The Wayward Essay: ‘The Fun Stuff,’ by James Wood, and More


In its quality of attention and faith in the salvific power of the right words in the right order, the essay resembles nothing so much as a secular prayer. That, at least, was the original point. The essay has proved wayward, which has been the great secret to its longevity.

Invented in France by Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century’s great oversharer; perfected in England by Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt; the essay found America very agreeable: “The United States itself — and even its name, according to some sources — is partly the outcome of the essayistic brilliance of the radical English artisan Thomas Paine,” Christopher Hitchens, one of its finest modern practitioners, wrote. Its health, however, has never been guaranteed.

Virginia Woolf had to reassure the public in 1922: “Oh, yes dear reader: the essay is alive. There is no reason to despair,” even as journalists crowed over the death of “that lavender-scented little old lady of literature.” “Everybody is forever saying that the essay is dead,” John Leonard observed in 1982. “This is always said in essays.”

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My Poets


By Maureen McLane

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, May 2012

Readers are not created equal. Frances Ferguson observed, rather dolorously, that the “reader can only read the texts that say what he already knows,” but let’s be frank: There are gifted—or maybe just thirstier—readers among us who, by dint of stamina or plain need, won’t be stymied by boredom, offense, incomprehension. There are varsity readers, and then there is Maureen N. McLane, a poet, professor, and prizewinning critic. To read McLane is to be reminded that the brain may be an organ, but the mind is a muscle. Hers is a roving, amphibious intelligence; she’s at home in the essay and the fragment, the polemic and the elegy. She can be confessional and clinical and ludic—sometimes all in the same sentence. What I’m trying to say is that McLane has moves. In her new book, My Poets, she invites us to read over her shoulder as she combs through “her” poets, including Chaucer, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück. It’s a work of personal and poetic archaeology—“I am marking here what most marked me,” she writes. The prose is thick with quotation and self-interrogation; voices serried and overlapping, combining in chorus, splintering into argument. Forensically close readings dovetail with spirited defenses of the poets posterity has misunderstood, fresh readings of the familiar, and formal experiments (an abecedary of her favorite translators, a cento of beloved lines). She positions Emily Dickinson as a 9/11 poet. She recasts cerebral Marianne Moore as the “the stealth weapon of American poetry” and mistress of “a languid, lethal, acrid sexuality.”

It’s a visceral kind of criticism, sexy, strange, and suspenseful. Nabokov said to read for the tingle at the tip of the spine. Dickinson spoke of poems that took off the top of her head. Language enters McLane’s body like a current. Her whole body bucks and shudders. Her responses are forcefully somatic—“Some of her poems bypassed my brain and registered directly on the nerve endings”—and matched by the syntactical sophistication of her thought, her attraction to contradiction. Witness her response to the conclusion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” (“everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go”): “Some days this seems coercively tidy and moral and obligatorily epiphanic and another instance of romantic ideology and sickening other days it seems a parable for living or rather attending.” Criticism is a temporal art, she reminds us. Our judgments are subject to mood; they are various and fickle. McLane destabilizes the authority of the critic—and the poem. “Poems aren’t for teaching; they insinuate,” she writes.

Poems insinuate and lodge themselves within McLane. The lives of the poets become blueprints. (“Elizabeth Bishop was gay and a traveler and a gay and sad traveler,” she writes. “I did not know this and I came to know this. I became this.”) She handles her poets with reverence, but also treats them as rich sources of gossip, heaping her exegeses with delicious gobbets on internecine squabbles, bloated reputations, what Alice and Gertrude got up to in bed, the “bovine worship” Bishop elicits in some circles. A splendid mimic, McLane sometimes riffs on poets in their own styles. Here she is in fine Gertrude Stein mode: “Robert Lowell is so Lowelly you must unLowell him to lower him into you. This I found. He was not sound.” On the topic of herself, she is wickedly deadpan and self-deprecating—she tots up her youthful academic success to “a talent for aligning with authority.”

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