Heather McHugh’s Poetic 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.