Three To's and an Oi
Three To's and an OiIntroduction
"Three To's and an Oi" is in Heather McHugh's 1999 poetry collection, The Father of the Predicaments. The title of the book comes from a line in "Not a Prayer," one of the other poems in the collection: "The father of the / predicaments, wrote Aristotle's translator, is being." In "Three To's and an Oi," McHugh focuses on death and language, referring to the story of Cassandra, the woman to whom the god Apollo grants the power to see the future but then curses with the burden of never having her accurate predictions believed. The play Agamemnon, by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525–456 b.c.e.), depicts Cassandra as knowing that she is about to be murdered and wailing "otototoi." The title "Three To's and an Oi" refers to words that do not seem to be in the poem, but they appear in this focal word, "otototoi." The presence of the "to's" and the "oi" is obscured because the "oi" is broken up, so that its o comes at the start of the poem and its i comes at the end. The poem questions why translators felt the need to render this cry "woe is me," when it is clearly just the sort of emotional outburst, or "baby talk," that people use when meaningful words are not adequate.
For years, McHugh has been one of America's most celebrated poets, with a list of major honors and awards that few poets could ever approach. In "Three To's and an Oi," as in most of her poetry, McHugh combines a rich sense of language and culture with a sly sense of humor, working a basic premise and its ramifications while more and more associations come to light. Using a delicate and deliberate style, McHugh takes the poem from dread to love, from infancy to maturity, from Aeschylus to the Bible, and from emotion to definition, all within a few short lines.
Heather McHugh was born on August 20, 1948, in San Diego, California. She was raised in rural Virginia, where she was a shy child who began writing poetry at the age of five. She was also a natural scholar, breezing through high school and graduating early with academic honors. She entered Radcliffe College at age sixteen. While she was at Radcliffe, the New Yorker accepted one of her poems for publication. McHugh graduated from Radcliffe in 1970 and received her master of arts degree in English literature from the University of Denver two years later. Financial support from a MacDowell Colony fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts enabled McHugh to work on her first poetry collection, Dangers, which was published in 1977. Several collections of poetry followed. "Three To's and an Oi" is from McHugh's 1999 collection, The Father of the Predicaments.
In 1976, McHugh took a position as associate professor of English at the State University of New York, Binghamton, where she stayed until 1982. At the time, she was in her early thirties and having her work published regularly in such showcases as the New Yorker, the Nation, the Atlantic, and the Paris Review. McHugh moved to Seattle, where she became professor of English at the University of Washington in 1983 and was teaching as of 2005. She also became a Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington.
McHugh became a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among her numerous awards were a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and Yaddo artists' community, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, several Pushcart Prizes, and the PEN/Voelcker Award. McHugh was a finalist for the 1994 National Book Award for Poetry for Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968–1993, which won the Boston Book Review Bingham Poetry Prize and the Daniel A. Pollack-Harvard Review Prize. McHugh's collection Eyeshot (2003) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. In addition to her work as a poet, McHugh earned critical praise for her work as a translator, working sometimes with her husband, the scholar Nikolai Popov.
of crying was
otototoi … They translate it
o woe is me, but really it's
less graspable than that—it isn't Greek for 5
nothing, all that stuttering in tones … When things get bad,
we baby-talk. In throes of terror in the night,
when dreads cannot be turned aside
by presences with promises, or dronings of a long
erroneous lullaby, or shorter story lines— 10
of which the lines themselves
have given rise to fear—we wake up
in Cassandra's kind
of quandary. There's been
some terrible mistake. 15
We're all about to die.
Each whiplash of a girl, each eddy of a boy
comes reeling back from too much sheer
towardness—clarity from cataract—only to be
drawn in, again: 20
into tomorrow by today,
into the tune by gondolier,
into the two by two who turn
the bow toward torrents of veyz mir.
"Three To's and an Oi" starts by mentioning Cassandra, a figure from ancient Greek mythology. Cassandra is the daughter of Priam, the king of Troy. Apollo is in love with her and gives her the gift of foretelling the future. Cassandra rejects Apollo, however, and he condemns her to always having her prophesies misunderstood by the people to whom she tells them.
The poem refers to Cassandra's cry in Agamemnon. In the play, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, returns to Atreus, his father, after the conquest of Troy, bringing Cassandra as his concubine, a battle prize. As soon as she steps into Agamemnon's palace, Cassandra knows that she will die there. Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, is already plotting to kill him. Cassandra cries out in fear, but the chorus interprets her fear as caused by not understanding the Greek language and her agony as grief for those she has lost in the war. Although it sometimes is translated "woe is me," Cassandra's cry also has been written "Aieeeeee!" Because Aeschylus wrote in ancient Greek, translations are left to the discretion of the translator and often are inexact.
In lines 5 and 6, McHugh gets to the point of the poem—the duality of language. She points out that the meaning of Cassandra's expression is not as specific as "woe is me"; it is "less graspable than that." At the same time, though, her cry is not meaningless: "it isn't Greek for / nothing." That the sound Cassandra makes is not rich in meaning should not be thought to indicate that it is entirely meaningless.
The poem explains situations under which speaking with phonetic sounds rather than identifiable words might be expected. In times of "terror" and "dreads," for instance, one cannot be expected to form ideas into rational thought. People revert to childhood at such times, which the poem generalizes as times when things go bad, and speak in baby talk, or the half-formed language that relies as much on sound as on meaning.
