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NYU English professor explores intersection of poetry and life

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Words have the power to shape people, and can even change the course of their lives entirely. In her new book “My Poets,” NYU associate professor of English, Maureen McLane explores how poetry came into her life at certain junctures and molded her perspective of the world.

On Tuesday, McLane spoke about her new book and answered questions from panelists and the audience. The event was hosted by the Humanities Initiative at NYU, which was created in 2007 to highlight the work of the university’s humanities faculty and students and to expand the role the humanities play in our global network university.

McLane referred to “My Poets” as an NYU book, as she wrote it while she was at the university. The Humanities Initiative aided in funding the project.

McLane is also the author of four other books, but she said the process of writing “My Poets” was a distinctly different experience.

“I would say that once I started this book, I had a more vivid sense of [what the whole book would be], whereas when I’m writing my poetry books I often don’t know until I’ve been writing for a long while what the totality might be,” McLane said. “But this one, when I started, I realized would be a project, and that I would be choosing poets based on their intersection with life moments.”

McLane also expanded on the idea of the interface between art and life.

“Repeatedly I was reading something at a certain time, and it chimed with my experience. So, for example, I’m reading poems by Louise Glück at the moment I am undergoing a divorce … or I am thinking about Emily Dickinson’s work after 9/11 and thinking of her as a poet of terror,” she said. “But more generally I found that often, at very emotionally intense life junctures, there was something I was reading that was very powerful, anchoring, illuminating.”

At the event, McLane read an excerpt from “My Poets” before the focus shifted to the panelists. Among them was Mclane’s colleague, professor Catherine Robson, and professor William Corbett, who was formerly Mclane’s teacher. During the question and answer portion of the event, McLane spoke with vigor and humor about poets such as Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson. Professor Robson spoke highly of McLane not only as an author, but also as an educator.

“To have someone with that kind of generosity of spirit, imagine what that’s like in the classroom,” Robson said. “She listens incredibly closely, but she’s also got so much to tell them.”

CAS senior Judy Zhou took a course with McLane last spring.

“[McLane] really got me to think about poetry in a much more exciting way,” Zhou said. “I’ve read her poetry, too, so I’m really interested in her as a writer and as a teacher … I really admire her and her work.”

“My Poets” is now available in bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 13 print edition. Keerthi Harishankar is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected] 

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