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Accounting for Taste, with Heather McHugh

A fresh new interview with Heather McHugh

Accounting for Taste, with Heather McHugh

Interviewed February 21, 2016


Photo credit: Ashley Gross

Photo credit: Ashley Gross

Heather McHugh is the author of Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (a collection of essays) and of many volumes of original poetry and translation.  She has taught poetry and literature for more than 30 years at the University of Washington in Seattle and at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College near Asheville NC.  In 2009 she was named a MacArthur Fellow in poetry, and in 2011 she conceived and established, a nonprofit organization giving acknowledgement and respite to unpaid long-term caregivers of the severely disabled.

Frederick Speers: Before we talk about other poems and poets, and your various (dis)tastes for various works over time, I want to talk a little bit about what appears to me to be a deep-seated love of grammar and rhetoric in your own writing.  Compared to other poets who also work with rhetoric, I’d say yours is a rhetorical grammar: Rhetoric (logos, pathos, ethos, etc.) and style (grammar, usage, mechanics, etc.) are inextricably combined in your writingthere’s a linguistic tension with an artful twist in every line, and not just in poems that are clearly about language itself, like “Window: Thing as Participle,” which was one of my first favorite poems, but in nearly every poem of yours, your language is acutely self-aware. Would you agree?

     Heather McHugh: I'm a fiend for grammar and for rhetoric. But that doesn't mean I'm some kind of proscriptive pinch-nose reader.  What poet doesn't want to see language used in amazing new ways?   I'm perfectly flexible about lexical changes where the existing locutions are merely inefficient or redundant.  Paul Valery said that, for a poet, there's no such thing as a synonym; but in practice, there are more and less efficient ways of referring to one and the same thing, depending on people's purposes.  Even "their" instead of "his or her" seems forgivabledespite the loss of specificity in numberinsofar as it seizes a quantitative advantage in its genderlessness over the discredited genericization of "his."  I myself often continue to use "his" for general human referencenow that SO many make it "her."  If we're going to choose a gender to refer to, I still prefer to let  "his" yield half its meaning for the sake of the women's inclusion, rather than have "her" lose half its reference for the sake of men.  (Ha!)   

FS: Good point. And it does seem that recently the world has come around to the singular “they”; it’s not just linguists who are talking about it.

     HM: I have a fierce inclination to defend the right of some words to continue to exist, against the tsunami of people's misuses of them:  "I have literally eaten his shit for months" makes the thought of the literal far more distasteful than any Bible-thumper can.  I'm also finicky about "decimating":  we have a perfectly good word for the warfaring proportions it means to slam us with:  "devastating."  Decimating, by contrast, does NOT mean laying utter waste; nine out of ten escape it, and the precisions of its calculation might suggest the fineness of the fight.  And on another front:  you want a judge disinterested, but not uninterested…. but these are not quite grammatical concernsrather concerns about lexical change and usage.

FS: So, for you, what’s the role of rhetoric in poetry?

     HM: Rhetoric is a noun even teachers of poetry have been known to sling around, of late, with casual malice:  let nobody forget ALL POETRY "has" RHETORIC.  The question is how sensitively it's administered.  If we think of rhetoric only as a blunt instrument, something taking only the adjective “empty”, basely employed by self-interested parties alone, we lose the chance to make a lot of finer discriminations at more significant depths of discourse.  At our most fearful or foolish, our passions are monolithic; those I cherish the most DO let light insidewind in silk webs, bridges in bones…  (I notice that the prevailing of marketing over meaning often entails these losses.  “Optics” now is being understood much more narrowly than it was.)  Rhetoric is the shape of the animal in motion:  the way a language moves.  It is by figures of speech that figures of thought are shared.  Chiasmus has a crossroads in it.

FS: What sources do you draw from for inspiration, what academic or generative references do you turn to, or which draw you back again and again, that you would also recommend to writers interested in sharpening their own rhetorical/grammatical skills?

