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.

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”

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”

Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme

Photograph of a fish, subject of a famous poem by Elizabeth Bishop

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes discusses rhyme within the context of repetition. This element of craft goes far beyond the end-stopped pure rhymes (mop/top) most people associate with poetry. Rhyme can be any kind of repetition of sound: slant rhymes (month/up); internal rhymes (the loud cloud growled); alliteration, consonance, and assonance (“tremendous fish,” “speckled with barnacles,” “coarse white flesh”); repetition of words, or repetition of entire lines.

Elizabeth Bishop uses all these techniques. Rhyme runs through her poetry like a subtle thread: always there, but not often when or how it’s expected. Even her prose poems (“Rainy Season: Sub-Tropics”) contain internal rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and assonance: “My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back, the wake of a ship, a wax-white water, or a slowly melting floe.” One can also interpret the overlap of events in these prose poems as a kind of rhyme. In each piece, the titular animal speaks but portrays the same encounters from a different perspective: “Beware, you frivolous crab,” says the toad. “And I want nothing to do with you either, sulking toad,” says the crab. “Cheer up, O grievous snail. I tap your shell, encouragingly,” says the crab. “What’s that tapping on my shell?” asks the snail.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme”

Boston-Area Poetry Readings for January and February 2018

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

In my unbiased opinion, the one must-see reading this winter is happening on Saturday, February 3 at 2pm. Come see me (Frances Donovan), Erica Charis-Molling, Sonja Johnson, and Heather Derr-Smith read for free at the newly renovated library in beautiful Jamaica Plain.

Others might argue that honor goes to Nikki Giovanni (!) at Brookline Booksmith on Friday, February 2.

Also a shout-out to Regie Gibson and the other fine poets performing at the Gwendolyn Brooks tribute this Saturday, January 13 in Lexington, Mass.

All readings are in Massachusetts.

Friday, January 12, 7:30 pm
Alan Smith Soto, Tim Suermondt, and Pui Ying Wong
Loring-Greenough House
12 South Street (across from the Monument)
Jamaica Plain, MA

Saturday January 13, 3 pm
Chris O’Carroll and David Davis
Powow River Poets Reading Series
Newburyport Public Library
94 State St.
Newburyport, MA

Saturday, January 13, 4 pm
Tara Skurtu
Porter Square Books
25 White Street
Cambridge, MA

Saturday, January 13, 7:30 pm
Contemporary Poets Celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks
Nancy Boutilier, Robert Carr, Jennifer Clarvoe, Tom Daley, Regie Gibson, Krysten Hill, Dorian Kotsiopoulos, Julia Lisella, Kathy Nilsson, Sabrina Sadique, Lloyd Schwartz, Joyce Swagerty, Cammy Thomas, Jonathan Weinert
Munroe Saturday Nights series
First Parish Church
7 Harrington Road
Lexington, MA

Wednesday, January 17, 8 pm
Valerie Duff and Musical Guest
Unearthed Song & Poetry
Home.stead Bakery & Cafe
Fields Corner
1448 Dorchester Ave.
Dorchester, MA

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

The Martha Collins Race Trilogy

Cover art for three books of poems by Martha Collins: Admit One (in red), White Papers, and Blue Front

I first met Martha Collins at a seminar on taboo at the Mass Poetry Festival. Sharon Olds read a poem about testicles. Jill McDonough read a poem that included a line about a stripper’s “perfect pink asshole.” And Martha Collins read a poem about race. It was the Collins poem that made me the most uncomfortable. I’ve spoken about race plenty in conversation with people of color, but for a white person to initialize the discussion seemed uncouth in a way that frank talk about sex is not.

Collins read from White Papers, the second in a trilogy about race in the United States. White Papers focuses on the poet’s own recollections of race growing up in the Midwest and living in New England. Blue Front is a book-length poem that spirals around a brutal lynching that her father witnessed in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois. Admit One uses the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which her grandparents attended) as a jumping-off point to speak about “scientific racism,” the eugenics movement of the 20th century, and the continuing legacy of racism in the United States. Continue reading “The Martha Collins Race Trilogy”

Boston Area Poetry Readings for October and November 2017

Poetry and all that jazz

All readings are in Massachusetts unless otherwise noted. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for compiling these listings, and to the fine  organizations that make possible many readings to be found in and around Boston. If you have an event not listed here, please leave details in the comments.

Thursday, October 12, 5:30 pm
Gregory Pardlo
McCormack Family Theater
70 Brown St.
Providence, RI

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for October and November 2017”