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Heather McHugh: Poet

Updated on November 30, 2014

Poet Heather McHugh

"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."   ~ H. McHugh, 1999


In McHugh's poetry you'll find a lot of wordplay -- puns, rhymes, syntactical twists -- revealing the complexity of the meaning of words. Her poems are engaging, intellectually challenging and often very funny. I hope you enjoy getting to know her work.

Her lines are packed and bright

and good, and they like space.

They have a way of meaning

more than you think,

of going deeper than you can see.

~ C Frizzelle ~

Introducing Heather McHugh

Heather McHugh was born on August 20, 1948, to Canadian parents living in San Diego, California. She was raised in Gloucester Point, Virginia. where her father worked as a marine biologist, directing the marine biological laboratory on the York River (at right). At age seventeen, McHugh entered Harvard University

McHugh received a B.A. (1970) from Harvard University and an M.A. (1972) from the University of Denver.

In 1977 McHugh's first collection of poems, Dangers: Poems, was published (Houghton Mifflin)

She has also authored a collection of literary essays, several books of translation, and edited two anthologies

Over the last 20 plus years, Heather McHugh served as a visiting faculty member in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has been Milliman Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle since 1984.

In 2009, Heather McHugh received the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" for her work.

McHuge's long-standing fear: "I'll come up with the perfect last words and I'll say them and I won't die. And then I'll have to take a piss and I'll ask for the bedpan and then I'll die."

Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993
Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993

McHugh artfully entwines the prosaic with the empyrean, twisting mundane images into verbal feasts, letting language flow through her hands rather than shaping it to her will. Often she makes wry, witty observations as though she were a kind of contemporary Greek chorus chiming in from the stage's dark recesses. This collection allows one to appreciate the development of her poetry over 25 years and to witness the increasing strength and maturity of her voice. (Elizabeth Gunderson)


Poem: A Physics

by Heather McHugh

When you get down to it, Earth

has our own great ranges

of feeling -- Rocky, Smoky, Blue --

and a heart that can melt stones.

The still pools fill with sky,

as if aloof, and we have eyes

for all of this -- and more, for Earth's

reminding moon. We too are ruled

by such attractions -- spun and swaddled,

rocked and lent a light. We run

our clocks on wheels, our trains

on time. But all the while we want

to love each other endlessly -- not only for

a hundred years, not only six feet up and down.

We want the suns and moons of silver

in ourselves, not only counted coins in a cup. The whole

idea of love was not to fall. And neither was

the whole idea of God. We put him well

above ourselves, because we meant,

in time, to measure up.

McHugh's Poetry Books

In Order of Publication

Dangers: Poems, was published (Houghton Mifflin, 1977)

A World of Difference (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)

To the Quick (1987)

Shades (1988)

Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993 (1994), a finalist for the National Book Award; named "Notable Book of the Year" by the New York Times Book Review

The Father of Predicaments (2001)

Eyeshot (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize

Upgraded to Serious (Copper Canyon Press, 2009)

Upgraded to Serious
Upgraded to Serious

"If McHugh is serious, she's anything but grim; with all her punning, bantering, and mock scolding of herself . . . she brightens the shadowy corners of her world with verbal pyrotechnics." (The New York Times Book Review)

"Her poems are open, resilient, invisibly twisted: part safety net, part trampoline." (The Village Voice Literary Supplement)


I don't want to be known.

To me, being known

is the loss of liberty.

~ Heather McHugh ~

Poem: Inside

by Heather McHugh

In the field is a house

of wood. A window of the house

contains the field.

You can't see far

with a sun in the sky,

with a living-room lamp

at night. Locality is all

you light, and you, as single

as a bed. But there's

no end to dark. The bed is in the clearing

and the clearing's in the wind; the world

is a world among others. Now your cell-stars split.

Shades (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Shades (Wesleyan Poetry Series)

"Beyond McHugh's quick wit and the ironic cast of these poems, is something new, a passionate voice that does not fear the dark, impenetrable places of the heart" (AI)


Honors Include . . .

Two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts

A Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Award,

A Guggenheim Foundation fellowship

In 2006, received one of the first United States Artists awards

From 1999 to 2006, served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets,

In 2000 was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 2009, the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant"

Poem: Space Bar

by Heather McHugh

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.

The Father of the Predicaments (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
The Father of the Predicaments (Wesleyan Poetry Series)

"The father of the/ predicaments, wrote Aristotle's translator, is being." McHugh is a modernist and an extremely cerebral poet . . . readers interested in language poetry will find poems of interest here. (library journal, doris lynch)


I'm drawn to finding the grammar

that can make the thing

that can't happen


~ Heather McHugh ~

Poem: Constructive

by Heather McHugh

You take a rock, your hand is hard.

You raise your eyes, and there's a pair

of small beloveds, caught in pails.

The monocle and eyepatch correspond.

You take a glove, your hand is soft.

The ocean floor was done

in lizardskin. Around a log or snag

the surface currents run

like lumber about a knot. A boat

is bent to sea-we favor the medium

we're in, our shape's

around us. It takes time.

At night, the bed alive, what

teller of truth could tell

the two apart? Lover, beloved,

hope is command. Your hand

is given, when you take a hand.

Broken English: Poetry and Partiality
Broken English: Poetry and Partiality

This is a book of poetic criticism by McHughs.

"A truly major book . . . I am tempted to say that with this book American poetry reclaims for itself true intellectual status, and McHugh does so with a marvellously selfless intensity that exemplifies much of what she says about the 'I.' This is love of poetry, and sharp criticism of her American peers, which represents itself at the highest levels of intellectual ambition without any egoistic posing. I know of no better writing on Dickinson, Rilke, and Celan." (Charles Altieri)


Poem: Domestique

by Heather McHugh

Surfaces to scrape or wipe,

a screwdriver to be applied

to slime-encrusted soles, the spattered

hallways, wadded bedding-- and

in quantities astounding (in the corners,

under furniture, behind the curtains)

fluff and dander spread by curs

the breeder called nonshedding...

It's a dog's life I myself must lead,

day in, day out-- with never a Sunday edition--

while they lie around on their couches like poets,

and study the human condition.

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