How to Speak American: Heather McHugh’s “Language Lesson 1976”

This is an analysis of Heather McHugh’s poem, “Language Lesson 1976.” You can read the entire poem here, at Under the Umbrella.

 

“Language Lesson 1976” examines the peculiarity of common American expressions and parlays that examination into a personal statement about love, relationships, and American life and culture in the 200th year of the United States. McHugh’s study of American culture is interesting and adds genuine, political significance to the poem; however, it is her wordplay (and delightful rhymes and repetitions) that hooks readers, drawing them in and allowing them to digest the poem’s array of cultural implications.

 

In essence, McHugh’s technique is to translate language from English into “American,” as she does at the beginning of “Language Lesson”:  “When Americans say a man / takes liberties, they mean / he’s gone too far.” McHugh then transitions to an anecdote about a child who requests a burger, “hold / the relish.” “Hold is forget, / in American,” she explains. Next, she moves on to “the courts of Philadelphia.” The initial implication of “courts” is tennis courts, but McHugh’s wordplay leads the reader to think also of judicial courts––the rich “serve” and “fault” in court as well as on court. McHugh continues to instruct the reader in the languages of these courts: “Love can mean nothing, / doubletalk mean lie.” She then brings back the “I” in a flirtatious way while simultaneously creating a coded message by combining the “synonyms” she identifies earlier in the poem:

 

. . . I’m saying
doubletalk with me. I’m saying

 

go so far the customs are untold.
Make nothing without words,

 

and let me be
the one you never hold.

 

Part of the fun of the poem is decoding those final lines: I’m saying lie with me. I’m saying take liberties. Make love without words, and let me be the one you never forget. While this can be interpreted in a sexual, romantic way, she’s also making a veiled political statement about the limited degree of freedom we hold as Americans, which adds an additional layer of meaning to her language.

 

The political layer is reinforced by her anecdote about the boy and the burger. The boy is not only depicted on a leash, but his image immediately follows the statement equating “going too far” with “taking liberties.” The boy can’t go too far because of his leash, and so he can’t take any liberties––an expression that by itself is strange in an American context where we’re supposed to value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The sociopolitical element of this poem continues “On the courts of Philadelphia / [where] the rich prepare / to serve, to fault.” The reader is confronted with the judicial, litigious, and economic meanings of “serve” and “fault,” and consequently a more critical portrait of “the rich.” That association is strengthened by the lines that immediately follow: “love can mean nothing, / doubletalk mean lie.” In McHugh’s bicentennial Philadelphia, the rich devalue love to nothing, and rebrand lies to sound less insidious.

 

By the end of the poem, McHugh’s appropriation of, and play with, language is personal, subversive, and even revolutionary. Her wordplay captures the attention of readers, encouraging them to linger and consider her subtle, clever critique of modern American culture.

 

More Heather McHugh:

McHugh’s bio on Poets.org

McHugh and her work on the Poetry Foundation

Find Heather McHugh on Amazon

Listen to “Language Lesson 1976”


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