Heather McHugh’s Poetic Music

Photograph of hands on a piano keyboard with sheet music


When I first picked up Heather McHugh’s work[i], I delighted in her witty use of language – the way she was able to pick out a word’s multiple meanings in the course of tightly musical and lyrical verse. Some examples:

From “Spectacles:”[ii]

I don’t move
but the grass in the window
does an utter
smear campaign…

From “Politics:”[iii]

The dog pauses before the fire,
watches, gains
weight, can’t make
light of it, lies
heavy down…

By themselves, these puns and surprising twists of language might suffice, but McHugh combines this wordplay with an unerring attention to the sound and rhythm of her lines as well.

I’ve been struggling to really understand the music of poetry, and especially of free verse poetry. Let loose of the constraints of regular rhyme and meter, how does a poet give her work structure? And if each free verse poem requires the invention of an entirely new music, how can I possibly understand such an amorphous discipline? Like any student, I sought my first answers in words. I happened to be researching the music of free verse poetry the same weekend as Porchfest, a decentralized music festival that takes place on porches throughout the city. While I searched for an intellectual, text-based definition of free verse poetic music, strains of music floated through my study window. From one side of the hill, a bassist, guitarist, drummer, and vocalist played the blues. From another, the reed and thread of saxophone and trumpet called out melodies reminiscent of Miles Davis, then devolved into a cacophony of dissonance that still, somehow, felt like music. I realized I’d been going about my research all wrong. One doesn’t understand music[iv] by reading about it. One understands by listening to it.

Of all McHugh’s work, the poem I found myself drawn to again and again though was “Against a Dark Field,”[v] which doesn’t feature wordplay in the same way as many of her other poems, but whose use of internal rhyme, assonance, and consonance creates a music that highlights the tension and restraint of the event in question. “Hate makes my head light,” begins the poem, beginning a repetition of H’s throughout the first paragraph that sound like panting, or angry whispers. “Hate rides it particulars, styles / after fireflies, after envy. Our bed rises…” it continues, setting a pattern of hard-I’s that runs through the first stanza and the second. H’s give way to W’s in the second stanza: “The window’s colony of wild / ideas… Wise / is lightweight.” The W’s and the hard-I’s combined create a lament, the sound of “why, why why.” Then the poem couple transitions from the W’s and into U’s: “… Undercover // I withdraw from us and turn / into pure fuel.” The last couplet features both end-rhyme ( turn / burn) and also a movement from the medium-sized lines of most of the poem into a long final line, which serves to slow the poem down at the very end. The last line’s final two phrases also devastated me: “You blacken with sleep. I green with burn.” This is pure poetry: telling the truth but telling it slant, using language with a pure inventiveness that bypasses denotation and speaks to pure emotion.

Hinge & Sign contains so many poems I’d like to examine in more detail. Her poems after Rilke have inspired me to look at his work with fresh eyes. “after Rilke,” which begins the book, contains one of my favorite lines: “Closed up like a mouth after a cry.” Her longer poems, especially “What He Thought,” and “Size of Spokane,” offer tantalizing lessons in the use of long and short lines, enjambment and end-stops. I had them in the back of my mind during my latest round of revisions of my own work. It’s not clear to me though that I entirely understand how they work. As I said at the beginning of this essay, the slippery nature of free verse music – how it morphs from one poet to another and from one poem to another – seems in some way unknowable. But like music of any type, it seems the best way to understand it is by immersing myself in it, and by examining in detail one composition at a time.

[i] McHugh, Heather. Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993. Wesleyan University Press, 1994. Print.

[ii] Ibid. p. 93

[iii] Ibid. p. 110

[iv] “The science of art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.” – Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, 1991. Print.

[v] McHugh. p.115.

Photo credit: Damien Pollet via Flickr, CC 2.0. Cropped.

Blast From the Past: April 2011

So back when this was more of a personal blog than a poetry-related one, this is a thing I wrote. Sometimes I like to go back and read my own journals. Is that so wrong?

What I Learned During National Poetry Month 2011

  1. Haiku improves with practice.
  2. Poetry is real work.
  3. Sometimes work is gentle, easy, and takes hardly any time.
  4. Sometimes work is hard and grueling and difficult.
  5. Sometimes I forget to do things I said I was going to do
  6. Instead of hating on myself or giving up, I can just start doing them again.[read more]

Boston-Area Poetry Readings for March and April 2018

Photograph of crocus buds in the snow

April is National Poetry Month, so readings abound. March isn’t too shabby either. And don’t forget to plan ahead for the Mass Poetry Festival the first weekend of May. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for compiling these listings.

Of particular note: Charles Coe and Marge Piercy at Porter Square Books (tonight!); Layli Long Soldier in Cambridge and Providence; Stephanie Burt at the MIT Press Bookstore; Mark Doty in Acton; Joan Houlihan in Cambridge, Boston, and Gloucester; Ocean Vuong at Smith; Martha Collins and my own teacher Kevin Prufer at Porter Square Books; Kazim Ali and Stephanie Burt at Harvard; a Latinx Poetry Reading in Cambridge; Anne Waldman in Providence; and my fellow poet educator Wendy Drexler in JP and Gloucester.

Thursday, March 1, 6-8 pm
Jane Brox, Andrea Cohen, and Natalie Shapero
Salamander 25th anniversary celebration and reading
Suffolk University Poetry Center
Mildred F. Sawyer Library, 3rd floor
Boston, MA

Thursday, March 1, 7 pm
Charles Coe and Marge Piercy
Porter Square Books
25 White Street
Cambridge, MA

Continue reading “Boston-Area Poetry Readings for March and April 2018”

Rainier Maria Rilke’s Use of Imagery

Photograph of a bowl of multicolored roses

In The Discovery of Poetry[i], Frances Mayes breaks imagery into three categories: literal imagery (the thing itself), figurative imagery (images used to describe the thing), and symbols (an image or action that stands for more than itself). A symbol differs from a literal or figurative because of the far-reaching semantic ripples that surround it. The red wheelbarrow is an image; the American flag is a symbol.

