The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 530 words.)