"Presences with promises" are those that have no current meaning themselves but are important because of what they imply. McHugh uses the word "promises" rather than "implications" to indicate that the emotion hidden behind the sound is important and worth delving into. Mentioning a lullaby refers to the baby talk of the previous stanza. It reinforces the idea that the unstructured language of adults in crisis is the same as the language a baby tries to form out of emotion and sound. In this case, though, the language is not a startled exclamation but a soothing one, like a parent singing a lullaby to calm a baby while knowing full well that the child cannot understand the meanings of the words. With "shorter story lines," the poem moves away from sound and toward meaning. The lines of a story are combinations of words and sentences, but they have to be held back from being too complex.
The "story lines" referred to in line 10 are not short by their nature. They have been abbreviated by fear, cut down from what they would naturally have been. Line 12 mentions waking up, returning the thought to the direction in which it starts in line 7, setting the situation for these feelings as occurring in the middle of the night, when one's logical defenses are at their weakest.
To be in a "quandary" is to be poised in an uncertain position with no clear course of action presenting itself. The quandary refers to Cassandra's inability to find words sufficient to express the horror that she knows is coming. Although the cause of Cassandra's predicament is clearly identified in ancient myth, McHugh notes that the problem is not simply one of a legendary person. Myths tend to resonate to modern times because they describe the human condition. Mirroring the earlier mention of shorter story lines, the lines of the poem become noticeably narrower starting with lines 13 and 14 and continuing with the next two lines.
- McHugh is one of the writers featured on a 1992 recording by the Academy of American Poets called Heather McHugh and Gerald Stern CD. Robert Pinsky introduces both readers. It is available on audiocassette and compact disc.
- McHugh is included on "Distance Was the House in Which I Welcomed You": Seven Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, recorded by the Academy of American Poets in 2003 and available on compact disc.
McHugh ends the poem's first section with two bluntly stated, dire pronouncements. The first one indicates the type of complex situation that usually deserves discussion. That there has been a mistake raises questions such as how the error happened, who caused it, and what things would be like if the mistake had not occurred. The second statement leads into the poem's section break with an air of finality. Just as Cassandra knows that her death is unavoidable, all people know that there is no escape from death. The poem uses such drastic phrasing because, unlike Cassandra, most people do not recognize the seriousness of the end they are faced with. They know about it logically, but they do not feel it.
In the beginning of the second section, McHugh refers to humanity in general in terms of boys and girls. Mentioning girls, she uses the term "whiplash," implying a violent reaction in the opposite direction. In this case, it is a revolt against the certainty of death that ends the first section of the poem. When she speaks of boys, McHugh uses the word "eddy," which is a motion contrary to the prevailing current. Both words show that people, particularly young people, push back against the fates they know are coming.
The distinction between male and female made in lines 17 and 18 is used in lines 19 and 20 to hint at human closeness, and possibly even love, with the phrases "towardness" and "drawn in." The poem not only is talking about the struggle against inevitable death but also is asserting that this struggle against hopelessness creates the illusion of hope. A cataract is, by definition, an opaque spot on the eye that cannot be seen through, but McHugh claims that through this unclear spot, in the struggle against it, clarity can be found.
The possibility of hopefulness continues in lines 21 and 22 as the poem says that even after realizing the certainty of death, the grimness of today will lead one to focus attention on tomorrow. Line 22 takes a more poetic approach. In Venice, gondoliers have traditionally been known for singing for their passengers while navigating the canals. Although this image is in itself romantic, McHugh implies sinister undertones. First is the issue of the passengers, paying attention only to the song and failing to notice where the boat is going. Second, the image is an implied reference to Charon, the ferryman of Greek myth who transports people across the river of death to the afterlife.
The "two by two" reference brings the poem back to the division of boys and girls mentioned in line 17. Pairing off into couples is a distraction from the inevitability of death. Being distracted is not necessarily a bad thing. The poem shows that people in couples are willing to head right into death's finality, implying that bonding with another is a way of gaining the courage that language fails to give.
The last line uses the Yiddish term "veyz mir," which also is rendered "vei iz mihr" and "vai iz mir." Yiddish is a Germanic language written in Hebrew and spoken by Jews of Central and Eastern European origin as well as by their descendants. Like the expression from ancient Greek that begins the poem, this phrase is usually translated with the words that translators ascribe to Cassandra: "woe is me."
Language and Meaning
In "Three To's and an Oi," McHugh explores the inability of language to express the feelings that human beings have at their most vulnerable moments, the moments "when things get bad" and the awareness of death is inevitable. At such moments, she says, the complex language that people, even poets, use to surround themselves is useless. McHugh examines the similarities between the language used in times of crisis and the language used by babies first learning to talk. Both types of language rely more on sounds, "dronings," than they do on meanings, and both use the simplest, shortest phrases.
That the sounds of words are more important to people under duress than are their meanings implies that the sounds have relevance unto themselves. When they turn their attention away from what words mean, people find that the words still hold some importance to them. In this way, the poem shows that meaning and sound are not opposites but are parts of the same system. The poem uses the song sung by a gondolier to illustrate this point. Although the logical purpose of a gondola ride is to get from one point to another, the trip is made different by the song, and it is the song that travelers remember.
To show the shortcomings of language, McHugh refers to Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who is blessed with the gift of prophecy but later cursed with being unable to convince anyone that her predictions are true. At a moment of crisis, Cassandra shouts out a nonsense sound, "otototoi," which translators, in their drive to ascribe meaning to her words, have written as "woe is me." McHugh contends that "woe is me" is not the meaning, that the sound Cassandra is said to make in Agamemnon does not have any translation at all. That the sound cannot be converted to meaningful words, however, does not make the expression of emotion any less true or important.
