Let’s be crass at the outset. A half a million dollars. Five hundred thousand bucks,  in quarterly installments of $25,000 for five years. That is enough security to stop a sculptor of stanzas in her tracks, but there is no question that it will most likely just help the iconoclastic poet Heather McHugh to keep on keeping on. (Editor’s note: Short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, 63, another iconoclast and icon, has also received a MacArthur and will be profiled in the coming days.) No doubt, for McHugh (seen at right in a photo by David Belisle) that keeping on will involve staying one or two steps ahead of anyone who wants to figure her out.

A news story about the MacArthur grants said she’s “a poet known for her syntactical twists.” The grant press release described her as “a poet whose intricately patterned compositions explore various aspects of the human condition and inspire wonder in the unexpected associations that language can evoke.” Another said she was known for puns.

Try as they might, reductionist descriptions of a woman who entered Harvard at age 16, running from a rural Virginia home life of outhouses and parents on the outs with one another, will only help to obscure the view of her. Because she does not want to be understood.

This poet-now-acknowledged-as-genius has been explaining us to ourselves ever since publishing her first poem in the New Yorker at age 17  (she has said she chose the New Yorker for her first poetry submission because “I knew that it was my escape and I knew I better choose well if I wanted escape”). But she has said of herself, “I don’t want to be known. To me, being known is the loss of liberty.” No wonder that among her trademarks are ambiguity and an ability to use words to mean other than the obvious.

There are so many examples of so many stunning feats of poetic graces and gymnastics among the poems of Heather McHugh. To see some of them, visit Poets.org, where you can read examples of her work. Or better yet, run out and purchase Hinge and Sign, her National Book Award Finalist collection. At Poets.org you can also hear her recite this one heart-stopping piece. It is offered here not so much as what is typical of this MacArthur Genius, but as a window into her humanity, her devotion to her genre, her belief in the muse and her desire to offer solace to all those who want to understand more than what others walk past.

We could not be happier about this moment in time, a moment when a shy and startling woman stepped off the page into the bright lights of an accolade that will allow her to slip back into the world where she does what she does so dazzlingly well. It’s a good day for poetry and for everyone who cares even a little bit about the most honorable people who devote their lives to it.

What He Thought

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does “flat drink” mean? and the mysterious
“cheap date” (no explanation lessened
this one’s mystery). Among Italian writers we

could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic —
and least poetic — so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn’t
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

“What’s poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?” Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think — “The truth
is both, it’s both!” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty,

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. “If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world.” Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry —

(we’d all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly) — poetry

is what he thought, but did not say.

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