terran Life,” subtitled “an excursion beginning with a line of William Wordsworth”:
When we had given our bodies to the wind
we found bones in the earth and not in the sky.
We found arrowheads in the earth and not in the sky though
they’d flown through the air before grounding.
The era of common sense is over
& finished too the flourishing of horoscopes.
Hey traveler what chart to sign your way? what iPhone app?
Then too there is a nod to Robert Burns in the title of the poem “Best Laid” (viz. “To a Mouse”), which begins
won’t let up
and a swim’s out—
what you planned
forget the calls,
errands at the mall—
as a clitoris.
There’s a salute to Blake in the poem “Another Day in This Here Cosmos”:
to nature on a plain
of grass the sheep
munch clear of clover.
A park’s a way to keep
what’s gone enclosed forever.
Rhyme is cheap.
So is pop.
Easy to be obese
in a land fat with rape.
Now the sun burns
Now the sheep dream
To everything alive
Eat or be eaten—
what the vegan
spurns and the Jain.
I saved a fly
I baptized William Blake
and released to the sky.
Of course he’ll die.
In the sounding out here of what’s gone, what’s enclosed, I was also ghosting in part the poet John Clare, who wrote against “enclosure,” the privatizing of common land, in early 19th-century England.
It can be creepy to become an allusion-hunter of oneself, or to explain (away) one’s poems, but it seems fair to note these pulses and invocations—they’re made to bear weight in the poems, in different ways, and to carry forward certain sounds and claims: that a small intricate lyric can be philosophically engaged (as so many of Burns’s exquisite, tender, pointed, brilliant poems are); that the wind blowing by us also is us, our very breath (Wordsworth’s extended metaphor in many poems). Also present in my poems are perhaps additional wagers: that the “correspondent breeze”—the analogy between the motions of wind and mind—might still move us (viz. Wordsworth, especially in The Prelude); that sex and death and killer rhymes are still core essential meat—or essential vegan substance?—for poetry (as in Blake, or in a very different key Frederick Seidel, or, modulating still elsewhere, in Paul Muldoon).
Romantics get a bad rap for being romantic in the degraded sense—for being sappy, goopy, loose, swoony; for writing (as Wordsworth sneered of Keats’ work) merely “pretty piece[s] of paganism.” It’s no accident that Christopher Ricks could title one of his books Keats and Embarrassment. Romantics are embarrassing, like an awkward adolescence: something to be gotten through, gotten over, remembered fondly perhaps on Throwback Thursdays, but otherwise forgotten or repressed. Romantics are wobbly, wussy, weaselly, and soft, in this version of things—which is to say Ezra Pound’s version of things—contrasting Romantic (or Edwardian or Georgian) poetries against what Pound wanted in the early twentieth century, a hard incisive poetry of clarity and precision. You can figure out the sexual politics and gendered logic here. (Pound is pretty hilarious on Wordsworth, it must be said: “Read as much of Wordsworth as does not seem unutterably dull,” he advised.)
There’s not much point in defending so-called Romantics—none of whom, incidentally, identified him- or herself as Romantic (a term applied to this crew only starting in the later nineteenth century). Blake, Wordsworth, Burns, Clare et al. are in many ways as different from each other as, say, Chaucer is from Pound, or Christian Bök from Sharon Olds, or Amiri Baraka from Mary Oliver. Yet what the poets I most often return to share is a combination of intensity and extension, a confidence that the micro- and macro- can both be sung and thought and charted, from Blake’s “grain of sand” to the cosmos, from child’s play to political economy (as in Wordsworth), from a daisy to structures of government (as in Burns), from a guitar’s tune to erotic and political radicalism (as in Shelley). This seems to me a bracing and continuous resource for poets.
It’s worth acknowledging, too, that one doesn’t always get to choose one’s influences: perhaps at times one is chosen. Susan Stewart’s gripping and enormously subtle essay “Lyric Possession” (in her book Poetry and the Fate of the Senses) sets out the complex ways a poet might be haunted by a rhythm, a meter, the deep patternings that our language has acquired and conveyed over centuries. One of her test cases is the ballad, the way it haunts, ghosts, and structures literary poetries, but one could think of any number of other rhythmic or metrical forces that might “possess” a poet. Quotation too might be imagined as a mode of being-possessed rather than a mode of appropriation: if a line of Frank Bidart’s appears in my poem “Aviary,” if the changes of rhyme and a few phrases in “Summer Beer with Endangered Glacier” come from Wallace Stevens, who is to say who is appropriating whom? Perhaps I am a medium for their lines; or perhaps in their writing they were arrowing their way toward me, toward you.
Meanwhile, I’m happy to be possessed by Blake’s fly, by Wordsworth’s wind, by Burns’ mouse, by the ballad “The Three Ravens,” by Dante in translation, children’s games, riddles, overheard speech—by you, dear reader, by you.
Maureen N. McLane is the author of three collections of poetry, Same Life (FSG, 2008), World Enough (FSG, 2010) and This Blue (FSG, 2014). Her book My Poets (FSG, 2012), a hybrid of memoir and criticism, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.