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Profile of ‘Genius Award’ Winner Heather McHugh

September 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A profile of Seattle poet Heather McHugh, who was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship on Tuesday.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally, another in our ongoing series on poets and poetry. Tonight, Heather McHugh. She was just today awarded a MacArthur fellowship, popularly known as the genius award. McHugh is author of more than a dozen books of poetry, translation and essays.

Her newest collection, “Upgraded to Serious,” will be published in November.

HEATHER MCHUGH, poet: My name is Heather McHugh. I live in Seattle, and I take breaks in glorious Victoria, B.C.

I have always lived on waterfronts. If you live on the edge of an enormous mountain or an enormous body of water, it’s harder to think of yourself as being so important. That seems useful to me, spiritually.

My father was a marine biologist. There’s something of that gene in me, probably, to study the creatures that move in fluent, fluid ways.

"Who Needs It"

"Who Needs It"

"If language could be trusted to be true,

the hardest would be loudest, as the soft is soft.

But think again: the joke's on you.

Against a granite face, the sea has knocked for years

without much fuss or brouhaha,

just here and there a little cracking sound,

a suck in a pocket of cranny.

But give it a load of beach-flesh

and you'll never hear the end of it:

the pumps in full palaver with the valvers,

every sound resounding, pound for pound.

You'd think slap-happy waves might hush

at such soft-sanded touches.

On the contrary, there is a cardiac clamor,

a sumptuousness, a roaring into space.

The ocean's noisiest around the giving place.

But what's the message of our massing,

past these minuscules of parts?

Is it a song of manyness or tinyness?

This suburb-reverb spilling out,

gregarious, egregious, from the globe,

does it go on for light-years,

and convulse the quietudes of Heaven?

Wake some star-shells? Stir some dulse?

My guess is, yes,

since endlessness needs us to take its pulse."

The paradox of poetry

If you look around the surface of the water is never the same any two moments, much less any two days. Any skyscape is never the same. You can't possibly see it all. We narrow meaning down to make our meanings of it.

For me, the whole point of poetry is to liberate the larger sense. The great paradox of poetry is it's the smallest unit of language you can make that releases the greatest number of readings. That's what it's for, if you ask me.

As soon as any powerful linguistic category occurs in me or attracts me, its opposite also attracts me, because, I mean, life is only defined by its relation to death. Inevitably, you explore it. It is the way I love life, is to make sure I'm on some kind of civilized terms with death.

"The Gift"

"The Gift"

From underwater you can't see

a thing above: a sun, or a cloud,

or a man in a boat. You see

the bottom of the boat.

But everywhere below it--

flocks of glitter, brilliantly

communicating schools.

Calm translucencies in groves, a sway

of peaceful flags. Above is only

impassivity -- reflective lid.

So why look out?

No out exists.

And so we've lived above it all instead,

our feet on the ground, our head

in the clouds, until the fifty-seventh month

of her life's underlife (a mindless blind

metastasis of cells) and then we sent each other

messages by e-mail, sudden, simultaneous,

because of dreams. In hers, the ancestors

were waiting, just across a lake, but she

found no equipment in her

circumstances of canoe.

The paddle on the water

drifted far and

farther off. She saw it

touch my boat, she said.

She saw me shove it back, across the surface,

safely to her hand, so she could get

where she'd be found.

Dear god, give me

a faith like that.

In my dream we both drowned.

JIM LEHRER: You can watch Heather McHugh read more of her work on our Web site, newshour.pbs.org. Also there, you'll find past NewsHour reports on two more of this year's MacArthur winners: a conversation with novelist Edwidge Danticat and the story of journalist Jerry Mitchell and his reporting of civil rights-era murders.