Heather McHugh’s eighth book of poetry, Upgraded to Serious, offers verbal inventiveness that captures Internet-affected, technology-driven speech in 21st-century America. The book is well worth reading, even when its mostly cerebral wit becomes repetitive. Unlike Robert Frost, who dresses poetry’s intellectual work in characters, scenes, narrative, emotional depth, and dramatic tension, here the poems focus mostly on the narrator’s (namely McHugh’s) mordant humor. They speak on the page in McHugh’s often giddy intellectual voice. Overall, Upgraded to Serious makes witty, intricate poetry from technological modern urban and online American life.
McHugh’s giddy on-the-page voice gawks at, then explores, the world’s panoply. “Who Needs It” compares human articulation to a wave hitting a cliff. The poem then notes that the crashing is not ‘dramatic thunder’ if no one hears it. The poem then compares human speech to waves that no greater being hears. The poem imagines these human “waves” extending as sound waves into the universe. “Who Needs It” begins in skepticism about meaning beyond humanity. It ends positing that maybe humanity’s unique role is to articulate the “pulse” of this galactic “endlessness.” The poem seems to be an ars poetica also, meaning that McHugh’s poem is like that pulse entering galactic silence and endlessness.
In “Webcam the World,” McHugh merrily tackles the theme of lust for life. She contrasts it with the absurdity of documenting every single moment. The poem opens:
Get all of it. Set up the shots
at every angle; run them online
24-7. Get beautiful stuff (like
scenery and greenery and style)
and get the ugliness (like cruelty
and quackery and rue). There’s nothing
unastonishing—but get that, too. We have….
McHugh’s use of contemporary lingo is obvious. This choice includes presenting the raw number “24-7.” However, what makes this stanza flow is its use of 21st-century American vernacular with traditional poetic devices. Here is anaphora (the imperative “Get” / “Set” / “run” / “Get”). Here too parallelism (“scenery and greenery and style” / “cruelty and quackery and rue”). The stanza unifies a single idea. In closing, a rhyming couplet contrasts two thoughts. The couplet formally ends in rhymes “rue” and “too.” However, unlike a traditional couplet, McHugh end-rhymes the couplet in the middle of poetic lines. Further, the couplet does not actually end the stanza.
Further the anaphora here exists throughout, rather than at the traditional beginning of lines, as in Walt Whitman, for example. The stanza above also organizes rhythm metrically: It begins with the trochee stress of imperative commands (“Get”). The last three lines end in iambic ease: “and get” / “and quack” / “un – a – ston (an anapest) – ish – ing.” McHugh is a flexible, expert formalist, integrating these devices in Upgraded to Serious with technology-inflected English, and free-verse line breaks. It is quite good.
Sometimes this verbal inventiveness comes at the expense of meaning (as in “Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies,” No Sex for Priests,” and “Dark View”). For instance nothing in Upgraded to Serious gives context to the software terminology of the book’s title. Does the book’s title mean that McHugh has not been a serious poet until now? No. Nevertheless, the title has a pithy fun ring to it. However, poetry demands more than that from us.
When McHugh applies her phrase-making, verbal ingenuity to create meaning, her poetry drives a point home in a new way. For instance in “Webcam the World,” quoted above, the stanza ends: “We have.” This is ironic, because “Webcam the World” is about how we cannot “have,” except through documenting the moment. Taken to an extreme “24-7,” people lose this ability in the maze of infinite documentation. Memory must edit. So the stanza ironically ends “We have.” The next stanza humorously begins “to save it all.”
Likewise as a poet, McHugh sees her role as fundamentally retrospective. Her poems observe and record the present into poetry. Once poetry is created, the present becomes the past. In this sense, poetry too “Webcam[s] the World.” However, poets like McHugh clearly edit.
In “Postcocious,” McHugh compares her line-making to a factory or store “line item.” She compares the living and breathing “language / of the love of life” to her own, more distanced poetic language. Her love for poetic language, McHugh muses, has come at the expense of the language of life. The poem ends:
For me each item’s a line item,
each occasion an occasion for redress,
reclaiming, recompense, or rue. Given
time’s best gift, I’m always
scheming to return it.
As for the language
of the love of life—
when did my soul unlearn it?
In “Agape,” the poem notes that fast cars make it seem “I could fly like a god.” However, the poetic narrator remains an imperfect person “with a clue it was clay.” In “Unto High Heaven,” McHugh writes that “Most people trust in will / and dream of power.” These materially ambitious people, says that poem in contrast to biblical moralism, will “inherit” the world. This realism for McHugh underlines her mordant wit.
I only have scratched the surface of this book. McHugh is a professor at the University of Washington and in 2009 her life’s work garnered a prestigious McArthur “Genius” award. The poem “Who Needs It” in her new book fulfills such a reputation. McHugh’s earlier poetry, selected in Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993, offers too much academic jargon and obscure linguistic play, at least for me, to warrant it. Although the Library Journal compared McHugh in Upgraded to Serious to Emily Dickinson, McHugh’s verbal inventiveness in seemingly in-the-moment lyrics compares better to e.e. cummings. However, unlike the emotional and philosophical e.e. cummings, McHugh’s is cerebral poetry. Her stance is humorous wryness. Upgraded to Serious offers a verbally inventive wide-angle lens on modern, technological life.
Gregg Mosson is the author a book of nature poetry, Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River Press), and a book of poetry of social engagement and witnessing, Questions of Fire (Plain View Press). He recently edited Poems Against War: Bending Toward Justice (Wasteland Press 2010). He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and lives in Maryland. For more, seek http://www.greggmosson.com.