Heather McHugh’s work is noted for its rhetorical gestures, sharp puns and interest in the materials of language itself – her self-described determination is “to follow every surge of language, every scrap and flotsam”. Describing her work in the Boston Review, poet and critic Richard Howard alleged that “most of McHugh’s poems end in a spurt, as they proceed in a slather, of just such astonishment as is bestowed – afforded – by taking apart a phrase or a word that the language has crystallized below the tension of the lyre. McHugh thus reveals that there is signification beneath or within the surface of every move we make, of every phrase we repeat.”
Heather McHugh was raised in Virginia, where her father directed a marine biology laboratory on the York River. She entered Harvard University at age 17, and had her first poetry published by the New Yorker before entering graduate school at the University of Denver.
Reviewing McHugh’s book of new and selected poems, Hinge and Sign: Poems 1968–1993 (1994), Linda Gregerson notes that McHugh “loves the thingness of words – their heft, their shimmy, their slickness and burn – and she is a shameless fetishist”.
McHugh’s most recent collection of poems, Upgraded to Serious (2009) continues to follow the slippery, associative track laid in her previous works. The Village Voice Literary Supplement called her poems “open, resilient, invisibly twisted; part safety-net, part trampoline”. As its title suggests, McHugh’s eighth collection contains poems which tackle grave subject matter – often loss and detachment – but with her trademark quick wit and verbal dexterity intact.
Shine down or
shower forth, but (for the earthling’s sake) ignore
all prayers followed by against, or for. Teach us to bear
life’s senselessness, our insignificance, and more;
let's call that sanity.
(from ‘From the Tower’)
McHugh is also a noted translator, and in 2001 she and her husband the scholar Nikolai Popov won the Griffin International Poetry Prize in translation for Glottal Stops: 101 Poems of Paul Celan. The judges commented, “In Glottal Stop [ . . . ] Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov have achieved the seemingly impossible: more than translating Celan into English, they have found a way to translate English into Celan.” McHugh has also translated the Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova, the French Jean Follain and, with classicist David Konstan, Euripides’s play Cyclops (2001).
McHugh revealed to Contemporary Authors: “Where once the brightness of life and language sufficiently attracted me, now the darkness (full of ordinals but no cardinals) seems the greater calling. That may account for the shift in the tonalities of my work, as an increasingly fierce fatality preoccupies it. Spending a half decade working on Celan translations with my husband, scholar Nikolai Popov, has only deepened such preoccupations . . . I write for what I write from: love’s uncontainability.”
if by subject we mean anyone
submitted to another’s
will. Two if by subject we mean
topic. One if by death we wind up
(from ‘Philosopher Orders Crispy Pork’)
Heather McHugh has won numerous awards including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize, the Griffin Prize, one of the first United States Artists Awards, a Guggenheim fellowship and a Witter Bynner fellowship. In 2009 she was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant”. She has taught for many years at the University of Washington-Seattle, where she is the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, and as visiting faculty member in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.
Upgraded to Serious, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA, 2009
Eyeshot, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown CT, 2003 (shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize)
The Father of the Predicaments, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1999
Hinge and Sign: Poems 1968–1993, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1994 (selected as a National Book Award Finalist and named a “Notable Book of the Year” by the New York Times)
Shades, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1988
To the Quick, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1987
A World of Difference, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, MA, 1981
Dangers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, MA, 1977
(Translator) Euripides: Cyclops (introduced by David Konstan), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001
(Co-translator with Nikolai Popov) Glottal Stop: 101 Poems of Paul Celan, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2000
(Translator with Niko Boris) Because the Sea Is Black: Poems by Blaga Dimitrova, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1989
(Translator) D’Apres Tout: Poems by Jean Follain, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1981
Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1993
(Guest editor) The Best American Poetry 2007, Scribner, New York, NY, 2007
(Co-editor, with Ellen Bryant Voigt) Hammer and Blaze: A Gathering of Contemporary American Poets, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 2002
(Editor) Mitchell Toney, The Matter with Stairs, Lynx, Amherst, MA, 1986
Audio and videos
Essential American Poets: Heather McHugh podcast
Audio recording of ‘After Su Tung P’o’
Audio recording of ‘What He Thought’
Poetry Everywhere: animated video of ‘Space Bar’
Articles and interviews
Poetry magazine profile