Heather McHugh McHugh, Heather - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Dangers 1977

A World of Difference 1981

To the Quick 1987

Shades 1988

Because the Sea Is Black: Poems by Blaga Dimitrova [translator; with Niko Boris] 1989

Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993 1994

The Father of the Predicaments 1999

Glottal Stop: Poems of Paul Celan [translator; with Nikolai Popov] 2000

Eyeshot 2003

Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (essays) 1993

Cyclops [translator; from Euripides' play] (play) 2000

Dana Gioia (review date May 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gioia, Dana. “Eight Poets.” Poetry 140, no. 2 (May 1982): 102-14.

[In the following excerpt, Gioia notes the lack of depth in the poems comprising A World of Difference.]

When Heather McHugh published Dangers, her first book, in 1977, she was greeted by critics of all persuasions as an exciting new voice. There was nothing derivative or uncertain about her tough, worldly poems; and her brisk, witty style was a refreshing change from the morose, self-pitying tone of so many recent books. With her second volume, A World of Difference, once again she has proven that she is a poet to be taken seriously.

Despite its title, A World of Difference marks little change from her earlier book, not that in McHugh's case one would be anxious for too much change. She is still the poet of Dangers—with the same manic wit, the same brash, perceptive, and amusing manner. Like the earlier book, A World of Difference is made up entirely of short poems usually cryptic in tone and subject; the only noticeable change is a slight darkening in McHugh's moods and imagery. Here the emotional background of the poems (always blurred or half-hidden from the reader's view) seems more personal and painful, the subjects ironically more dangerous than in her first collection.

McHugh is never dull. Her poems move along with an unforced, conversational...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Michael Milburn (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Milburn, Michael. “The Habit of Affection.” Ploughshares 11, no. 4 (1985): 59-77.

[In the following essay, Milburn differentiates between poems he loves and those he merely admires, classifying McHugh's “I Knew I'd Sing” in the former category.]

People ought to like poetry the way a child likes snow, and they would if the poets wrote it.

—Wallace Stevens

Affection for poems is a personal thing, transcending time, fashion, and even friendship. We return less often to what we admire or approve of than to what we love, and there are surprisingly few poems which we will read again...

(The entire section is 7364 words.)

Fred Muratori (review date 15 May 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Muratori, Fred. Review of To the Quick, by Heather McHugh. Library Journal (15 May 1987): 87-8.

[In the following review, Muratori compares To the Quick to David Ray's Sam's Book.]

Despite differences in manner and approach, these two poets [McHugh and David Ray] share a need to reconcile their notions of fixity—the taking for granted of things one loves—with the truth of mutability. Ray's latest volume [Sam's Book] is a monument in words to a son who was suddenly killed at 19, leaving his father to conclude that “image is all we have”: snapshots, memories, poems. It's a dignified, plain-spoken book of mourning and remembrance that skirts sentimentality while forthrightly mapping grief's bare terrain.

[In To the Quick] McHugh employs irony, understatement, and wordplay (“We don't / know much, and are / professors of it”) to question our self-centeredness in a world whose proportions are far greater than we recognize. The title poem, for example, articulates the futile human propensity to fix time artificially: “On top / of the TV set I put / the baby pictures, meant to keep / the little person as he was, as still / as he could be. O man, o child, / we loved each other less / for how we moved / than how we stayed.” Unobtrusive and direct, more concerned with content than with aesthetics, both poets address common concerns in ways that could appeal to mass audiences.

Peter Harris (review date spring 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris, Peter. “Four Salvers Salvaging: New Work by Voigt, Olds, Dove, and McHugh.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 64, no. 2 (spring 1988): 262-76.

[In the following excerpt, Harris finds similarities between the poetry of McHugh and Emily Dickinson and briefly describes the development of McHugh's verse.]

The epigraph to Heather McHugh's To the Quick is a brief blues lyric from Emily Dickinson about the desire to flee from “the mind of man.” Although many American women poets, most notably Adrienne Rich, celebrate Emily Dickinson as an important precursor, few have actually matched wits with Dickinson or have tried to put as much pressure on...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 25 April 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993, by Heather McHugh. Publishers Weekly (25 April 1994): 66.

[In the following favorable review, the anonymous critic calls the poetry in Hinge and Sign “a testing ground of edges, allegiances and resistances.”]

McHugh (Broken English) is a cerebral writer whose thinking maintains a dialectical tension with her choice of words and forms—they challenge one another. How generic a description that sounds; and yet, McHugh is anything but generic. The words and forms? They tend to be jauntily fastidious, calling to mind something of the steeliness (and the corners cut, in fun and in earnestness) of...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Elizabeth Gunderson (review date 15 May 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gunderson, Elizabeth. Review of Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993, by Heather McHugh. Booklist 90, no. 18 (15 May 1994): 1660.

[In the following review, Gunderson contends that Hinge and Sign allows readers to appreciate the development of McHugh's verse over twenty-five years and “to witness the increasing strength and maturity of her voice.”]

In her first collection since Shades (1988), McHugh brings poems from four previous volumes together with a significant amount of new work [in Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993]. In a brief introduction, she writes that to be a writer with a reader “is rather like being, oneself, of two...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

Bruce Murphy (review date June 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Murphy, Bruce. Review of Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993, by Heather McHugh. Poetry 165, no. 3 (June 1995): 170-73.

[In the following excerpt, Murphy explores McHugh's use of language in the poems of Hinge and Sign.]

