The final stanza of the poem requires a bit of interpretation on the part of the reader. It’s helpful to note the alternative definitions the poet uses in the previous stanza and consider those anywhere the words are repeated. For example, “love” and “nothing.” Without these clever examples of language, ‘Language Lesson 1976’ would lose much of its meaning.
Explore Language Lesson 1976
‘Language Lesson 1976’ by Heather McHugh is a clever poem that uses language to speak on the contemporary United States and love.
In the first lines, the speaker alludes to the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and how America has changed. By using examples of language, she tries to explore the American experience. With allusions to these language examples, the final lines tap into themes of love and the speaker’s desire never to be forgotten by the person to whom she’s directing the poem.
You can read the whole poem here.
When Americans say a man
and announce his fondest wish: one
bicentennial burger, hold
In the first lines of ‘Language Lesson 1976,’ the speaker begins by describing the phrase “take liberties.” If an American says it, the speaker notes, it means someone has “gone too far.” They’ve taken “liberties” and done more than they should’ve. This intriguing statement, which pairs the word “liberty” with “Philadelphia” (in couplet two), leads into a description of a kid on a leash. What this kid wants, more than anything, is “one bicentennial burger.”
This lines up with the date, location, and reference to “Americans” and “liberty.” It’s the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence being officially adopted. It is celebrated in the United States every year on the 4th of July.
The speaker is setting up an intentional juxtaposition between the important holiday and the events of the past and the child on a leash, seeking out a burger. Also, combining this with the contemporary definition of the word “liberties.”
the relish. Hold is forget,
to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,
in which love can mean nothing,
In the next three couplets, the speaker starts to allude to the purpose of the poem— the nature of the United States, and the ways in which it violates its own founding principles. The speaker mentions the “courts of Philadelphia” and how they are filled with the “rich” who serve. (A reference to tennis courts rather than judicial courts.) Language, the speaker notes, is a game. If one can use it in the right way, they can get what they want. The speaker analyzes it throughout the poem, noting how one thing is different in “American” than in common English.
It’s a game in which “love” can be mean nothing. This sets up the final lines where the speaker alludes both to one’s limited freedoms as an American and a personal understanding of love and relationships.
doubletalk mean lie. I’m saying
and let me be
the one you never hold.
The term “double-talk” is used in the next couplet. Here, the speaker defines it as meaning “lie” then asks the listener to lie with her. This is one of several perhaps sexual allusions but ones that might also be interpreted at face value, as it “lie with me” and tell an untruth. She asks the listener to “go so far,” meaning “take liberties” with her and make “nothing without words.” The word “nothing” is connected back to the previous lines where the poet said, “love can mean nothing.”
In the final lines, the speaker asks that she be the “one you never hold.” But, looking back through the poem, the word “hold” has already been used. It’s been defined as “forget.” So, in reality, the speaker is saying that she wants “you” to never forget her.
Structure and Form
‘Language Lesson 1976’ by Heather McHugh is an eighteen-line poem divided into couplets or sets of two lines. These couplets are written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean they are entirely without rhyme. For example, “untold” and “hold” in the last two couplets and the repetition of “saying” is an example of an exact rhyme in the seventh couplet.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “man” and “mean” in lines one and two and “bicentennial burger” in line six.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between the lines of couplets, one, two, and three.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially interesting descriptions. For example: “a kid on a leash look mom-ward.”
The tone is confident and direct. Although the speaker uses somewhat confusing language examples, she is very confident in what she’s saying and what she wants.
The themes at work in this poem include freedom/liberty and tradition, as well as language and contemporary culture. The speaker brings these together to speak on the state of America and the way it contrasts with its founding principles.
The speaker is likely the poet herself, but as there is no direct connection between the speaker and the poet, one should assume it is a persona she created. This person has a clever understanding of language and a critical view of the United States.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Language Lesson 1976’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘America’ by Allen Ginsberg – deals with the turbulent times in America. It was written during and focused on the period after the Second World War.
- ‘I, Too, Sing America’ by Langston Hughes – expresses a specific opinion regard to what it feels like to be Black in the United States.
- ‘I Hear America Singing’ by Walt Whitman – describes thriving American society and its progress towards an even better social structure.