One of the basic premises of "Three To's and an Oi" is that death is inevitable and that humans spend their lives trying, not always successfully, to forget that basic truth. This idea is introduced into the poem with the story of Cassandra, who is able to see her own death looming as she arrives at the palace of Agamemnon. Faced with her own certain death, Cassandra lets out a cry of nonsensical stuttering. To translate her sheer, unspeakable horror as a simple "woe is me" diminishes the depth of Cassandra's fear.
McHugh goes beyond Cassandra's story to remind readers that the situation is not Cassandra's alone but is one faced by all people. McHugh points out that people wake in the night in terror, aware that death is at hand and knowing that death is approaching with the same certainty that Cassandra must feel. After driving home this point by implication—by association with Cassandra and by mention of a situation that people find familiar—the poem states the point bluntly and flatly with no room for equivocation: "We're all about to die."
Topics For Further Study
- Find two different translations of Aeschylus's play Agamemnon and point out five or more differences in the translations. For each, write a paragraph explaining which you think is more appropriate and why.
- Do a search of news stories from the past year. Compile cases in which the word "Cassandra" has been used to refer to a person whose truthful predictions have been ignored. On the basis of your findings, nominate a figure in the news who you think will be the next Cassandra.
- Child development experts differ in their opinions of how language develops in babies. Form teams to debate two theories about when infant language begins to take on meaning.
- The last two words of "Three To's and an Oi," veyz mir, are Yiddish words that are presented without translation. Look for poems that use words or phrases from other languages, and compile them along with their meanings. See if you can compose a found poem made entirely of foreign words taken from other poems.
- McHugh refers to the tunes sung by gondoliers. Listen to or read the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera The Gondoliers (1889), and write your own gondola song specifically meant to distract people from the idea of death.
The second part of "Three To's and an Oi" recedes from the knowledge of death to explore young people who are just coming into that knowledge. McHugh breaks the human race into sexes, but she makes her examples of each sex young: "a girl" and "a boy." Starting from youth enables the poet to trace the ways in which humans build their defenses against the crippling knowledge of death. She has the girl "whiplash" and the boy "eddy," although these actions can easily be reversed. The main thing is that youth responds violently against mortality. McHugh also implies that these strong, violent backlashes are a result of too much "towardness." Youth sometimes leans in toward death, examining it with a curiosity that those with more experience do not feel.
The point of "Three To's and an Oi" is to make readers think about the truths that they carry within themselves. When, at the midway point, McHugh states directly that "we're all about to die," she has earned the right to cut through illusions by examining the illusions that surround this unequivocal statement. Because the medium of poetry is language, the poet is as destructive of her own illusions as she is of those of others when she points out that the attempt to give coherent meaning to Cassandra's anguished cry is pointless.
The second part of the poem depicts how people proceed from youth, alone or in couples, building systems to distract themselves from the thought of death. When it begins to seem that human intellect can overcome primal fear, however, McHugh explains that the journey of distraction drives people to the very attitude of "woe is me" ("veyz mir") that translators have tried to impose on Cassandra's anguish, implying that such a verbal twisting of raw emotion, even when one is aware of it, is inevitable.
In most poems, the individual lines are clustered into stanzas, or groups of lines. The most common stanza length is the quatrain, or four-line grouping, although the lengths of stanzas can vary from poem to poem and sometimes even within a poem, producing a free-form style, also called "open form." "Three To's and an Oi" is a mix of stanzaic formality with open-form structure. The poem is formal in that McHugh uses two-line stanzas consistently, from start to end. Although the number of lines in each stanza stays the same, the lengths of the lines vary widely throughout the poem, and there is no set meter or rhyme scheme. The consistency of the stanzas gives the poem a measured feel, which indicates the author's control. The lack of other formal elements has the opposite effect, reinforcing the poem's idea of underlying dread, as if the poet is not able to stay with any prolonged sequence of thought owing to an awareness of the futility of logic.
The mention of "shorter story lines" in line 10 echoes the poem's use of two-line stanzas, with each stanza ending almost as soon as it begins. What keeps the poem from seeming abrupt or halting is the lack of end-stopping: most of the stanzas do not end with punctuation, allowing thoughts to carry over from one stanza to the next. On the page, the two-line stanzas of "Three To's and an Oi" make the poem look as if it will be composed of many diverse ideas, but listeners who hear the poem read aloud would not be as aware of the individual stanzas and would therefore focus more on the coherency of the ideas.
An allusion is a reference to an event in history or literature. It can be overtly stated or merely implied. "Three To's and an Oi" contains both types of allusion. The reference to Cassandra is clearly announced in the first word. Readers who are familiar with the story or who look it up when they see it mentioned in the poem can see how the events of Cassandra's life apply to the issues being discussed. It would be difficult to make sense of the first section of the poem without knowing that Cassandra has the ability to foretell her own death and that she cries out in anguish when she knows death is looming.
The last stanza, lines 23 and 24, contains an allusion to the biblical story of Noah and the ark and the flood that destroys the world. "Two by two" is a phrase associated with the way Noah gathers the animals of the earth, assuring that there is a male and a female of each species so that they can reproduce. When this phrase appears with the word "torrents," it is clearly meant to remind readers of the story of the ark. Readers can understand the poem without being reminded of the story from the Bible, but knowing how the story relates to the poem's subject of death and the will to survive makes reading the poem a richer experience.