Rilke’s work returns again and again to the symbol of the rose. What sorts of associations does the symbol of the rose evoke? Love, femininity, openness, vulnerability, romantic and sexual love, impermanence. The rose is a symbol for the Madonna in Catholic tradition, and was a symbol for her predecessor Venus. The medieval French poem, “Le Roman de la Rose,” tells an allegorical story of courtly love. At the heart of Dante’s Paradiso lies a rose. On St. Valentine’s Day, lovers give one another red roses as a symbol of their love for one another. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet, exhorting her lover Romeo to give up his family name.
Continue reading “Rainier Maria Rilke’s Use of Imagery”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet

Here’s the cover letter to the third packet I sent to my teacher Sharon Bryan during the first semester of my Lesley MFA.

Dear Sharon:

It was such a pleasure to meet up with you in person last week. Written correspondence is a thing to treasure but there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. And it’s always great to have an excuse to sit and chat at the Algiers.

As I said to you via email, I really enjoyed Heather McHugh’s playful approach to language – especially the way that she plays with the multiple meanings and connotations of a single word. Picking her up reminded me that working for an MFA is something I undertook for the pleasure of the task rather than the obligation of the schoolwork. Here’s one example of her wordplay that I didn’t include in my craft annotation: Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet”

Boston Area Poetry Readings for February and March 2018

Poetry to Beat the Winter Blues. Photo credit: Pom Angers via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

Enjoy the thaw while it lasts and go see some poetry before the snow comes back. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for these listings.

All readings are in Massachusetts unless otherwise noted.

New this week:

Anne Waldman in Cambridge (2/15)

Paula Bonnell, Tom Lyons, and Michael Todd Steffen in Somerville (2/20)

Elizabeth S. Wolf in Amesbury (2/27)

Philip Nikolayev and John Hennessey in Cambridge (3/3)

Jonathan Aibel, Ben Berman, and Wendy Drexler in Jamaica Plain (3/9)

Martha Collins and Joan Houlihan in Newton (4/3)

James Whitley and Maria Termini in Roslindale (4/24)

Barbara Siegel Carlson in Roslindale (4/26)

Matvei Yankelevich, Lisa Fishman, and Laynie Browne in Cambridge (5/5)

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for February and March 2018”

Craft Annotation: Poetic Line in the Work of William Carlos Williams

The poet Robert Hass says “the metrical poem begins with an assumption of human life which takes place in a pattern of orderly recurrence with which the poet must come to terms, the free verse poem with an assumption of openness or chaos in which an order must be discovered.”[1] This fundamental shift in the craft of poetry coincides with – and some would say arises out of – fundamental upheavals in Western civilization, most notably the erosion of traditional, rigid class systems that followed the World Wars.

If a poet abandons both rhyme and meter, how does she give a poem shape or music? What elements of craft remain, and what new tools must we create? Without meter, poetic line becomes one of the primary means of affecting a poem’s trajectory.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Poetic Line in the Work of William Carlos Williams”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Second Packet

Below is the cover letter for the second packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program. I was fortunate enough to work with Sharon Bryan that term.

Dear Sharon:

Receiving your feedback on the first packet was inspiring. It managed to set just the right balance between encouragement and challenge. I agree with you that I should focus on free verse line for the rest of the semester. I did want to try my hand at some forms I’d seen in Plath’s and Bishop’s writing – especially the aba / bcb tercets with long-short-long alternations in addition to the rhymes. They were forms I hadn’t worked with before, especially with the use of off-rhymes. It’s so easy to want to emulate the style and voice of the poet one is reading rather than applying some of their craft to one’s own voice.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Second Packet”

Poetry Reading: Heather Derr-Smith, Erica Charis, Frances Donovan, and Sonja Johanson

If you’re in Boston this weekend, come on down to the newly renovated Jamaica Plain Public Library on Saturday, February 3 for a poetry reading at 2:00 pm. Continue reading “Poetry Reading: Heather Derr-Smith, Erica Charis, Frances Donovan, and Sonja Johanson”

The Not-So Glamorous Life of a Working Grad Student

This website first came about in 1996, when the World Wide Web (yes, we called it that) was as wide-open and empty as the American West. Fresh out of Vassar with a degree in English and a middling aptitude for computers, I stumbled on a job for a website that forced me to learn HTML. Back then, all you needed to create a website was a text editor, some server space, and FTP software. If you were feeling really fancy, you got Photoshop and threw up some images too. I’d grown discouraged trying to break into more traditional print publishing, so posting my own writing on my own website seemed a great way to circumvent the endless cycle of applications and rejections.

Like most 20-somethings, I had no idea what I was doing. There were a bunch of other 20-somethings out there stealing sharpies and Xeroxes to make ‘zines, but I felt like I belonged to a small, elite group of people with the mix of technical, editorial, and design skills required to make a website.

Being able to say things like “I was doing that before it was cool” might be fun for a little while, but in the long run it doesn’t mean very much. What we now call blogs we used to call online diaries. No matter what you called them, they were homegrown, barbaric yawps in the wilderness. Major Media still wasn’t sure that this blogging thing was going to take off (that’s a direct quote from a VP of Public Affairs circa 2008). Continue reading “The Not-So Glamorous Life of a Working Grad Student”