Monday’s Poem: ‘As Authors Can’t Perfect One Agent,’ by Heather McHugh


First . . .


As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.


Heather McHugh’s transliteration of Sonnet 23 (“As an unperfect actor on the stage”):


so e-agents can’t perfect an author.
His art (howbeit swapped shut) is his fire—
a high truth, gloom-free writ, or some centerpiece—
whose hint (torn watchband) reawakens hugenesses.

Stuff for oratories?  Go after toys!
Refer thy competence to lovers?  Fie!
I mind no neglected systems, nor wave one hat.
(Wired for e-thought, two moving hem-lines branch.)

Queen bee, yokel tool—both scent hem.
Best pass as underbred, my king of rampage.
Download Homer.  Look for pen of clever apes—
(Heather-thoughts:  Hot art department… No more exams…)

Twitter HELLO earthward, to vanish alone.
Fetish’s vow is now to be:  all heterogeneity.


©  by Heather McHugh.  Printed by permission of the author.

Heather McHugh (thug charm, he-he) does language sports in the Pacific Northwest. A 2009 MacArthur Fellow, she teaches intermittently at the University of Washington in Seattle and at the MFA Writing Program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C.  She’s starting a nonprofit (CAREGIFTED) to give away (to long-term full-time caregivers of disabled family members) week-long vacations in spectacular settings in Washington State and Downeast Maine.

The Chronicle’s poetry blogger, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:  The anagram—which involves rearrangement of the letters in a word, phrase, or sentence to produce another word, phrase, or sentence using the original letters only once—is a centuries-old form of language play.  Anagrams are often employed to create pseudonyms (the Romanian poet Paul Celan, for example, created his surname from “Ancel,” a version of his original name, Antshel).  In other instances, anagrams are intended to reveal some sub-textual or intuitive truth about the original subject text.  For example, Wikipedia offers as examples “George Bush = “He bugs Gore” and “Tom Marvolo Riddle” = “I Am Lord Voldemort.”  “Chronicle of Higher Education” can be anagrammatically translated to “No Chute Cliché for Head Origin.”

A host of free online anagram generators now makes it easy to have fun with the form, but if there is a living poet who is capable of coming up with a legion of witty, pithy anagrams without resorting to technological engines, it is the remarkable wordsmith Heather McHugh, who has been practicing what she calls extreme “language sports” for decades, in poems of formal experimentation, exultant wordplay, and inventiveness, as well as in piercingly astute essays on contemporary poetry and poetics.  Attuned to etymology, measure, punning, stereoscopy, materiality, the economies of whole and part, and the mathematics of fraction and sum, McHugh’s work dazzles the reader with its daring and fearless intimacy with language, our uniquely human gift.

McHugh’s “As Agents Can’t Perfect One Author,” a line-by-line anagram of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23 (“As an unperfect actor on the stage”), “reliterates” and talks back to Shakespeare’s themes with a feist to match Shakespeare’s own.  In sonnet 23, we see Shakespeare, himself a consummate linguistic acrobat, taking up some of the rhetorical plaints and modes we have come to expect in his love sonnets.  Like an “unperfect” actor, he posits, whose fear keeps him from adequately playing his part, or a being so overcome with rage that “his own heart” is weakened and unable to perform, the speaker (“for fear of trust” and “o’ercharg’d with burthen of [his] own love’s might”) is guilty of neglecting to adequately pronounce, to speak aloud, his love to his lover (one senses that his lover may have whinged a bit about this).  The poem is a plea for the lover to value his “books” (that is, what he, the poet, has written, perhaps in plays, certainly in the sonnets themselves) over his own unspoken words, perhaps his sexual performance, and, importantly, over the spoken words of any rival (“that tongue that more hath more express’d”).  Shakespeare’s concluding couplet commands that the lover “learn to read what silent love hath writ: / To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.”  My writing, Shakespeare woos, is better than his talking any day.

One subtext of Shakespeare’s sonnet, of course, is that the culpable, even slightly anxious or insecure speaker would like to be seen and preferred both as speaker and as writer.  He wants to be “seen” in and for his words; he wants to be loved for them. McHugh picks right up on this, moving her sonnet into the postmodern realm of vexed, fluid agency, the elusive otherness of any notion of a fixed self, and the particular slipperiness of identity afforded by electronic media.  Her anagrammatic re(l)iteration embraces and challenges Shakespeare’s speaker’s anxieties by challenging the significance of any one, preferred, perfectable poet or poem, lover or loved one, agent or reader.

“Agents,” of course, offers a play on agent as actor, as subject, as well as agent as purveyor of literary texts. McHugh’s title and line one are both anagrams of Shakespeare’s first line, and in these two lines alone McHugh manages to address several questions at the heart of the literary enterprise, especially in our time and with regard to publication: Is there such a thing as a perfect author? Or just one perfect author? Or any author at all? In the especially shifting realm of cyberspace and on-line “publication” (perhaps more like Renaissance manuscript circulation and scribal publication than the intervening decades of print and book culture), can any one author or maker or purveyor of texts be determined? Importantly, how is this all related to the matter of love and to the pitching of one’s woo?

One senses that at least one intended reader for McHugh’s sonnet is Shakespeare, and in a way her poem is offered as a consolation.  Never mind, she intimates, that oratory and “high truth, gloom-free writ,” however clever, might miss the mark or go unheard.  One might as soon pursue toys as harbor that illusion. And why compare one’s own “competence” to that of other lovers? “Fie!,” she exclaims, moving into her manifesto: “I mind no neglected systems, nor wave one hat. / (Wired for e-thought, two moving hem-lines branch.)” I love McHugh’s spin on Whitman’s “I contain multitudes”—she is both “Queen bee” and “yokel tool,” full of paradoxes and many selves (especially rich is her tangent into a suddenly downloaded, fourth-wall-breaking and meta “heap of / Heather-thoughts: / (“Hot art department … No more exams … ).”  The self is not promiscuous, but manifold and paradoxical (“Twitter HELLO earthward, to vanish alone”). Just as Shakespeare’s lover-poet wants, synaesthetically, to be heard with eyes, to be both lover and rival, text and reader, McHugh eschews the idea of any fixed economy of self, of agent or author: “Fess now all vows to be,” she urges. “Hit hetero- / geneity.”

In “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For,” just one of the essays that make essential reading in McHugh’s Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Wesleyan, 1993), what McHugh says of Dickinson also applies to Shakespeare’s early modern speaker and to McHugh’s own postmodern one:  “Dickinson’s poems don’t argue the coincidence of opposites; they embody that coincidence, in acts of poised equivocation. Here equivocation is the greater truth. … It makes no sense to seek the point of such a poem; one’s work as a reader is to hold the more-than-one (and often, more importantly, the more-than-two) in mind—to be of many minds.” I love how these poems of “many minds” speak to one another across the centuries.  When Shakespeare implores his lover to “let my books be then the eloquence / and dumb presagers of my speaking breast, / Who plead for love, and look for recompense”—when he wants to be self and other—one feels the truth of McHugh when she writes, in the Dickinson essay, “these interpretive branchings (channeling for consistency), begin to resemble the alternative pathways of computer programs. What is amazing about them is both their zeroing in and their zeroing out; the readings made available tend to cancel each other, but the sum is an astonishing set of potentials.” What does it mean to play in the fields of language if not to keep vital this astonishment, this susceptibility to manifold potency and promise?

(Illustration by A.C.K. derived from a public-domain portrait of Shakespeare at Flickr/CC)

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