Heather McHugh's selection of a quarter century of her poems [Hinge and Sign] is a very fine book, so skip the poet's pretentious preface, which oversells the postmodern, deconstructive side of her work. The first of the “New Poems,” “What He Thought,” is certainly anthology-bound, though its simplicity is somewhat atypical. Over a dinner conversation in Rome, the question “What's poetry?” comes up. Speaking of the statue...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 26 July 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Father of the Predicaments, by Heather McHugh. Publishers Weekly (26 July 1999): 85.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic praises the best poems in The Father of the Predicaments as “comic and profound.”]

Bright rhythms, pointed rhymes and dazzling surfaces distinguish McHugh's poems, which tease their language to the ends of wit: “I tell you outright, / I'm a neitherer. But what are you? You are a bother.” McHugh's sixth collection [The Father of the Predicaments] follows her new and selected Hinge & Sign (a National Book Award finalist), and continues her pithily specific explorations of general...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Doris Lynch (review date August 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lynch, Doris. Review of The Father of the Predicaments, by Heather McHugh. Library Journal 124, no. 13 (August 1999): 98.

[In the following review, Lynch identifies the key thematic concerns of the poems comprising The Father of the Predicaments.]

National Book Award finalist McHugh tackles caregiving for a dying relative, the moon, love, the self, sex, and subjects not readily discernible in poems that focus too much on wordplay and too little on emotion [in The Father of the Predicaments]. At times her work moves toward parody, as in “Neither Brings Charges”: “When someone barks out / Author! author—thinking thinking's / in the wings,...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Jane Satterfield (essay date spring 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Satterfield, Jane. Review of The Father of the Predicaments, by Heather McHugh. The Antioch Review 58, no. 2 (spring 2000): 247.

[In the following favorable review of The Father of the Predicaments, Satterfield argues that “in this welcome fourth compilation, incidents of dramatic and seemingly random stature implode to reveal surprising insights.”]

“I have a secret theory,” said Heather McHugh, speaking of Ezra Pound's “The Lake Isle” to fellow poets in a recent Harper's Forum on poetry, “that most poets, at one time or another, write into their poems their own self-criticism.” Much of what McHugh finds worthy in this fractious...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Bruce F. Murphy (essay date January 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Murphy, Bruce F. Review of The Father of the Predicaments, by Heather McHugh. Poetry 177, no. 3 (January 2001): 279-80.

[In the following excerpt, Murphy notes McHugh's clever and often powerful use of language in The Father of the Predicaments.]

More than half a century ago Edmund Wilson argued in the essay “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” that “the technique of prose is inevitably tending more and more to take over the material which had formerly provided the subjects for compositions in verse.” Still timely is Wilson's comment that “the two techniques of writing are beginning to appear, side by side or combined, in a single work,” and that...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Peter Turchi (essay date spring 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Turchi, Peter. “About Heather McHugh: A Profile.” Ploughshares 27, no. 1 (spring 2001): 210-16.

[In the following essay, Turchi provides a biographical profile of McHugh and a critical analysis of her poetry.]

Heather McHugh is wired. She is also wireless (see laptop, below), wry, and webbed (spondee.com). She speaks in passionate flurries, seriocomic riffs that only begin to reflect her speed of thought. She annotates as she speaks, offering first and second answers, embellishing and revising and punning. Words are her sparks and her flame.

“As the world's shyest child,” she has written, “I was the one who never spoke in school but...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)

Robin Becker (essay date November-December 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Becker, Robin. “The Poetics of Engagement.” The American Poetry Review 30, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 11.

[In the following excerpt, Becker maintains that with her poem “Not a Prayer” McHugh “sets out to establish a theater of voices in crisis, and she succeeds.”]

Heather McHugh, a poet we associate with punning word-play and high-jinks, engages in a sobering tone in “Not a Prayer” from The Father of the Predicaments, a long poem in which the speaker describes the experience of caring for a beloved friend through her death. In many brief sections of verse and prose, McHugh honors one woman's end-of-life efforts toward speech and...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Diane Scharper (review date August 2003)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Scharper, Diane. Review of Eyeshot, by Heather McHugh. Library Journal 128, no. 13 (August 2003): 89.

[In the following review, Scharper elucidates the inventiveness of McHugh's language in the poems of Eyeshot.]

Invented words, surrealistic imagery, sexual innuendoes, quirky free associations of sound and sense sometimes suggesting profound truths: these are the hallmarks of McHugh's poetry. In her seventh book [Eyeshot], McHugh (a National Book Award finalist for Hinge & Sign) writes mostly about dogs, sex, night, death, and fireworks, creating a frenetic energy by breaking rules of syntax. She finds words within a word: “My one /...

(The entire section is 198 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 September 2003)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Eyeshot, by Heather McHugh. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 35 (1 September 2003): 84.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic views the poems of Eyeshot as a return to McHugh's “signature bravura and obsessive word play.”]

With an oeuvre that includes criticism (notably the 1993 volume Broken English) and a wide-range of translation (most recently, of Euripedes), McHugh here [in Eyeshot] returns to her own signature bravura and obsessive word play, focussing on the struggle of eye and mind, brain and body, to mediate the exacting details of an exquisitely overwrought world: “The mind is made / to discipline the eye...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Gregerson, Linda. “Among the Wordstruck.” The New York Times Book Review (23 October 1994): 3.

Contends that although a few of the poems of Hinge and Sign require more editing, the collection is a valuable contribution to contemporary verse.

Kirby, David. Review of The Father of the Predicaments, by Heather McHugh. The New York Times Book Review (30 January 2000): 17.

Finds the poetry in The Father of the Predicaments to be demanding and amusing.

McClatchy, J. D. “Wars at Home and Abroad.” The New York Times Book Review (17 April 1988): 34.


(The entire section is 177 words.)