     HM: I don't read secondary sources much.  They seem to come between me and the joy which otherwise (as feathering or curve, accumulation or assault) is all-but-palpable in language.  I'm bored by theories of rhetoric; but fascinated by examples of it.  How study at length the attitudes of action in an animal? Even if he's dead? Look at the works of Vesalius, or Muybridge. These are the syntacticians of the carnal frame.  As art and science share the same excitements,  heart and hand must educate the head.

I usually ask my students (or did, when I had them) to look at reference works on the classical tropes.  Some colleges & universities keep such sites onlineToronto and Victoria have them, as I recall, and Rutgers.  I like the ones that offer up rhetorical examples in English (though we are indebted chiefly to Classics Departments for such reference sections).  I'd never have deepened my pleasures in the logic of linguistics, had I not delighted first in the architectonics of the figures (both of speech and of thought).  Weeping, she married; she divorced with a grin.  Ya gotta love the CHI in that!  (or to put it another way, the X).

The greater the passion, the greater must be the precision with which you exercise it.

FS: Speaking of passions and precision, in Jam Tarts, we often talk explicitly about literary tastewhat we we like, dislike, and why. What’s your take on this subject? Can you tell us something of your own tastesand distasteshow they’ve developed over time?

     HM: I’ve lately been presuming to redeem a few writers I was unable properly to appreciate when I was younger.  But I wound up stuck as ever in the push-and-pull of some magnetic field I'd always gravitated under, not just gravitated to: The thrall you're sucked into becomes your own imprisoning; perhaps your own ingenious and wickedly lonely insight winds up googled into gagaland, and copywritten into academia's clichés; your freedom gets officiated into something like a license, which the next authority can take away.

As soon as I had learned to read, I gobbled down my mother's Palgrave and imbibed my father's limericks, adored my teacher's Norton and revered my grandparents' King James—and more:  I studied languages to read some things in the original then studied metaphysics to relieve some others of originality.  

Of seekers on this comely earth I found myself of all souls most unfathoming and numb towards four of English poetry's most venerated: those were Milton, Whitman, Blake and Pound.  Thereafter every seven years or so, attempting to repair my sins, I'd visit them again, and find myself unmoved.  

FS: Why do you think that was? What do you think was missing from these four poets’ work?  And did your dislike change over time?

     HM: I see the curve, as I look back.  The first I could convert was Pound.  (I turned him into lire, maybe, having gone to Italy.)  I took an interest in Ez (who hated usury); and found his best abuses disabusing. Looking to his youth instead of rattling at the later cage, I found a curious amusement:  young curmudgeon.  There in Lustra I could find his curses funny, and his crankiness a common ground. I saw some footwork I could fancy—even in the fevers that would trouble almost all America till now.  The man could pick a quarrel.  He wanted to investigate a fray, not keep the far remove.  He was a city rat.

FS: A “city rat”? Some people might think that’s an insult; others might consider that a compliment!

     HM: Who else than Pound could be so deeply of two minds about a William Yeats, that walking likeability of lilts and lays?  And he and Pound were early pals—but Ezra found a way to mock him nonetheless.  Here's Yeats' poem that supplies the epigraph for Pound's:

The Poet Pleads With His Friend For Old Friends

Though you are in your shining days,
Voices among the crowd
And new friends busy with your praise,
Be not unkind or proud,

But think about old friends the most:
Time's bitter flood will rise,
Your beauty perish and be lost
For all eyes but these eyes.

     HM: Compare old Ez (below) to that sweet thought!  These two, who share a common age, still stand a world apart.


        Old friends the most. – W.B.Y.


                  To one, on returning certain years after.

You wore the same quite correct clothing,
You took no pleasure at all in my triumphs,
You had the same old air of condescension
Mingled with a curious fear
                That I, myself, might have enjoyed them.
Te Voila, mon Bourrienne, you also shall be immortal.



                To another.
And we say good-bye to you also,
For you seem never to have discovered
That your relationship is wholly parasitic;
Yet to our feasts you bring neither
Wit, nor good spirits, nor the pleasing attitudes
    Of discipleship.



