Richard Hugo is identified primarily as a Pacific Northwest poet, but his reputation transcends that of most regional poets, and his fascination with place extends well into Europe. Even though his largely autobiographical poems were written during a period in which confessional poets such as Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell flourished, Hugo speaks through a persona not entirely himself, especially in the early poems. His characteristic stance is that of a failed, lonely alcoholic, even when that description no longer fit him. In later years, he was able to discard that hard-voiced persona and write more openly as himself.
A Run of Jacks and Death of the Kapowsin Tavern
Although Hugo published his first two collections, A Run of Jacks and Death of the Kapowsin Tavern, four years apart, many of the poems were written at the same time. These early poems frequently employ more formal structure, soon to be discarded (except for villanelles and syllabic poems) in favor of strong accents and repetition. Although both books mirror the landscape of the poet’s native Pacific Northwest, the external scene reflects metaphorically the interior world of the persona.
Hugo establishes his poetic territory in 1961 with A Run of Jacks. “Ocean on Monday” offers bleak coastal images:
Here at last is ending. Where gray coordinates with nothing the horizon wrinkles in the wind.
Seattle’s flawed “Duwamish” River, where “Boys [snap] tom cod spines,” lies “Midwestern in the heat,” and its “curves are slow and sick.” The forgotten, desolate places that the poet prefers are embodied by “1614 Boren,” an abandoned house in Seattle: “These dirty rooms were dirty even then/ . . ./ and light was always weak and flat.” A less gloomy view emerges briefly, for “The world has poison and the world has sperm”; death is accompanied by life. The persona’s dual perception is confirmed as he watches a “Neighbor” carried out, “bleeding from the corners of his grin.”
Hugo’s personal ghosts first appear here, shadows of his unhappy early life. In “Digging Is an Art,” he recalls his harsh grandmother: “Now they bury her and the clouds run scared.” Many of these images return in Death of the Kapowsin Tavern. The title poem, one that introduced many readers to Hugo’s work, laments the burned-out ruin of an isolated tavern: “I can’t ridge it back again from char.” Even the river reappears in the long poem “Duwamish Head”: “This river helped me play an easy role—/ to be alone, to drink, to fail.”
The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir
Hugo’s fourth collection, The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, focuses mostly on Montana. A different sensibility is present here; in an interview Hugo explained that “In Seattle everything is clogged, hidden,” but Montana is “open, panoramic.” Critic Jonathan Holden calls this the last of Hugo’s books “to systematically tout the myth of personal...
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