With its references to ancient Greek drama and languages other than English, "Three To's and an Oi" is considered typical of McHugh's intellectual style of poetry. Good poetry has always been built on references to things outside of itself, whether they are references to well-known classical literature or to universal emotions. Readers sometimes feel, however, that having a degree in literature might be useful, if not necessary, in reading a poem such as this one. The connection between higher education and poetry has grown in recent decades. By the end of the twentieth century, it had become rare for poets to support themselves financially with writing alone. Most modern poets work at other jobs for their income. Some may dabble in writing as a hobby, but those who are serious about writing as their life's work manage to hold down two jobs at once—one that pays and one that does not. Most of those poets make their livings through teaching.
The number of would-be poets and fiction writers expanded toward the end of the twentieth century, as did the number of places where they can teach. Colleges and universities have offered creative writing classes as part of their English programs since the 1800s. Although they have helped some young writers find their creative voice, these individual classes have done little to help writers find a career. Nationally recognized literary figures often have held teaching appointments or honorary professorships at universities. At least until the 1950s in the United States, poetry writing was considered a separate entity from academics.
The Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa is considered the first successful college program focusing strictly on creative writing, that is, poetry and fiction. Started in 1936, in the following decade the workshop was a magnet for famous writers, who came to teach for a semester or to give a lecture. A list of the writers who have been involved with the Iowa Writers' Workshop is practically reproduced in the table of contents of any modern literature textbook, from Robert Frost, Flannery O'Connor, and John Berryman in the early days to Susan Wheeler and Jonathan Franzen later. Graduates of the Writers' Workshop have gone on to create similar programs in creative writing at other institutions.
At the same time that creative writing was growing as a college-level field of study, there was a population explosion in academics. In the years after World War II, college attendance, which had once been limited to people of the upper income brackets, became democratized through the GI Bill of Rights, which paid for the college educations of tens of thousands of veterans who had fought in the war. University English departments expanded, as did the availability of extension sites and community colleges. The influx of new students meant that colleges were able to hire instructors with varied backgrounds. Poets who had not been widely known found employment as college instructors.
Another landmark in the connection between academia and creative writing took place in 1967 with the formation of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Founded by fifteen writers who were themselves graduates of writing programs, the association has grown to include 22,000 teachers, writers, and students and 330 college and university writing programs. Based on a philosophy that the practitioners of an art are best suited to teach that art, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs has encouraged the recognition of creative writing as an important part of English programs, which once focused on literature and rhetoric. One result has been the dominance of intellectual poetry such as McHugh's, which draws from academic source material as naturally as it does from other parts of human experience.
McHugh has been one of the most important American poets for nearly thirty years. Her 1994 compilation, Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968–1993, a collection of works published in her first twenty-five years as a poet as well as new poems, was nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Peter Turchi notes in Ploughshares that the book "demonstrates depth well beyond the early virtuosity, as well as humility, evidence of a writer who is still listening, still learning." "Three To's and an Oi" comes from McHugh's next collection, The Father of the Predicaments, which was welcomed by critics as yet another masterly work. Jane Satterfield, in the Antioch Review, calls the book a "welcome fourth compilation" noting that in it "incidents of dramatic and seemingly random stature implode to reveal surprising insights."
To the extent that there has been any critical negativity toward McHugh's writing, it is that it is sometimes too complex and not always accessible to the common reader. As Doris Lynch points out in her review of The Father of the Predicaments in Library Journal, "McHugh is a modernist and an extremely cerebral poet, so these poems will not please everyone, but readers interested in language poetry will find poems of interest here." Lynch points out that her remarks are not a poor reflection on the poetry but are simply a warning that the book may be better placed in "academic collections and libraries where McHugh has a following."
The Father of the Predicaments has been held in high regard by important publications. As an unsigned review in the Briefly Noted column of the New Yorker explains, the book is considered an "accomplished volume of poems, which illuminates how the contradictions and dualities concealed in language both betray and redeem us."
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay, he examines how McHugh's specific sense of organization helps the poem explore diverse and even contradictory ideas.
Reading McHugh's work can make one's head spin. Her poetic vision allows her to recognize the contradictions in life that often escape notice, and she is clearly comfortable with accepting these contradictions. As a writer, McHugh has the fluidity with words' inventiveness to present life's paradoxes as naturally as another poet might describe the petals of a flower. The frustrating thing about reading McHugh's poetry is that it does encompass paradoxes—at times it seems that McHugh is changing subjects, changing directions, or even taking up the position opposite the one in the preceding stanza. McHugh's control of poetic style is so strong and sure that the average reader is compelled to keep up with her despite the shifts in tone and subject. It may be a trying experience to mentally follow along with McHugh's poetic range, but it is by no means impossible.
"Three To's and an Oi" argues persuasively in a few lines that life is a futile quest to suppress the dread of impending, unavoidable death. The poem suggests that people struggle with themselves throughout their lives to see the truth but also that they struggle equally hard to avoid it. These thoughts are not contradictory, but neither do they provide the harmonious continuity that most readers expect of one continuous poem. The imagery ranges from waking with night dread to floating along on a river listening to the song of a gondolier, and the language ranges from Greek to English to Yiddish. Organization is what makes it possible for all of these variables to coexist in the service of one central idea.
