Heather McHugh

Heather McHugh Poems

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went

He came at night to each of us asleep
And trained us in the virtues we most lacked.
Me he admonished to return his stare
Correctly, without fear.Unless I could,

The literate are ill-prepared for this
snap in the line of life:
the day turns a trick
of twisted tongues and is

There, a little right
of Ursus Major, is
the Milky Way:
a man can point it out,

Too volatile, am I?too voluble?too much a word-person?
I blame the soup:I'm a primordially
stirred person.


The gh comes from rough, the o from women's,
and the ti from unmentionables--presto:
there's the perfect English instance of

A brilliance takes up residence in flaws—
a brilliance all the unchipped faces of design
refuse. The wine collects its starlets
at a lip's fault, sunlight where the nicked

Everything obeyed our laws and
we just went on self-improving
till a window gave us pause and
there the outside world was, moving.

The horse in harness suffers;
he's not feeling up to snuff.
The feeler's sensate but the cook
pronounces lobsters tough.

We dress the boy in an orange cap
and show him how the gun is held.
He looks at his hand.

He likes five women, one in black

Lined up behind the space bartender
is the meaning of it all, the vessels
marked with letters, numbers,
signs. Beyond the flats

He claps a hand
Across the gaping hole—

Or else the sight might
Well inside to

In sympathy with Gaspara Stampa

By woman so touched, so pressed,
detachment being thought
achievable at all

I owe you an explanation.
My first memory isn’t your own
of an empty box. My babyhood cabinets held
a countlessness of cakes, my backyard

Stuck on the fridge, our favorite pin-up girl
is anorexic. On the radio we have a riff

of Muzak sax, and on the mind
a self-help book. We sprawl all evening, all

We dress the boy in an orange cap
and show him how the gun is held.
He looks at his hand.

He likes five women, one in black
and one in yellow, whitey,
pinky, and the naked one.

In all his stories he loses his heart.
We do not tell him that the truth
is just the future, that he's born

to die, and the love of the lovely
can kill. But we believe it;
he is beautiful, and at the movies

he is what we watch. His eyes
are fixed, his hair still
smoking; his whole face is blue.

Fifty years the butcher shop
has hung these animals on hooks
to cure. The stationery store
dispenses the same old news,
same change, a little less silver;
ladies in a beauty shop desire
the perfect permanent.
Mornings this bright
cast the deepest shade;
everything seems to come
from memory. The subway's elevated.

Down the block toward the river Bronx
each yard has a chain-link fence, a dog
attracted to the random noise.
The woman no one knows is dead is still
in the chair by the bedroom plant.
Stripes advance from the blind
to her lap, slower than the human
eye can see. Above the accidents
of traffic you can hear
her clock and clean refrigerator hum.

Lined up behind the space bartender
is the meaning of it all, the vessels
marked with letters, numbers,
signs. Beyond the flats

the monitor looms, for all the world
like the world. Images and
motions, weeping women,
men in hats. I have killed

many happy hours here,
with my bare hands,
where TV passes for IV, among
the space cadets and dingbats.


When a child is born, the parents say
they hope it's healthy and intelligent. But as for me—

well, vigor and intelligence have wrecked my life. I pray
this baby we are seeing walloped, wiped and winningly anointed,

turns out dumb as oakum—and more sinister. That way
he can crown a tranquil life by being

appointed a cabinet minister.

