Reflection on Into These Knots

An Important Announcement

            How does one write poetry about grief, or heartache? Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and “Kaddish” might be one approach, but it is a rare poet who can operate in the verse-libre and still convey the absolute misery without devolving into melodrama. Many poets resort to form, which forces a constraint upon poems. In the case of Ashley Anna McHugh, the constraint of form has allowed her to explore loss in great detail. Sometimes, form can be overbearing and even seem archaic. Indeed, McHugh still exhibits a need for growth at times, relying too heavily on meter and rhyme in some poems. Although she stretches and breaks patterns throughout the collection, the reliance on form can also become a burden on the poet, leaving the line or the stanza flat. When the reader comes to expect a certain direction based on the form, the poet must challenge that expectation, and McHugh does this in some poems. In others, she embraces and fulfills those expectations. The question then becomes whether that embrace of form is successful in and of itself. Can the poet don the mantle of classic form, allow the reader to realize it, and still be successful in conveying a modern experience for the reader?

One poem that strikes a balance between form and a contemporary experience in Into These Knots is “One Important and Elegant Proof” (7-10). Here McHugh writes a poem with a contemporary premise (visiting a therapist or counselor) and the traditional blank verse form (iambic pentameter, unrhymed lines). Although the blank verse form can become dangerously rhythmic, McHugh avoids this with liberal application of substituted meters throughout the poem. Additionally, repetitive elements and dialogue transitions which break the iambic line are present throughout. This is most apparent with the repetitious obsession with the clock in the counselor’s office. As in the lines

He let her pause.

The clock.    The clock.    The clock.  (8)[1]

the two lines together often create one iambic pentameter line, and a very strict adherence to the meter, as well. The continuous interruption of the line, however, serves to draw the reader’s attention away from the meter. Both the repeated hard caesuras and the hung line break cause the reader to focus not on the meter, but the experience of silence. In other lines, such as the second, McHugh allows the meter to drift slightly:

People just kept on telling me I should.” (7)

Although here the drift is only in the first foot, substituting a trochee for an iamb, the substitution is enough to allow the meter to sublimate into the language. This de-emphasis of meter occurs regularly through “One Important and Elegant Proof”, and serves the same purpose as the caesuras and hung lines mentioned above.

Not only do the techniques examined above allow the language and experience trump the presentation of the poem, but they also allow the poem to be present within the contemporary experience. Often when a poem attaches to a particular meter above all else, the poem reads archaically, even if the experience being conveyed is contemporary. In McHugh’s Into These Knots, the poet sometimes focuses on meter too heavily, but she displays skill in allowing the poem to drive the form more often. The result is a collection which examines loss from several perspectives, which obsesses with form, and which breaks through formal constraint to become a successful contemporary exploration of form.


Works Cited

McHugh, Ashley Anna.  Into these Knots.  Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2010.  Print.

[1] Emphasis here and following added to highlight the meter.

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