What He Thought
for Fabbio Doplicher

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 (what’s
cheap date, they asked us; what’s
flat drink). Among Italian literati

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
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown)
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 into 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 of 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 offense against
authority, which is 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’s
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.

 

Heather McHugh’s “What He Thought,” from the National Book Award finalist collection Hinge & Sign (Wesleyan, 1994), is a narrative poem that shows its speaker becoming more and more tangled in her own false pride and flawed thinking before undergoing an epiphanic reversal. In that, it bears similarities to much classical drama and modern and contemporary fiction. It is also an ars poetica, fitting neatly in the tradition of poetic treatises on poetry by Horace, Archibald MacLeish, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others. Although McHugh has taught at University of Washington since 1983 and has been held up by Jay Ladin in Parnassus as “a stellar example” of an academic poet (3), this narrative ars poetica doesn’t feel like a professor’s lecture about what she already knows. Rather, by making the poem’s speaker a poet who seems very much like herself, and then having the speaker get schooled on the art of poetry by a mild-mannered administrator, McHugh makes herself vulnerable, throwing her entire prior body of work into question and positioning herself as someone with as much to learn from the poem as any undergraduate who reads it. So not only does the poem contain an epiphanic turn, it promises to actually be an epiphanic turn in the poet’s career, a turning away from one kind of poem that comes easily to her and toward another, more difficult, more powerful, kind of poem.

“What He Thought” adheres reasonably closely to Freytag’s Pyramid, more so than many short stories and novels. It begins with exposition, in which we are introduced to characters (a group of Americans filled with their “sense of being / Poets from America”; their European “counterparts: / the academic, the apologist, / the arrogant, the amorous, / the brazen and [closest to home] the glib”; and one administrator, “the conservative”); a setting (Fano, Italy); and a dominant tone (convivial, lighthearted). There is also some foreshadowing that hints at the epiphanic recognition and dramatic reversal to come. In lines two through four, the expatriat literati are described as “full of our feeling for / ourselves (our sense of being / Poets from America).” On first reading, this could appear to be lighthearted self-mocking, in keeping with the playful tone: “(what’s / cheap date, they [the Italian poets] asked us; what’s / flat drink).” But by putting these lines in past tense, McHugh distances the poem’s speaker from that preening former self and hints that she is recounting an incident that altered her sense of what it means to be a poet. The fact that the Italian administrator will be the vehicle for this lesson is foreshadowed in the third stanza: “Of all, he was most politic and least poetic, / so it seemed.” Alert readers will understand that the speaker is getting ready to reveal how much she had underestimated both the administrator and the job of being poetic.

At this point the conflict has been introduced. It is a classic man-versus-self conflict. The speaker remembers being self-satisfied, cocksure about what it means to be a poet, and close readers will see that the Italian administrator is about to disabuse her of her shallow views about poetry. In the fourth stanza, a minor character, one of the speaker’s American colleagues, pushes the narrative forward into the climactic scene by asking the assembled poets for a definition of poetry, whether it is “the fruits and vegetables and / marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or / the statue there?” This prompts a slapdash response from the speaker:

                           . . . 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.”

Two things jump out at me in this passage, and both of them make me inclined to break the perennial Workshop rule against conflating a poet and her speaker. The lines “But that / was easy. That was easiest to say” echo something McHugh said in a 1981 interview with Richard Jackson, editor of Poetry Miscellany. Responding to a question that Jackson asked about the use of puns in her first book, Dangers, McHugh said “The cliché is the word or phrase that comes to mind without its body; it’s the easiest thing to say and forget to see, or say you see and forget actually to look at” (95) [italics mine]. By the time that Hinge and Sign was published, this notion of avoiding saying what is easiest to say had been knocking around in McHugh’s brain for at least a dozen years.

Perhaps McHugh is too hard on herself when she says “I was the glib one,” but even supportive critics of her work have noted that her poems are frequently hindered by the quick reach for puns and other wordplays. Reviewing Hinge and Sign for Boston Review, Joshua Weiner writes “Sometimes her jokes overkill” (5), and Langdon Hammer, reviewing the book for The American Scholar, speculates that McHugh might receive greater recognition if she were not so witty, asking rhetorically “How can we take her seriously if she won’t stop cracking jokes?” In Parnassus, Jay Ladin observes that McHugh “can’t wait to hustle to the next pun – to pause would be to sacrifice the snap-crackle-pop of her cleverness” (7). I think the reason that I am so drawn to “What He Thought” is because I have sometimes felt like my own poems were hindered by the rush to glib wordplays. After reading my MFA thesis in 1996, Carolyn Kizer sent me a very kind but honest letter telling me “you are too clever by half” and that, like the speaker of “What He Thought,” I needed to “avoid doing what comes easiest” to me.

