Heather McHugh was born in California in 1948 and raised in rural Virginia. She entered Harvard University at the age of 16, where she took a seminar with Robert Lowell and had her first poem published in The New Yorker. “My whole work is to catch the word by surprise, sneaking up on language, sneaking up on the world as it lurks in words,” McHugh said. “I love the recesses of reason. That’s a great place to set my mind at rest.”
Exuding a love of language, wit, and observation, McHugh creates poems that are profoundly intelligent. Through the use of puns, rhymes, and syntactical twists, her work is an ongoing inquiry into the ways language can aid and impede participation in life. “I write because I want to find out what was bothering me . . . I’m not sure what it is that wants to be said, but I’m there to be its scribe,” says McHugh. “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.”
In her book The Father of the Predicaments (1999), McHugh takes her cue from Aristotle, who wrote that “the father of the predicaments is being.” The book opens with a long poem about a loved-one dying and the limits of speech: “What did she mean? All I can call upon/is words—unsatisfactory to say/the least—a nomen always aiming/for amen, a pupil meaning/well, pre-emptively.”
McHugh’s honors include two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 1999 she was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. McHugh is Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. She frequently teaches as Visiting Professor at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa and has held chairs at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Alabama, and the University of Cincinnati.
Selected WorkCyclops, Euripides, translation (2000)Glottal Stop: 101 Poems of Paul Celan, translation with Nikolai Popov (2000)The Father of the Predicaments (1999)Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, essays (1993)Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993 (1994)Shades (1988)To the Quick (1987)A World of Difference (1981)Dangers (1977)