Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

12. Heather McHugh

With Heather McHugh, the place of the region’s literature becomes every place else as well. She has a home in Maine and a home in Seattle, and she is peripatetic in any given year. Still, she is in this anthology for the best of reasons. She influences the region by her remarkable teaching; because of her work, the region’s students and readers see a poetry of dislocating perspectives. If regionalism places language, holds it to its ground, McHugh’s contribution to the region’s language is to put a pin in locals’ ballooned locutions and break apart the words for what’s up around here. She has dual citizenship in Canada and in America; her parents are from Victoria and Vancouver, B.C. This duality is embedded in Heather McHugh's thinking.

When a McHugh poem seems read, read it again. Her short poem “Fast” shows how McHugh “makes language itself seem to think.” It goes fast, but one should read it slow.


If he’s the rock, then I’m the water.
If he’s the water, I’m the wind.
If he’s the wind, I must be moonlight
driven in wavelengths to rock.

(McHugh 1999:30)

There's enough rich landscape here for you and me both.  What makes the poem worth mining is the worth of each faceted word. “Fast” is speed, “fast” is held down, “fast” is time for taking nothing in, for being filled from word and not by bread alone. (And then there’s “rock” as stone and “rock” as roll.) The title, for one, is three in one, so if you tell the poem you want its one true core you might get hurt—though this discovered hurt is “locable moreorless where God used to be; but you must remember how illocable that is” (McHugh 1993a:2.) Read with its words mined, the poem becomes a hymn to how much we are in need and how much we’re needed, how much we move to another and how much we’re privileged to hold.

For the eager Northwesterner, McHugh writes poems of place. “The Size of Spokane” (McHugh 1994:36) is one, and there’s a dog-romp through Seattle’s Gasworks Park in “Past All Understanding” (McHugh 1999:23), but hers are, mostly, poems that range around the vast interior. Reading Heather McHugh takes one inside and out, up and down, as high as heaven and back to earth, as in her poem “Not So Fast”: “(The lightest blue is heaven’s kind / of founding oxymoron.) It’s not there / for us to understand; it’s there for us / to be looked down on through…” (McHugh 1999:58). Regionalism is inevitable, but it’s collectively strange—where are the borders, and who’s calling and from where?

But back to what gets done by the poet McHugh when she teaches. She’s been the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington since 1983. She’s also been on the core faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers since 1976, and she’s visiting professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley at this writing. She’s taken her teaching all over and her books go where they will. But in class, on the poet’s papers, she’s right there. And her attention, like Roethke’s, Wagoner’s, like the great list of U.W. et al’s, she pores over the writer’s work. “More economy,” “Too much prepositionality,” “Yes! Knock-out good,” “I can imagine many ways of reading this but all seem unduly contrived. One is left merely wondering what it means to mean,” “Remember, Elizabeth Bishop once went through her entire work deleting dependent ‘that’ clauses.” “Do teeth hang?” “When your poem’s done, check your last lines to see if that’s where your idea really begins” (McHugh 1993b). Such attention rubs off and McHugh’s attendees are primed to pass it on.  Just so, the region benefits.

With Heather McHugh, there can be strong attachments. Local sentiment is a forgiven given. But “Poetry of place,” she says “bores me: it takes place too literally.” (McHugh 1993a:1) That’s the knock to use when entering a region’s language. Don’t order the over-easy sentiment, use the natural rhythms, and look smartly for the erratic, the broken, and the glint in the immigrant’s eye.

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