The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

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Richard Hugo’s “Here, But Unable to Answer” consists of four symmetrically arranged stanzas of seven, ten, ten, and seven lines (a total of thirty-four lines), written in unrhymed, accented lines that approximate iambic pentameter. As its dedication implies, the poem is an elegy mourning the death of Herbert Hugo, the poet’s father (actually his stepfather). The title echoes a response that is sometimes given during roll call in the military when an individual, ill or indisposed in some way, is for all other purposes present and accounted for. Its use here is ironic, for the father is dead and thus truly unable to answer, even though he is still present symbolically in the speaker’s heart.

The speaker in the poem addresses the father directly, as if the father could still hear him. Several details indicate that Hugo himself is this speaker: the dedication, the term “Father,” the autobiographical references to Hugo’s lonely childhood with his grandparents (“I alone/ with two old people”), with whom he lived while his father, a Navy man, sailed the world, and glimpses of his own career as an Army Air Corps bombardier in World War II, “praying the final bomb run out.”

The poem begins at early dawn. “Eight bells” mark the end of the night watch (4 a.m.) as “first light” illuminates the father’s face. Hugo imagines him in command on the bridge of his ship, a powerful, almost godlike figure whose “voice rolls back the wind” and whose eyes light up the ship’s compass. In the second stanza, however, the poet momentarily seems to take on some of that power. Had the father been lost at sea, Hugo vows he would have rescued him by tearing away the clouds to reveal the north star by which he might safely navigate homeward. They would then have sailed off together. Yet the poet immediately contrasts that dream with the reality of his desolate childhood.

In the third stanza, Hugo reveals that, during the war, more than physical distance separated the two men. In spite of the father’s desire to serve in combat, he was assigned to pilot new ships from the shipyards, whereas the son became an unwilling hero who bombed the enemy and returned home after the war, “these hands still trembling with sky.” Hugo remarks that their war will go down in history as the last war worth dying for, a comment often made about World War II.

As the poem shifts to the present in the final stanza, the father has died and lies buried “too close” to a modern highway, but the poet still envisions him on the bridge of his ship, a mythic figure “naming/ wisely every star again, your voice enormous/ with the power of moon, of tide.” He assures his father that he has become strong enough to assume control of his life: “I seldom/ sail off course. I swim a silent green.” He is guided even when asleep by the father’s compass, although the father himself is gone. Here the poet seems to experience a symbolic and benign union with the father, one they could not share in life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383

Hugo’s poetic form owes much to the tradition of Anglo-Saxon poetry. While fellow poet and critic Dave Smith has called attention to “the mighty tug of his cadences,” which is present in nearly all of his work, Hugo’s use of formal meter is seldom strict. In “Here, But Unable to Answer,” he employs a characteristic five-beat line that falls somewhere between the purely accentual meter of Anglo-Saxon poetry and a looser version of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, the traditional meter that has been called the most natural rhythm in English.

Typically his metrical pattern will vary, influenced, he once said, by the shifting riffs of American swing and jazz. These lines, for example, contain anywhere from six to thirteen syllables, with three to seven stresses. However, in his well-known and widely imitated syllabic “Letter” poems, published in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977), he created a precise line of fourteen syllables.

Hugo is essentially a poet of sound. He employs repetition as a frequent device. Like the Anglo-Saxon poets, he favors a heavy emphasis on consonance and assonance (the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds) and, to a lesser degree, alliteration (the repetition of beginning sounds), to unify his lines: “A small dawn, sailor. First light glints.” He often repeats syllables, whole words, and even phrases, as he does in “Eight bells. You bellow orders” and “Even in war we lived a war apart.” Still another type of repetition may be found in the final lines of the poem’s first and fourth stanzas, where five words or their variants are echoed: “Your eyes light numbers on the compass green” and “When I dream, the compass lights stay on.” Seldom does he employ end rhyme in his work, creating instead a more subtle internal rhyme:

Father, now you’re buried much too close for meto a busy highway, I still see you up thereon the bridge, night sky wide open . . .

Like the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Hugo seems to favor the rhythms of natural speech, although his choice of words is less mellifluous and more direct. He prefers one-and two-syllable words derived from the Anglo-Saxon language to the more ornate, multisyllabic Latinate terms. As Smith has pointed out, “He is, in words, and has always been a meat and potatoes man.”