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.

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”

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”

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”

Boston-Area Poetry Readings for November and December 2017

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

Poetry can bring a little light and warmth into these cold, dark evenings. Go get you some.

Thursday, November 2, 6 pm
Douglas Kearney and Tracie Morris
Edison Newman Room, Houghton Library
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

Thursday, November 2, 6:30 pm
Barbara Siegel Carlson
Carver Public Library
Carver, MA

Thursday, November 2, 7 pm
Simone John and Ruby Poltorak
Rozzie Reads Poetry and Open Mic
Roslindale House
120 Poplar Street
Roslindale, MA

Saturday, November 4, 3 pm
Vietnam vet Marc Levy
Book reading/Short film
VFW Hall
95 Derby Street
Salem, MA

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

Boston Area Poetry Readings for September and October 2017

Poetry readings lie thick as apples on the ground. Thanks to poet Daniel Bouchard for gathering them into one basket for the rest of us.

Friday, September 8, 7 pm
Zvi A. Sesling, Gloria Mindock, and Len Krisak
Brookline Booksmith
Harvard Street
Coolidge Corner, Brookline, MA

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

Mass Poetry Festival on the Horizon

A few months ago, Mass Poetry flattered me by asking me to be a regional representative for Suffolk County. If you have a poetry group or event in the Boston area that is open to the public, please feel free to add a comment with your information, or fill out my contact form.

Here’s a brief round-up of happenings at the 2017 festival,  just two weeks away, Friday to Sunday, May 5 – 7, in Salem, Mass.

This year’s headliners are: Louise Glück · Eileen Myles · Kazim Ali · Andrea Cohen · Cornelius Eady and Rough Magic · Ross Gay · Rigoberto González · Aimee Nezhukumatathil · Emily Pettit · Tom Sleigh · Dara Wier.

Tickets are $20 General Admission, $7 Senior or Student, with a $10 additional fee to attend any workshops over the weekend.

Check out the full schedule, get all the details on venues, and purchase tickets at the Mass Poetry website.

Boston Area Poetry Readings for April 2017

April is National Poetry Month, which means the already vital poetry scene in the Boston area kicks it up to eleven. Start off the month with the Boston National Poetry Month Festival and wrap it up with the Mass Poetry Festival in Salem. In between take your pick from all the events listed below; with so many talented poets from Boston and beyond, it’s hard to go wrong with any of them. A few shout-outs:

This coming Monday, April 3:

  • Nicole Terez Dutton, Regie Gibson, and other luminaries give the second in a series of panels on African American Poetry at the Copley BPL. I attended the first one and found it very inspiring
  • Fellow Lesley poet Eileen Cleary appears that same evening at Newtonville Books with PoemWorks
  • Jill McDonough reads at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge.

Also of note:

  • US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera appears Thursday, April 6 at Harvard
  • My former workshop-mate Grey Held reads from his second book of poems on Friday, April 7 at Chapter and Verse in Jamaica Plain
  • Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges appears Thursday, April 27 at Rozzie Reads in Roslindale.

Saturday, April 1, 7:30 pm
“Singing the Body Electric”: Contemporary Poets Respond to Walt Whitman
Linda Bamber, Nancy Boutilier, Robert Carr, Christine Casson, Amy Clark, Jennifer Clarvoe, Steven Cramer, Tom Daley, Regie Gibson, Joan Houlihan, Dorian Kotsiopoulos, Julia Lisella, Jonathan Weinert, Gail Mazur, Lloyd Schwartz, Theodora Stratis, Joyce Swagerty, Cammy Thomas, Daniel Tobin, and Rosamond Zimmermann
Munroe Saturday Nights at First Parish Church
7 Harrington Rd.
Lexington, MA

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for April 2017”

Boston Area Poetry Readings for Late March and All of April 2017

March is the cruelest month, breeding
ice out of vindictive snow, frosting
wintry mix with freezing nights, forcing
whimpers from our dull mouths.

But at least there’s April — National Poetry Month — to look forward to.  As usual, there’s a convocation of poets at the end of the month in Salem for the Mass Poetry Festival on May 5-7. If you’re feeling like too much of an introvert for a mini-AWP though, you can attend one of the readings below instead.

All venues are in Massachusetts unless otherwise noted. If you have an event in the area not listed here, please feel free to leave the information in the comments. Posts are moderated.

Sunday, March 19, 2 pm
Frannie Lindsay and Lynne Potts
Brookline Poetry Series
Brookline Public Library Main Branch in Brookline Village
361 Washington St.

Sunday, March 19, 2 pm
Celia Gilbert, Ruth Lepson, and Ethel Rackin
Cambridge Public Library
449 Broadway

Monday, March 20, 7 pm
Kathleen Ossip
Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for Late March and All of April 2017”