This poem about contradictions is physically divided into two parts, which makes it easy for readers to identify the binary nature of McHugh's inquiry—even the least curious reader should be able to see that because it is split in two, this poem must have two points—and to determine what the two ideas may be. The first eight stanzas, lines 1 through 16, explain the poem's stark view of existence. It begins with Cassandra, the clairvoyant of Greek legend who knows that her death is at hand and that there is nothing she can do about it. The first part continues through deeds and mistakes, ending with the horrible but undeniable idea "We're all about to die."
While pushing the idea of death at the reader, the poem's first section then splits apart into two even smaller ideas, each following naturally from the contemplation of death. The first regards the way in which language breaks down during times of crisis, devolving from the sort of thing that can give intellectual comfort once it is realized that there is no comfort to be had. There is a futility that makes complexity of language (ironically, the kind of language this poem is made of) worthless. Following from the idea of language breakdown is the idea that to avoid the finality of death, humans tend to assign meaning to meaningless expressions of emotion—meaningless not in that they lack value but in that they convey no particular ideas. McHugh objects to translating Cassandra's cry of grief as if she means to express the idea "woe is me," because there is no particular thought meant by "otototoi," just pure emotion.
The foregoing discussion of the three main concepts of the first part of "Three To's and an Oi"—knowledge of death, breakdown of meaning, and the use of meaningless expressions—proceeds in the order in which the concepts derive from one another. In the poem, however, the concepts appear in the reverse order. McHugh goes from language to meaning to dread to obliteration with her early reference to Cassandra, a reference loaded with associations. Readers come into the poem with thoughts already flowing. The more important aspect, though, is that McHugh dissects these ideas methodically and with a calm, even pace. By limiting her stanzas to two lines each, McHugh feeds thoughts to readers in manageable bites. Stringing the ideas together as the poet does helps readers follow the logical implications from one step to the next.
The second part of the poem is less methodical than the first. Ideas bounce around and double over on one another, presenting variations on one theme. This discussion by implication is what readers usually expect of poetry. The second part of "Three To's and an Oi" can stand as a poem on its own, albeit a much more obscure one without the discussion that precedes it.
The main subject of the second part of the poem is "towardness," an idea not even raised in the first part. The second section starts not with towardness but with its opposite, with boys and girls "reeling back" from one another after being close, evoking a visual after-passion scene more graphic than anything in the first section. After this dramatic opening, with people snapping back like rubber bands, the rest of the poem follows the slow, mesmeric way with which the world lulls humanity toward the comfort that is rejected in the poem. Music and two-by-two coupling are the examples given for the sorts of things that can make people forget their moments of clarity.
The second part of the poem, like the first, is characterized by opposition. Not only are there boys and girls jumping away from one another, but there is also the contrast of language. The section that begins with "whiplash," "eddy," and "reeling" ends passively with "turn" and "bow." Tomorrow is placed in opposition to today; the gondolier is separated from the tune. After the first part of the poem differentiates preverbal awareness of death and the intellect's struggle to bury that awareness with words, the second part puts the opposition into motion, and suppression always wins. It is not until the last line that the poem brings back the third main idea from the first section—that expressions such as "woe is me" exist in a middling state. These expressions acknowledge the misery of the human condition but acknowledge it with a cliché. Veyz mir is often expressed as the hackneyed oy vey, which means roughly the same thing as veyz mir but has come to be so overused that it has less to do with real woe than with the slightest of discomforts. The expression has no meaning, nor is it an expression, as "otototoi" is, of pre-meaning emotion. At least this faint echo brings the poem back to the lament from Cassandra that it starts with.
The other outstanding technique that helps McHugh pack so many complex ideas into "Three To's and an Oi" is her sense of wordplay. Poetry is always about playing with words, but there are not many poets who piece ideas, sounds, and meanings together with as much glee as McHugh does. Readers must always be on the lookout for references that when explored lead the poem into new areas of significance. An example is the use of the word "cataract" in the phrase "clarity from cataract." The word is most often associated with a condition of the eye in which the lens becomes cloudy or opaque, making it difficult to see through. Insisting that one can gain clarity from such a situation is to imply that sight itself is misleading and that one understands more from lack of sight, as the first part of the poem makes a case that one understands more from lack of meaning. "Cataract" has a second meaning, though, that is less often applied: a waterfall. This meaning fits perfectly into the water imagery of the second part of the poem, from "eddy" to "gondolier" to "torrents."
Another wording easy to miss is the phrase "it isn't Greek for nothing." The poem is saying primarily that the expression in question, "otototoi," does not mean "nothing" in Greek. But McHugh writes the word "nothing" without the quotation marks that would identify it as a definition. This technique opens up the phrase to another meaning. If the meaning of "Greek" as in the common phrase "It's all Greek to me"—in which the word is used to signify something that is unintelligible and cannot be understood—is applied, the poem says, "It isn't unintelligible for nothing." The meaning is that something requires "otototoi" to actually be unintelligible, that there is a good reason to say translating the cry as "woe is me" misses the mark.
The title "Three To's and an Oi" is conspicuous because it refers to words that do not actually appear in the poem. One has to look for them. The first place they are found is in the focal word "otototoi." The presence of the "to's" and the "oi" is obscured because the "oi" is broken up, so that its "o" comes at the start of Cassandra's expression and its "i" comes at the end. Strained as it is, this interpretation of the title is the more literal one. The more fanciful interpretation entails reading the last stanza, lines 23 and 24, closely. The "to's" are really the "into's" that begin lines 22 through 24, showing the mind being sucked from primordial understanding to intellectual complacence. The oi is implied in the phrase veyz mir, referring to a standard complaint when things go wrong, oy vey. It mirrors and mocks the seriousness of Cassandra's situation, putting her fear of death on the level of any number of other complaints that a person may bemoan.