But you, bos amic, we keep on,
For to you we owe a real debt:
In spite of your obvious flaws,
You once discovered a moderate chop-house.

     HM: The instrument of victory with Pound is ridicule. Remember Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree?  (All nature-lovers love it.)

FS: (Naturally!) I believe everyone reads it in schoolbut the poem’s sense has eluded me for many years.  Here’s the poem:  

Lake Isle of Innisfree

by W.B. Yeats


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

     HM: Unless you harbor in your heart some serious malice towards the decorative adjective (perhaps I do, myself) you’ll hear the charm of this romance.  Only the saltiest love might bring to a Yeats rehash the vinegars Pound does. Here’s Pound:

The Lake Isle

by Ezra Pound


     O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxes piled up neatly upon the shelves
And the loose fragrant cavendish and the shag,
And the bright Virginia loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales not too greasy,
And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.

     O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop, or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing, where one needs one's brains all the time.

     HM: And yet there is, in this corruption of the song, not only comedy but something like humility.  How could the grown curmudgeon in me NOT, on finding these, go on to grant Old Ez a glance or several more.

FS: I admit, I’ve loved and hated Pound, the poet, over the years. But his poetry itself has nearly always been persuasive or at least intriguing to me. And by intriguing, I mean that even if I don’t like the poem at first glance, I later feel compelled to re-read it. And sometimes, then, even find pleasure in having hated it before, but now liking it, somehow.

     HM: There's a larger and indomitable -- maybe quite genetic -- ingenuity in human enterprises:  Aversions can convert.  I'd never hurt a human soul, but still I love the lacerations Pound so roundly metered out.  There on the curtain's other side was suddenly not OZ but EZ—no priest in a confessional, but some satirical roué.   If I thought I was bad, I saw, I had to lot to learn from these bad boys.

FS: So, were there others besides “bad boy” Ezra Pound?

     HM: The second of my own resistances to fall was Whitman.  It had been as hard for me as for the critics in his time to admit to my own private pantheons such Messianic high self-services as Whitman’s are:

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from;
The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer;
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body or any part of it.
— Walt Whitman, from "Song of Myself"

     HM: That’s enough to send me screaming into the hills.  In 1909 Pound himself had written of such claims to poetry:

He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. He does ‘chant the crucial stage’ and he is the ‘voice triumphant.’ He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplished his mission…
— Ezra Pound, on Walt Whitman

     HM: Later Pound would change the temper of his tune:

A Pact

by Ezra Pound


I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.


HM: I myself had mistaken Pound for some mere scornful Europhile and stuck-up pedant.  But in this turn-about of his, the dado-craftsman thanks the sawyer; here in this “Pact” the lawyer can forgive the log.  I had myself mistaken Walt for something sloppier, a Sandberg of a sort, too long on patriotic gush, too easy on the amplitudes.  I'd seen only the bombast, not the wit, in Whitman; only the penny-ante pedantry in Pound.  How wrong can one beginner be? For Whitman's own acuity one day would ambush me.

The Dalliance of the Eagles

by Walt Whitman


Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,) 
Skyward in the air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles, 
The rushing amorous contact high in space together, 
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel, 
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling, 
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling, 
Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull, 
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing, 
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight, 
She hers, he his, pursuing.

HM: The gestural sequenceskirting, dalliance, and interlocking fall—then  poise, the moment's lull, the twain yet one—and finally, breathtakingly, the upward slant of separate diverse flight—the whole poetic curve of relativities makes one dynamic trigonometry. Best of all, that last line—with its trope of fine distinctions marked by the discretion of two commas, each (she hers, he his) in full pursuit of their distinctnessgives me an eye for Whitman's overarching sky, its grander gestures AND its subtler ones; and as I searched for other flashes of it, I found more instances to anthem and adore:

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman


When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 

HM: Much of my initial resistance to Whitman derived from his proclaimings:  trumpeted announcements, pounded gates.  Mine was a visceral recoil from decibels of rhetoric.  It mattered little that the two men's politics were antithetical. To my ear, those two dispositions (full of drumrolls and declaiming decibels) were megalophonies—haranguing where alluring wasn't possible.  What Pound had once regretted in Whitmana want of restraint and reticence—I too regretted.  But Whitman's clear capaciousness of feeling and instincts for formhis big-winged, hard-driving and continental drifts of gestures—do dynamically set up the finer featherings, the flight details.

