Heather McHugh (b. 1948) was brought up in rural Virginia. She credits her early overwhelming shyness with inspiring, somewhat paradoxically, an intense pleasure in language: her reluctance to speak herself matched by her passionate attention to “every twist of tone and talk” in others. She wrote poems from the age of five onwards, making little books bound with ribbon and cardboard covers. Precociously intelligent, her early life is marked by an impatience to get on, to leave behind the restrictions of her country home. At 16 she applied to Harvard and was accepted, graduating cum laude. While there she attended poetry classes with Robert Lowell and had her first poem accepted for publication by The New Yorker, an event which she identifies as a turning point. Certainly she’s never looked back – her first collection, Dangers, was published in 1977 and by the time she was 35 her work was appearing regularly in all the major literary magazines such as The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly and The Nation. McHugh has remained prolific with six further collections appearing as well as a collection of essays and four volumes of translations. She’s also maintained a busy teaching career: she’s a frequent and popular Visiting Professor at the famous Writers Workshop in Iowa and is currently Millman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Her work is characterised by quick wittedness and dazzling verbal dexterity. Described by James Tate as a “wickedly astute critic of our times” McHugh casts a shrewd eye over human motivations. But she marries intellectual brilliance with a compassion “that is more nearly perfect for it has nothing to do with pity,” (Richard Howard). This combination of surface brilliance and emotional and intellectual depth is what marks her poetry out for praise: she has won many major awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the PEN/Voelcker Award for poetry. She’s been shortlisted for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer and her collection Hinge and Sign: poems 1968-1993 (1994) was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. She served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999-2006 and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Many of her central concerns and characteristic style can be sampled in these recordings. McHugh delights in language and its ambiguities, what one critic has described as “the split personalities of words”. Look for instance at the savage comic tone of ‘No Sex for Priests’:

“…Only God’simpervious – he’s deaf and blind. But he’snot dumb: to answer for it all, his spokesmen

aren’t allowed to come.”

This poem and ‘Man in the Street’ also demonstrate McHugh’s musical energy – a lover of jazz, McHugh has talked about poetry as a musical form: “Almost always I’ve seen some pattern. Then comes a rocking and a humming. I find language to document that play of patterns in the world.” But the depth is here too – for a poet who seems so fluent with language there is a dark fascination with the unspeakable, as in the broken English monologue of ‘Tornado’ in which the survivor’s guilt is mirrored in her fractured narrative. It’s in the wonderful longer poem ‘What He Thought’ that this preoccupation is at its most moving and troubling. Beginning with amusing social observation of American poets (herself among them) posturing their way through a reading tour of Italy, the poem deepens to a profound examination of “What’s poetry?”. This question, flung out for dramatic effect by one of the poets over dinner, is answered by their Italian host with the terrible story of Giordana Bruno, burnt for heresy in an iron mask so that he couldn’t move the crowd with his eloquence. The narrator’s conclusion that “poetry is what//he thought, but did not say” is a powerful expression of McHugh’s love of language and her investigation of its limits.

Her delivery of her work is spry and passionate. Her abilities as a reader have won her the International Poetry Forum’s citation for excellence in public reading. Listening to these engaged and engaging poems you can understand why McHugh is such a popular presence at literary festivals.


Her recording was made on 21 September 2007 in New York

Poems by Heather McHugh

After Su Tung P’o - Heather McHugh
Acts of God - Heather McHugh
Man in the Street - Heather McHugh
No Sex for Priests - Heather McHugh
What He Thought - Heather McHugh

Books by Heather McHugh


Two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts

Prize website

Griffin Poetry Prize

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Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation

Prize website

Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, University of Washington

Prize website

Witter Bynner Fellowship

Prize website

PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry

Prize website

O. B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize

Prize website

MacArthur Fellowship

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