Heather McHugh Biography

Heather McHugh is an American poet Life Poet, translator, and educator, was born in San Diego, California, to Canadian parents, John Laurence, a marine biologist, and Eileen Francesca (Smallwood). They raised McHugh in Gloucester Point, Virginia. There, her father directed the marine biological laboratory on the York River. She began writing poetry at age five and claims to have become an expert “eavesdropper” by the age of twelve. At the age of seventeen, she entered Harvard University. Her most notable work was Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993, which won the Bingham Poetry Prize of the Boston Book Review and the Pollack-Harvard Review Prize. The New York Times Book Review named this work the Notable Book of the Year. McHugh was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1999. She teaches at the University of Washington and in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. In 2009, she was awarded the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" for her work. Biography McHugh has published seven books of poetry, one collection of critical essays, and four books of translation. She has received numerous awards and critical recognition in all of these areas, including several Pushcart Prizes. Her poems resist contemporary identity politics. She also rejects categorization as a confessional poet, although she studied with Robert Lowell during the time when that described his work. Her primary education included parochial school, where she credits Sister Cletus’s emphasis on grammar as an early influence. As a student at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, a teacher advised McHugh against applying to Radcliffe, making her determined to get in. She entered the college at age 16 and graduated with honors, receiving her B.A. from Harvard in 1970. She entered graduate school at the University of Denver in 1970, having already published a poem in The New Yorker. She began teaching in graduate school, was a Fellow at Cummington Community for the Arts in 1970, and received the Academy of American Poets prize in 1972. After earning her M.A. in 1972, McHugh received MacDowell Colony fellowships in 1973, 1974, and 1976. In 1974, she also received her first of three National Endowment for the Arts grants in poetry. McHugh was the poet-in-residence at Stephens College in Missouri between 1974 and 1976; she worked as an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton between 1976 and 1982. At 29, she completed a manuscript of poems titled Dangers (1976), that was a winner of Houghton Mifflin Co.'s New Poetry Series Competition. McHugh’s first book of poems was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977. After a second National Endowment for the Arts grants in poetry in 1981 and a Yaddo Colony fellowship in 1980, her second book, titled "A World of Difference: Poems" (1981), was published by Houghton Mifflin. McHugh was 35. During this time, she was a visiting professor at Warren Wilson College in the M.F.A. Program for Writers in North Carolina between 1980 and 1985; at Columbia University in New York between 1980 and 1981; and at the University of California in Irvine in 1982. During 1987, she was the Holloway Lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley. While the top journals published her poetry, some poems were also anthologized in prestigious collections, and top critics called her observations astute and noteworthy as well as courageous. That same year World of Difference came out, her first book of translations was published. Her poetry translation of Jean Follain’s French work is titled D'après tout: Poems by Jean Follain (1981) for Lockhart Poetry in Translation. In 1984, she became the Milliman Writer-In-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. The residency was initiated that same year, and McHugh has filled the position since then. During the 1980s, McHugh worked a great deal on translation, partly due to her alliance with her co-translator and husband, who teaches at the University of Washington. Her translation work includes well-known international poets like Valéry and Rilke, as well as poets like Romanian Jewish poet of the Holocaust Paul Antschel, who wrote under the pseudonym Paul Celan. Her skill in translating literature by Slavic writers became even more evident with the publication of Because the Sea Is Black: Poems of Blaga Dimitrova (1989) featuring the work of a Bulgarian poet and novelist. Dimitrova, one of the best-loved writers in her homeland, became the first democratically elected vice-president of her country after the fall of communism. McHugh translated Dimitrova’s poems for Wesleyan Poetry in Translation (published by the Wesleyan University Press) with her husband, Nikolai Popov, a scholar whom she married in 1987. (Her first marriage in 1967 ended in divorce.) McHugh sometimes uses the name Niko Boris Popov McHugh when writing about her husband. Popov, an expert in Bulgarian and knowledgeable in the German and French languages, also helped to translate Celan’s poetry, which was always written in German. In 1986, McHugh received a Bellagio grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. She published two more books of poetry during the 1980s: To the Quick (1987) and Shades (1988). In the late '80s, she also participated in an art project with Tom Phillips, resulting in a collectible book WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: The Class of Forty-Seven (1990). It consists of thirty images by Phillips which are interpreted in poems by McHugh and then further modified by Phillips. One of Phillips’s images, "A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel,” from the collaboration is appropriately used on the cover of McHugh’s essay collection Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (1993). In 1994, Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993, a collection of 24 new poems and selected poems from her five earlier books, was published by the Wesleyan University Press. The book won both the Harvard Review/Daniel Pollock Prize in 1995 and Boston Book Review's Bingham Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The New York Times Book Review chose this poetry collection as its "Notable Book of the Year." In 1996, after the book’s publication, she received a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writing Award. In 1998 McHugh received the Folger Library’s O.B. Hardison Prize for a poet who excels in teaching. In 1999 she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and received the PEN/Voelker Award. During this year, her poetry was anthologized in The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. McHugh also began to serve as a judge for numerous poetry competitions, including the National Poetry Series and the Laughlin Prize. She was a member of the Board of Directors for the Associated Writing Programs between 1981 and 1983. She served on the Literature Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts during 1983 and 1986. In 1991, she was the Coal-Royalty Chair at the University of Alabama. In 1992, McHugh was the Elliston Poet at the University of Cincinnati. In 1991, she was the visiting professor at the University of Iowa and, in 1994, at the University of California at Los Angeles. She takes editing collections of younger poets seriously, and helped to select poems for Hammer and Blaze: a Gathering of Contemporary American Poets (2001), published by the University of Georgia Press, which she co-edited. About her job guest editing Ploughshares in Spring 2001, McHugh writes, “The sheer syntactical elegance of many of these new poems suggests an instrumental refinement for which I’m grateful: I’m an old Richard Wilbur /Anthony Hecht fan, and have had reason now and then to regret, during my quarter century of teaching in M.F.A. programs, the relative unfashionability of rhetorical flourish.” At the end of 2001, McHugh’s sixth collection of poetry, The Father of the Predicaments, was published by the Wesleyan University Press. That same year, McHugh, with Nikolai Popov, received the first International Griffin Poetry Prize in translation for Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan. Her next poetry collection, Eyeshot, was published in (2003), and her latest collection, Upgraded to Serious, was released in 2009. McHugh is a judge for the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize. Awards and honors Two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts Griffin Poetry Prize Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, University of Washington Finalist for the National Book Award Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize Witter Bynner Fellowship PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry O. B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize MacArthur Fellowship)

The Best Poem Of Heather McHugh

What He Thought

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does "flat drink" mean? and the mysterious
"cheap date" (no explanation lessened
this one's mystery). Among Italian writers we

could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic--
and least poetic-- so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn't
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

"What's poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?" Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think-- "The truth
is both, it's both!" I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty,

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. "If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world." Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry--

(we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)-- poetry

is what he thought, but did not say.

Heather McHugh Comments

Heather McHugh Popularity

Heather McHugh Popularity

Error Success