In the "Learn'd astronomer" piece, what moves us most is the almost palpable grandness of silence that befalls the lecturer, the darkness that reveals the true dimension of the brilliances, the uncontainable that will admonish all accounts.

FS: Would it be fair to call their poetry “acquired” tastes, then?

     HM: There's much in taste that our own age bequeaths us—whether age is marked in eras or in years.  I was avid for art well before I developed any taste for satire or for allegory. Pound's fate in my regard was sullied by the venom of his vehemence in politics.  (In me, it was no matter of an economic theory, but of my own post-war milieu.  For Pound, of course, would find his home in Mussolini's Italy, and would oblige right-wing authority so far as to broadcast such rants as the US considered treasonable.  If he went nutty there in Pisa, those weeks suspended in a spotlit cage, it was the just desserts of his own raging darknesses.) But it was I myself who never read him deeply.

FS: So it sounds like the poetry, or some poems, if not the poets themselvesfrom Pound and from Whitmaneventually found a place in your reading life. 

     HM: Never until now, I swear, have I been known to whisper these misgivings to a soul; I always liked my jobs.  But now I've nothing left to lose in that regard.  In any case, to my relief, as I prepared to tell you this, I did discover estimable souls who had some misgivings similar to my own, about William Blake. His first biographer, one Alexander Gilchrist, dedicated [to the subject] one whole chapter of Life of William Blake, a chapter titled ‘Mad or Not Mad’.  

FS: ‘Mad or Not Mad.’ Interesting question. Is it binary? Can you say he was both? It would seem Blake, like Whitman, contained opposites within their multitudes.

     HM: There is, for me, a powerful pleasure in poetry—a pleasure best released by language that’s designed to say two mutually-resistant things at once.  Perhaps it’s what Heraclitus called the back-bends of the bow (or, he adds, the lyre):  the more you pull back on it, the farther it can go in the opposite direction.  

They do not understand how, though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and lyre.
— Heraclitus


So Heraclitus says.  Another way to say it:  war, like art, will co-instantiate its own opposings.  The “unity of opposites” he’s still associated with continues to engage and perplex philosophers and artists, thoughtful hearts and feeling minds.

FS: We seem to have arrived be the root of the matter, some kind of high-strung, intertwining of opposing tastes.

     HM: Perhaps the most compact form of this attraction as I experience it:  the single word whose two meanings seem incompatible with each other. Self-antonyms, antagonyms or contronymscall them what you like, their glorious instances include the following (among others).

  1. Sanction can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."
  2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.”
  3. Left can mean either remaining or departed.
  4. Dust, seed, and stone are nouns turned into verbs, meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it?  (It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.)
  5. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. You can trim a tree by adding something to itor by pruning it.
  6. Cleave can be cleaved into two “homographs,” words with different origins that end up spelled the same. “Cleave,” meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. “Cleave,” with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something),"  as you might do with a cleaver, comes from a different Old English word, clēofan.*
  7. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. “Resign,” meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as “resign,” meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.
  8. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in "running fast," or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in "holding fast." If colors are fast they will not run. *
  9. Off means "deactivated," as in "to turn off," but also "activated," as in "The alarm went off."
  10. Weather can mean "to withstand," or it can mean ‘to be worn away’.

FS: This is a great list. It seems we’ve moved beyond the root of the matter into the molecular domain. Can we go further? What do you think are the animating forces within these words? And are there any artists whose work in particular that you think exemplifies these internal contradictions?