"Three To's and an Oi" is an example of poetry at its intellectual best. It tackles a philosophical subject always lingering on the edges of human awareness and layers onto one basic truth multiple implications. A less-skilled hand would not be able to pack so much inquiry into the small space that this poem occupies, but McHugh does so with a smoothness and certainty that make it all seem natural. Much in the poem deserves exploration, but much is revealed without great effort. The poem works on so many levels that it has something to say to everyone.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Three To's and an Oi," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Bruce F. Murphy
In the following review excerpt, Murphy places McHugh within a group of poets who mix prose and poetry in their poems and praises her precision.
More than half a century ago Edmund Wilson argued in the essay "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" that "the technique of prose is inevitably tending more and more to take over the material which had formerly provided the subjects for compositions in verse." Still timely is Wilson's comment that "the two techniques of writing are beginning to appear, side by side or combined, in a single work," and that "recently the techniques of prose and verse have been getting mixed up at a bewildering rate—with the prose technique steadily gaining."
What Do I Read Next?
- The death of Cassandra is only one of the subjects of Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.), by the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus. The main story concerns the plot by Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, to murder him after he returns from the Trojan War. She takes revenge because Agamemnon has sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, for the cause of war.
- McHugh's understanding of the deeper meaning of Greek mythology serves her well in her 2001 translation of Cyclops, by Euripides. It is the only Greek satyr play still existing, and McHugh adds to it a sense of wordplay and wit.
- McHugh's poetry has been compared to that of many other contemporary poets. One of the most frequently mentioned is Louise Glück. Readers can get to know Glück's style through poems such as "Parados," which is included in her collection Ararat (1994).
- McHugh's style has also been linked to that of the poet Richard Hugo. Readers can learn about the theory behind a poet who works as McHugh does by reading Hugo's The Triggering Town: Essays and Lectures on Poetry and Writing (1979).
- The novelist Christa Wolf retells the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Cassandra in Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (1984).
Heather McHugh is one of those contemporary poets who have written poems that mix prose with poetry—as opposed to writing "prose poems," which are supposed to be prose entirely, while being poetry at the same time. Suffice it to say that McHugh's new book begins with the longish poem, "Not a Prayer," a beautiful work about the death of a woman who seems to be in the final stages of Alzheimer's Disease. The poem is moving partly because of the scenes it contains, such as the moment when "she is lifting one hand / up toward her mouth to take / a great big bite from—ah!—an apple: / very gesture of good health," but there is no apple there, her hand is empty and she "bites down hard" and cannot understand why she fails. On another level, McHugh is interested in the short circuiting of the language centers of the sufferer, the jumbled phrases that, "if anybody / listens long enough," reveal "something terribly intelligible." Yet there's nothing clinical, or removed, or clever about these linguistic observations; it's just the way it is, for this group of people watching this beloved person go out of existence. It also prepares you for the most wrenching moment of the poem, which is not the moment of death, but a farewell to a dear friend in which the shattered mind musters itself for a final leap into intelligibility:
the voice of Martha in the cellphone saying tinnily:
"We love you, dearest friend; we love your love of life,"
and leaning back I saw upon that listening face
some wild emotions, efforts, tearings of intent,
attempts to speak—and then
there burst out from her voicebox
words—or rather, one word cried
three times—so loud
the others all came running from
their rooms: GOODBYE
Phrases like "tearings of intent" and the line-break that creates a hesitation just before "words" in the second stanza show McHugh's hallmark: precision. If, as Wilson said, the "work of the imagination" is "the recreation, in the harmony and logic of words, of the cruel confusion of life," then this is work of a high order.
It is interesting to see why, when she uses prose passages, McHugh's language remains under pressure, powerful. The sentence "We talked our time away around her figure in the silent chair, we missed our Madame Raconteuse," is obviously iambic, and could be rewritten as decasyllabic lines. This is even true of later poems in the book, where McHugh falls back into her usual conceptual mode, for example, "Nano-Knowledge," whose opening, "There, a little right / of Ursus Major, is / the Milky Way," is chopped up on the page but strikes the ear as—dare one say it?—quite regular verse.
Source: Bruce F. Murphy, "Verse Versus Poetry," in Poetry, Vol. 177, No. 3, January 2001, pp. 279-86.
In the following essay, Turchi provides background on McHugh's life and career and examines her "stress-testing of our language" in her poetry.
Heather McHugh is wired. She is also wireless (see laptop, below), wry, and webbed (spondee.com). She speaks in passionate flurries, seriocomic riffs that only begin to reflect her speed of thought. She annotates as she speaks, offering first and second answers, embellishing and revising and punning. Words are her sparks and her flame.
"As the world's shyest child" she has written, "I was the one who never spoke in school but who registered, with uncalled-for intensity, every twist of tone and talk; who, at home, went directly to her room to write, because writing proposed a fellow listener, though things seemed quite unspeakable."
Listening to McHugh, one has the sense that she must constantly slow herself down for the sake of others, or, more often, leave her words behind for readers and audiences to unpack. Asked about her earliest ambitions and expectations, she replies: "Ambitions and expectations are different creatures entirely. I expected to be a writer for five years; then, starting at age five, I was a writer. Ambition comes, if I'm not losing my etymological marbles, from going around. I never went around. I went straight, even when stoned."
