Heather McHugh 1948-
American poet, essayist, and translator.
McHugh is one of America's most well-regarded contemporary poets. Critics commend her verse for its brash energy, humor, and imaginative use of language, and for her ability to transform mundane imagery into the complex and surreal. Her poetry has been compared to the work of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins and McHugh has been awarded several prestigious awards for her verse.
McHugh was born on August 20, 1948, in San Diego, California, but grew up in Virginia. A shy child, she began writing poetry at a very early age. She graduated from high school early, and entered Radcliffe College at the age of sixteen. After receiving her bachelor of arts degree in 1970, she began graduate studies at the University of Denver. In 1972, after receiving her master of arts degree, she was awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship and the first of her three NEA fellowship grants. In 1976 she became an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton. The following year she published her first collection of poetry, Dangers. In 1980 she was awarded a Yaddo Colony fellowship. A year later, her second collection of verse, A World of Difference, was published. She accepted a position as Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1983, and has been a visiting professor at several universities in the past several years. Her work has appeared in several prestigious periodicals, such as the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, the Nation, the Paris Review and the Atlantic Monthly. She has also garnered attention for her translations, such as a version of Euripides's Cyclops (2000) and Glottal Stop: Poems of Paul Celan (2000), which she completed with her husband, Nikolai Popov. She has received numerous awards and grants for her work, including a Guggenheim fellowship, the PEN/Voelcker Award, several Pushcart Prizes, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2004. She is also a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Major Poetic Works
Critics view McHugh's verse as a perceptive exploration of the human condition and contend that her poetry challenges the reader by creating a dialectical tension between her inspired choice of words and forms. She has been praised for her inventive use of metaphor, slang, and wordplay, as well as for her ability to transform mundane images into complex and meaningful ones. For example, in “The House” a mysterious home at twilight becomes a metaphor for a painful past. McHugh's poems also challenge an individual's sense of self-centeredness in a wide, enormous world. Her poem “Spot in Space and Time” reflects on people's obsession with self and their exaggerated self-identity. Many of her works discuss language and the loss of love. In “A Point of Origin” a crying baby on a plane represents the speaker's pain at a failed relationship. In “Not a Prayer” she summons every bit of her poetic talent to express her grief on the death of an important maternal figure in her life, the cellist Raya Garbousova. Critics laud the maturation of her poetic voice, commending the increasing strength and power of her later work.
Upon the publication of her first poetry collection in 1977, McHugh was acclaimed as an exciting new voice in American poetry. Her bright, witty verse was welcomed as a refreshing contrast to the morose tone of other contemporary poetry. Today McHugh is viewed as a modernist and a cerebral writer, and is widely praised for her imaginative use of language and metaphor, particularly her use of invented words, surrealistic imagery, irony, unusual metaphors and word games, and sexual innuendo. Some commentators, however, question whether this creative wordplay is too clever and disguises a lack of substance and emotional depth in her work. McHugh has often been compared to Emily Dickinson, and critics maintain that the two poets share a love of wit and a playful use of language.