     HM: Contraries of all kind bear each other some magnetic intimacy: Feeling and thought, soul and body, female and male, refinement and rapaciousness, civilization and wilderness, life and death, and so forth. Human affinities tend to draw together human opposites: What's sex if not the charge between incursion and embrace?

Artists have always known the most delicious insights are conceived from the coming together of a kilo of cogitation and a kick of incarnation. The tertium quid is seldom what we thought or felt it had to be. Here’s Emily Dickinson's 769:

One and One—are One—
Two—be finished using—
Well enough for Schools—
But for Minor Choosing—

Life—just—or Death—

Or the Everlasting—
More—would be too vast
For the Soul's Comprising—

     HM: Comprising means, literally, "taking together" and so serves as a synonym for the arithmetic procedure of sums; and the root is identical with that of "comprehending."  But the soul's concern with something comprehensive is complicated by our knowledge that “greatness” in any of the soul’s senses isn't merely additive. One and one are one is an admonitory math, the spirit’s math.  (It recalls as well the Christian trinity, the three-in-one, the mystery of whose numbers is, as Dickinson knew well, both endlessly debated in hermeneutic hallways, and instantly apprehended in the courts of the heart.)

And there's an important opportunity to read the second stanza's conjunctions non-disjunctively:  one can construe the word “or” not only to distinguish mutually exclusive entities (rain or shine) but also to link synonymous ones (“the president, or Mr. Obama”). In other words, “or” can mean “in other words”—and it shifts our focus from exclusionary acts to varieties of naming.  

That poets cleave to such linguistic sites—places where for example the same term can mean different things—or where instead of narrowing meaning down the term opens it up, is no accident.  A poet is likely to love the law of the letter over the letter of the law.  But that doesn’t mean his instruments are not precise.  Quite the contrary:  his means are most continent when his meaning is least containable.  

In the world of Minor Choosings one chooses one’s minor—that’s the merely academic truth of criticism—which cuts one thing from another.  In that sense a student signs on for one thing or another; he sorts and specializes. If taxonomically you are engaged in sorting things into opposites—if, say, you barricade life from death and both from the everlasting, construing them handily mutually exclusive, then the soul’s comprising is precisely to that extent delimiting.  But the moment you construe Life and Death and the Everlasting to be coterminous, and construe the “or”s between them not to disjoin but to conjoin, then “just” can change its flavor too—shifting from the meaning “merely” to some less derogative senses--"just” can mean “precisely,” for example, as in "just so"—or “just” can mean “fair” or defensible, as in "just cause."  

“Just” can also mean “only” in more than one way!  There’s the “only” that means “merely” (in that case “life” and “death” alike seem counterpoised to “The everlasting more”)…  but there’s also the “only” that means “alone”—Life taken by itself, like death taken by itself, or the Everlasting considered on its own—in that sense, more than any one of those three on its own would be too much for the soul to comprehend.

But the powerful impression is that the cutting of life from death and both or either from the everlasting is preposterous.  A sense of tonal register arises from each of the syntactical opportunities latent in readings here.  It all depends what you hang your modifications on.  Dickinson designs a linguistic architecture in which several senses of words and syntactical re-arrangements can come alive—and permit the reader some romping-room.  If you see Dickinson as half-ruefully adding the modification “just” to “Life”—or the modification “more” to "everlasting"—then you see that she’s smiling, in the same wry reader-writer gesture of intimacy Beckett arranged for readers of the stage directions to a play in which the door is supposed to be  “imperceptibly ajar”).  Like “more everlasting” this Beckett stage direction “Imperceptibly ajar” cannot precisely be staged:  in the taxonomies of spiritual and perceptual life alike, it rather draws our attention to the comedies of verbal accounting itself.  When Beckett actually attended one performance and the stage director (under pressure) couldn’t stop doing his nervous adjustments of the aperture of the door—an inch? a quarter-inch?  two inches?—Beckett stepped up behind him and whispered: “The door should be shut.”

FS: I love your reading of this poem. Thank you for sharing this with me and with our readers.