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Poetic Justice : Heather McHugh and David St. John have labored in obscurity on the West Coast for years. : But not any longer.

November 11, 1994|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just how poetic is the life of the poet?

For a modern-day bard, poet Kenneth Rexroth summed it up quite succinctly: "Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense--the creative act."

Fine-tuning the precise architecture of the long line, intricately crafting little worlds--literary dioramas--the best of poets magnify the briefest of passing moments, dissect the most minute exchange. The prize: the larger, lasting value.

But for the greater world, the pursuit of poetry in this day and age at best appears noble; at the other end, charmingly anachronistic.

Voices that historically have spoken for entire societies, or been lauded as the filament inciting movements, nowadays seldom reap the grand rewards of the best-seller list. And even with the hot revival of the cafe poetry movement, the quaint world of the poet still appears remote and rarefied.

Ironically, far from the East Coast literary locus, poets David St. John of USC and Heather McHugh, currently of UCLA, might beg to differ. In their creative act, they have raged and won.

They are two of the five nominees for this year's National Book Award in poetry.

McHugh, 46, is visiting professor at UCLA this quarter, part of her Milliman Writer-in-Residence position at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is a finalist for her collection "Hinge & Sign--Poems, 1968-1993" (Wesleyan/New England, 1994).

Editor of the Antioch Review, St. John, 45, grew up in Fresno and is a professor of creative writing at USC, where he has taught for eight years. Awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as the Prix de Rome Fellowship in Literature, St. John is nominated for his collection "Study for the World's Body" (HarperCollins, 1994).

The honor further animates two hale careers, both would agree. For West Coast poets in the margins, it is more than simply another tasteful validation of their accomplishments, and the importance of their addition to the canon.

The National Book Awards, to be presented in black-tie pomp Wednesday at New York's Plaza Hotel, are known among literati as the Oscars of the publishing world.

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But all the fuss upsets the orderly quiet of the writing life--the silent room, the good pen, the blank page.

"The whole thing is something very unlike a poet's life," cracks McHugh, sitting in a Westwood Cafe with a bag of manuscripts the size of a week's worth of groceries, periodically eyeing election returns.

"You spend your life sort of eavesdropping. That is, you get to be the one at the next table who has kind impulses, or will not use the information in any damaging way, but is very curious about how human being is. That, for me, was the whole thing."

McHugh remembers. "I was incredibly shy. I never talked until I was 16. Finally, in senior high school in English class, I said something . . . and then just what I feared happened," she pauses, eyes opened wide behind teal-framed glasses. "Everybody turned around and looked. The dream was really to be invisible and love the visible at the same time."

That attention startles even those less easily rattled.

"Most of all I've been really stunned by the response from other poets," says David St. John over a whistling Santa Monica wind and steaming cup of cappuccino at a sidewalk cafe hidden on the quieter fringes of Main Street. His voice is soft, yet textured. A good storytelling voice. A lover of words, he carefully enunciates each syllable, sparingly lending those with more import the assistance of his hands.

"Notes from poets. People I know casually and haven't heard from in many years just saying that they wanted me to know how important my work had always been to them . . . writers who I like, but haven't talked to. . . . Just that they would take that time and make that gesture, that the work has presence and relevance, is really the most important thing."

Although St. John fancies the erotic tension crackling through interpersonal relationships ("What goes on between men and women in this world fascinates me endlessly"), much of the work found in the earlier pages of "Study" wades through the taut emotional landscape of loss and abandonment--tests the limits of memory. The page becomes emulsion, slowly resurrects the form of a person, or a fragment of remembrance.

But what might at face seem simply a tango of want and need is inhabited by much more. The muted power of the particular was something that St. John explored at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. Beyond the architecture of language, or workshop-speak, St. John began to understand something about the soul that informs the vessel--the soul being the poet; the vessel, the verse.

An International Writers Workshop, also at Iowa, brought St. John into contact with authors who temporarily re-rooted their lives, arriving from Africa, Europe, South America with their trunks, poems and life stories.

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