Born to Canadian parents in San Diego in 1948, McHugh was raised in "rural saltwater Virginia." The writing produced at age five was poetry, which the author bound with ribbon and cardboard covers. Soon after, she attended a four-room primary school (complete with outhouse), then a parochial school. One imagines a young McHugh in the back of the room, intellectual motor revving, barely contained by anything so conventional as a classroom, but she claims otherwise: "Suffice it to say it sometimes seems I am the only writer in America who loved the nuns." She confesses that one of her early influential teachers was "Sister Cletus, who, in her innocence and love of grammar, and despite all snickerers, persisted in her use of the term 'suspended period: We preferred to think of suspended periods as resembling those asterisks in Victorian literature that were followed—nine months later—by babies." From there, McHugh went to a suburban high school that did, in fact, fail to contain her. When a ninth-grade geography teacher advised her against anything so presumptuous as applying to Radcliffe, she determined to get in, ASAP. With near-perfect SATs, she entered the college at age sixteen and graduated cum laude.
At about the same time, The New Yorker's Howard Moss "saw something to like" in a poem she had written. She says, "My bet is this: to that early acceptance I owe the whole trail of professional fortuities that followed. The grad-school admissions people [at the University of Denver] loved The New Yorker acceptance and put me in a classroom. I learned as I taught. Galassi at Houghton Mifflin liked the inference of forms in my perversities, and didn't mind The New Yorker credential, either. I was lucky. Sending something over the transom is like entering a lottery." Soon after graduation from Denver in 1972, she was awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship and the first of three NEA fellowship grants, which allowed her to complete the book Jonathan Galassi published in 1977.
Dangers featured on its cover a photo of the twenty-nine-year-old poet, who with her high cheekbones and dark coat might have stepped out of a European thriller, standing at the edge of a manhole, and was dedicated "For my lovers." The epigraph, from Browning, is "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things …," and that focus on the dangerous, the threatening, the unspoken and nearly unspeakable, continues. Although McHugh spends many of her days standing in the front of a classroom, she sometimes sounds like the wicked wit of the back row, the bad girl you'd dare yourself to sit beside.
Just four years after her first collection came her second, A World of Difference (Houghton, 1981). One sign of difference was in the acknowledgments: McHugh recognized her mother and her aunts, the source of her "strong will and sense of independence," and her father, a marine biologist, for passing down "his passion for work." Not yet thirty-five, she was publishing regularly in the New Yorker, APR, the Paris Review, the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, and a host of literary journals, including Ploughshares; she was also being anthologized. James Tate called her "a wickedly astute critic of our times," while Richard Howard noted that her poems contained "a compassion that is more nearly perfect for it has nothing to do with pity." What keeps McHugh's work from being merely brilliant in its linguistic dexterity and wit is that she marries criticism with compassion and self-reproach; she is no cynic, no simply clever quipper. In the poem "Unspeakable" she moves from observing the death of a close friend to the potentially exotic distraction of a circus, in which an elephant defecates voluminously:
… half the audience, by turns,
is treated to the sight
of how the stuff emerges,
where it lands. The snickers
are the language of
the animal the animal offends,
the one that thinks
it's different. We can't
contain ourselves: the laughs
burst out in spatters from the stands …
McHugh is one of our most honored writers, a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writing Award, the PEN/Voelcker Award, and the Folger Library's O. B. Hardison Prize for a poet excelling in teaching. She has received The Boston Book Review's Bingham Poetry Prize and the Pollack-Harvard Review Prize and has been a finalist for the National Book Award. She has done service as board member of AWP, panelist selecting the New York State poet, and judge for prizes and awards from the National Poetry Series and Laughlin Prize to, this year, the first Electronic Literature Organization Poetry Prize.
She is also one of our most prolific writers. In addition to her six books of poems, a collection of essays (and another completed), a collaboration with collage artist Tom Phillips, and four volumes of translation—including last year's Glottal Stop: IO Poems of Paul Celan, co-translated with her husband, Nikolai Popov, and this year's Euripides' Cyclops, co-translated with David Konstan—she is one of the great literary correspondents. Her faxes look like ransom notes, with capitalizations and boldface, exuberant arrows and illustrations, and her e-mails are legendary. "I'll send her a message;" one of her many correspondents recently said, "and I have an answer two minutes later. One day we must have exchanged twenty messages." McHugh claims, "I'm a hermit. I'd rather send an e-mail than myself, but poetry readings pay me more than e-mail does." She is a poet of the twenty-first century, more likely to give a reading from her laptop than from the printed page, but she is also an old-fashioned woman of letters, deeply interested in the world around her, quick to discuss McDonald's (where she often writes) and etymology, orgasms and Epictetus.
When she needs seclusion, she retreats to an island oasis in Maine. Otherwise, she is very much in the world. In addition to her ongoing appointment as Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattte, she is a core faculty member of the low-residency M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and a visitor to other writing programs around the country. Last summer, she wowed the crowds at the Dodge Poetry Festival. She is a frequent crowd-wower (and received the International Poetry Forum's Charity Randall citation for excellence at public reading), thanks to her verbal agility and wit, her passionate delivery, and her generosity. While she might easily pay the bills lecturing and giving readings, she truly teaches, reading and responding to hundreds of student poems each year, with kindness and modesty born, perhaps, of wariness. Asked about the pros and cons of teaching, she says, "No pro at all. That's not to tout the con. I don't mind fessing. It's prefixing I hate. One of the Waughs, if I remember rightly, is said to have said that the natural enemy of any subject is the professor thereof."
