Richard Hugo Biography

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Richard Hugo was born Richard Franklin Hogan, to Franklin James Hogan and the teenage Esther Clara Monk Hogan in White Center, a rough, shabby neighborhood of Seattle. At the age of twenty months, when his parents separated, he was left with his maternal grandparents, Fred and Ora Monk, although his mother tried unsuccessfully to reclaim him after she married Herbert Hugo, a Navy man. The boy, who admired his stepfather, legally changed his name to Hugo at the age of nineteen.

A bleak and impoverished childhood with his elderly, inarticulate grandparents left him with a burning sense of inadequacy. His grandfather, a failed tenant farmer from Michigan, was employed by the Seattle Gas Plant. Hugo believed that his strict grandmother, who had barely completed the fourth grade, was a bit crazy. He discovered that fishing (a love that stayed with him) gave him a sense of fulfillment, just as playing softball and baseball earned him approval and attention.

He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in December, 1942, to avoid being drafted into World War II. Based in Italy, he completed thirty-five missions as a none-too-accurate bombardier (he may have bombed Switzerland). After the war he returned to his grandparents’ home for three years, leaving only after his grandmother’s death in 1949. At the University of Washington, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in creative writing, inspired by the legendary poet Theodore Roethke.

In 1951, