poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

April 21, 1992French Institue Alliance Fran‡aiseFrom the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Born on August 20, 1948, to Canadian parents in San Diego, California, Heather McHugh was raised in Gloucester Point, Virginia. Her father was a marine biologist, and directed the marine biological laboratory on the York River. She entered Harvard University at the age of seventeen.

Her first collection of poems, Dangers: Poems, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977. Since then, she has published several acclaimed collections, most recently Upgraded to Serious (Copper Canyon Press, 2009); Eyeshot (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize; The Father of Predicaments (2001); Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993 (1994), a finalist for the National Book Award and named a "Notable Book of the Year" by the New York Times Book Review; Shades (1988); To the Quick (1987); and A World of Difference (Houghton Mifflin, 1981).

She is also the author of a collection of literary essays titled Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (1993), and three books of translation: Glottal Stop: Poems of Paul Celan (with Nikolai Popov, 2001), winner of the Griffin International Poetry Prize; Because the Sea is Black: Poems of Blaga Dimitrova (with Niko Boris, 1989); and D'après tout: Poems by Jean Follain (1981).

McHugh also edited the anthology New Voices: University and College Prizes (Academy of American Poets, 1999), and served as the 2007 guest editor for the Best American Poetry series.

In a 1999 interview, McHugh said, "If you're a poet smitten with English, you love it for its drive and not its drone. The rhythms of a language must be irresistible—while the humdrums of it have to be resisted. No linguistic habit is, per se, of interest—but ah! when the unsung (underlying) nun informs it—with a sensual twist or quick shape-shift! Well, that's the trick: the sudden unexpectedness inside the overknown."

Her honors include two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Award, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and, in 2006, one of the first United States Artists awards. From 1999 to 2006 she served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and in 2000 was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2009, she was awarded the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" for her work.

For over 20 years, she has served as a visiting faculty member in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and since 1984 as Milliman Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle.

What He Thought

Heather McHugh, 1948

For Fabbio Doplicher

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.

From Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Heather McHugh. Reprinted with permission.

From Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993, published by Wesleyan University Press, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Heather McHugh. Reprinted with permission.

Heather McHugh

Heather McHugh

A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Heather McHugh has received several awards for her work as a poet, including the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" in 2009

by this poet

poem
Apparently they want your body parts. They frisk you for

Your handset, earbud, bluetooth, cellphone, iPad, thumb drive, memory stick

And laptop.    You won't need any of it soon.    Give them 

The finger too.
poem

 

Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

poem
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

 

Calm comes from burning.
Tall comes from fast.
Comely doesn't come from come.
Person comes from mask.

The kin of charity is whore,
the root of charity is dear.
Incentive has its source in song
and winning in the sufferer.

Afford