By using an epiphanic narrative structure, McHugh is able to carry on an argument with herself (as Yeats says poets must do) about the art of poetry while employing characters to represent the different parts of her thinking process. The use of narrative, uncut by verbal irony, is itself a departure for her. As Ladin writes, “the self-consciousness that fractures most of McHugh’s poems into over-freighted phrases forestalls any sense of narrative, bleeding or otherwise” (10). In “What He Thought,” McHugh’s mania for logopoeia is restrained as the poet gets out of the way and lets the resolution powerfully unfold.

In an essay on Robert Creeley, McHugh has written that “the finest turns are also the subtlest” (9). While this might hold true for Creeley’s poetry, I wonder if holds true for epiphanic narratives. I think of the sudden tonal shift in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after the family car overturns and three escaped convicts step out of a hearse-like vehicle, rifles in hand. Prior to that, readers of the story had been lulled by the story’s relatively serene tone, notwithstanding the various details hidden in plain sight (passing a town called “Toombsboro,” a roadside family burial site, numerous mentions of The Misfit) that foreshadow the story’s dark turn. Similarly, in “What He Thought,” the turn from a lighthearted discussion about poetry to something much more serious seems to happen suddenly and is not at all subtle.

The narrative’s resolution and the great turn in the poem comes when the Italian administrator, “the conservative,” the “unprepossessing one,” the group’s “underestimated host,” tells the group “with a rising passion” that the statue commemorates Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth-century astronomer and friar who was burned at the stake for religious heresy and forced to wear an iron mask in order to prevent him from inciting the crowd with his last words. I defy you to come up with a better definition of poetry than the one McHugh arrives at in the poem’s closing lines:

                             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.

This notion of poetry as the things we think but are unable to say has also apparently been knocking around in McHugh’s brain for a long time. In her introduction to The Best American Poetry 2007, she states, “I began to read and write poems because in company I constantly misspoke” (xvii). In a Ploughshares profile, Peter Turchi states that McHugh began writing poetry at age five, and quotes her as calling herself “the world’s shyest child,” for whom “writing proposed a fellow listener, though things seemed quite unspeakable” (216).

In the first week of every poetry writing class that I teach, we discuss various definitions of poetry, such as Matthew Arnold’s “the most beautiful, impressive and wisely effective mode of saying things”; Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order”; and Mayakovsky’s “a journey to the unknown.” Many poets have resorted to metaphors as a way of defining poetry, including Carl Sandburg’s “Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits”; Robert Crawford’s “Poetry is language at its most nourishing. It’s the breast milk of language”; and of course Emily Dickinson’s famous statement, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” With all due deference to Dickinson and the others, when my students and I workshop poems, the most common question that we ask is whether or not the poem rises to McHugh’s standard: is this poem true to what you might think if you were being tried as a heretic, forced to wear an iron mask and thus denied the chance to say your last words? Never mind that my students rarely reach that standard in their work. Never mind that I still tend to be too clever by half in my own poems. Never mind that critics of McHugh’s later books, such as The Father of the Predicaments and Upgraded to Serious, can point to places where she says what’s easiest for her to say. Even Franz Xaver Kappus, in his introduction to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, admits that “life drove me off into those very regions from which the poet’s warm, tender and touching concern had sought to keep me” (13). In “What He Thought,” McHugh, through the conservative Italian administrator, plays Rilke to her own Kappus. While many poets become successful by writing a particular type of poem and then stick to that kind of poem for the rest of their careers, McHugh, in “What He Thought,” boldly attempted to re-invent herself as a poet, and I deeply admire her for it.

 

Works Cited and Consulted

Gregerson, Linda. “Among the Wordstruck.” New York Times Book Review 23 Oct. 1994. 3-7.

Jackson, Richard. Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. Tuscaloosa: The University of                  Alabama Press, (1983): 93-100.

Ladin, Jay. “Heather McHugh and the Schooling of American Poetry.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review. 29.1                  (1995): 120-137.

Langdon, Hammer. “The Crux of the Matter: Heather McHugh.” The American Scholar. 75.3 (2006): 41-42.

McHugh, Heather. The Father of the Predicaments. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1999.

- - -. Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1969-1993. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

- - -. Introduction. The Best American Poetry 2007. Guest Ed. Heather McHugh. Series Ed. David Lehman.                  New York: Scribner, 2007.

- - -.“Love and frangibility: An appreciation of Robert Creeley.” American Poetry Review. 26.3 (1997): 9-16.

- - -. Upgraded to Serious. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2009.

O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Houghton
Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1953.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. New York: Norton, 1934.

Turchi, Peter. “About Heather McHugh.” Ploughshares. 27.1 (2001): 210-216.

Weiner, Joshua. “Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993.” Boston Review. October/November 1994.

 

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Tom C. Hunley is an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University, the director of Steel Toe Books, and the bassist for the litcore band Manley Pointer. His most recent books are a textbook called The Poetry Gymnasium (McFarland & Co., 2012) and Annoyed Grunt (Imaginary Friends Press, 2012), a chapbook of poems in the voices of characters from The Simpsons. His work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Five Points, Poetry Daily, North American Review, and The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor.

Heather McHugh, “What He Thought” from Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993 © 1994 by Heather McHugh. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.