To honor Heather McHugh, the winner of The Sewanee Review’s 2018 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, New Yorker poetry critic Dan Chiasson delivered a lecture on McHugh’s poetry at McGriff Alumni House.
Chiasson is a professor of English at Wellesley College and previously served as poetry editor of the Paris Review, but is also the recipient of a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship in addition to publishing several of his own collections of poetry.
Adam Ross, editor of The Sewanee Review, began the event by saying, “I’ll admit that my job is extremely fun, and this may be the most fun part of the job, to honor a great poet and then also to bring in a great critic to talk about that poet’s work.”
Introducing Chiasson, Ross called him “America’s most visible poetry critic.”
“It’s an honor to be here. If you spend a lot of time reading modern poetry, obviously you spend a lot of time imagining Sewanee, and in my case, somewhat accurately,” Chiasson said. “It’s just as beautiful and eerie and mysterious as I had imagined.”
Chiasson remarked that he had been wanting to write about McHugh for a long time and was grateful for the opportunity to do so now. McHugh is a decorated American poet who can now add the Aiken Taylor Award to her already full shelf of accomplishments, having won a MacArthur Fellowship, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry.
The lecture, titled “Foremembering Heather McHugh,” measured up to its subject.
“The job of the critic is not made easier by standing before his subject, presuming to know what to say about her to her,” Chiasson explained. He delivered a nuanced and complex criticism of McHugh’s work, referencing at several points a printed handout containing McHugh’s poems.
“Face is an important word here; a work of criticism is a kind of verbal face – from the Latin faciō, meaning to make, a face is a fiction, a made up thing, a fashioned thing.” Chiasson commented when discussing the relationship between criticism and poetry. “When you read a lot of McHugh, you start looking into words, hanging around them, asking questions about their backgrounds. No less is a poem a kind of face constructed from verbal features. These two faces could be said to be constructed with one another in mind.”
He continued, “Eliot’s line ‘a face to meet the faces that you meet’ suggests the paradoxes here. Poems could be said to be made according to their internalized sense of possible critical response or reception. Criticism, of course, is made partly to reflect back upon the reflections manifested by poems.”
Chiasson spent a lot of time reflecting upon McHugh’s concept of ‘foremembering’ – a portmanteau of ‘forget’ and ‘remembering’ – for which he named his lecture. “In McHugh’s work we find an apprehension of time, here a subject, there as medium, the shuttling between time as theme and time as vanishing oxygen or fuel for poetry,” he said. “Part of the problem is defining what we mean by the present when it relates to a work of verbal art.”
Time is a consistent theme in McHugh’s work, and Chiasson could have summarized his lecture in a quote he pulled from McHugh’s “Spot in Space and Time”: “Between the looking forward and remembering, it’s hard to find a moment for the present.”