Her new and selected poems, Hinge & Sign (Wesleyan, 1994), demonstrates depth well beyond the early virtuosity, as well as humility, evidence of a writer who is still listening, still learning, still, as McHugh says, "finding life strange (this is the extent, and intent, of spirituality in me)." The first of that book's new poems tells of traveling as a Famous Poet in Italy, speaking glibly, and being sobered by the story of Giordano Bruno, "famous / for his eloquence," burned in an iron mask so that he could not speak.
Forced muteness, and the loss of speech and thought that comes with death, is chronicled even more chillingly in the extraordinary first poem of McHugh's most recent collection, The Father of the Predicaments (Wesleyan, 1999). "Not a Prayer" tells the story of the death of cellist Raya Garbousova, whom McHugh has called her "soul's mother." Here, the unspeakable takes on new meaning, as Raya loses the ability to communicate, and her family and closest friends lose the ability to understand.
The struggle against the inevitable muting of the individual voice inspires McHugh's stress-testing of our language; and the limitations of words lead her, increasingly, to examinations of the spirit. The keys to both are intelligence, honesty, and precise expression.
"There's a nice story I heard somewhere about Samuel Beckett attending a performance of one of his pieces," McHugh says. "The stage manager was nervously trying to be precise about all the details, desperate to please the famously exacting author. In view of one particular stage direction about a door (that it should be 'imperceptibly ajar'), he was fussing with the aperture, moving the door a half-inch this way, a half-inch that, when he felt the shadow of the master fall across his shoulder. It was Beckett who had walked up behind him and was watching his exertions. Said Beckett, 'The door should be shut:'
The stage manager stammered, "But the stage direction says 'ajar.'"
"Yes," replied Beckett, "but it also says 'imperceptibly.'"
This exquisite moment amounts, paradoxically, rather to a confidence in, than a correction of, the hapless manager. For as an act of language within the script of a play, an act in which the adverb effectively erases the adjective, that stage direction was a secret gift to be delivered only to readers (stage managers themselves, among others): it will never be heard aloud in the theatrical performance, nor is it manifest in the object-life of the stage, except as a double negative (the absence of an aperture!)
"That's the kind of language-love I want to be in as long as I can work, a love in which passion and precision conspire, and in which a quiet thrill is communicated from one witting reader to another."
Source: Peter Turchi, "About Heather McHugh," in Ploughshares, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring 2001, pp. 210-16.
In the following review, Satterfield finds the poems in The Father of Predicaments to be "rooted in a wealth of wit and etymological musings."
"I have a secret theory," said Heather McHugh, speaking of Ezra Pound's "The Lake Isle" to fellow poets in a recent Harper's Forum on poetry, "that most poets, at one time or another, write into their poems their own self-criticism." Much of what McHugh finds worthy in this fractious forebear, "high reference and low irreverence" (for McHugh the "great conjunction" in Pound), is apparent also in her verse. Poetry as secret theory, poetry as self-criticism, poetry as linguistic feast—all are central to McHugh's most recent collection. In this welcome fourth compilation, incidents of dramatic and seemingly random stature implode to reveal surprising insights. Whatever their triggering subject—a loved one's last days spent in a hospital room fluttering in and out of consciousness, a mother who "propels a babystroller," loss, love, doubt, the workings of mind and spirit—the poems are rooted in a wealth of wit and etymological musings; they up-end linguistic bedrock, moving toward "radical rewrite, therootretort." The poem as map, then, a tracery of language's historicity. Once the triggering subjects have "plunged beyond" her viewpoint, the poet, "the brooder on / the bench" is prompted to wonder about her relation to the observed world, "a starscape cast / about my minor part" in which definitions and favored assumptions are always under siege. McHugh's deliberations with ancient, unanswerable questions—the predicaments of being alive and staying alive—emerge anew in streetslang and idiom, the "binding / stitcheries of syntax" and "linking mechanisms," which demonstrate McHugh's conviction that words are indeed the engine of perception.
Source: Jane Satterfield, Review of Father of the Predicaments, in Antioch Review, Vol. 58, No. 2, Spring 2000, p. 247.
Lynch, Doris, Review of The Father of the Predicaments, in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 13, September 1999, p. 98.
McHugh, Heather, "Three To's and an Oi," in The Father of the Predicaments, University Press of New England, 1999, pp. 28-29.
Review of The Father of the Predicaments, in the New Yorker, November 29, 1999, p. 124.
Satterfield, Jane, Review of The Father of the Predicaments, in the Antioch Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring 2004, p. 247.
Turchi, Peter, "About Heather McHugh," in Ploughshares, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring 2001, p. 216.
Becker, Robin, "The Poetics of Engagement," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 30, No. 6, November/December 2001, pp. 11-15.
In this article, Becker reviews books by eight American women poets, including McHugh, and points out the similarities of the times.
Harvey, Matthea, "Heather McHugh," in Bomb, Summer 2005, pp. 82-88.
This interview brings up matters of style and method in McHugh's works that reflect directly on "Three To's and an Oi."
Murphy, Bruce F., "Verse Versus Poetry," in Poetry, Vol. 177, No. 3, January 2001, pp. 279-86.
An analysis of prose poetry, a form that McHugh often uses, includes discussion of her overall technique and reputation.
Schapira, Laurie Layton, The Cassandra Complex: Living with Disbelief, Inner City Books, 1988.
Schapira takes a Jungian psychological approach to the Cassandra story, looking at how its meaning has changed through age and cultures.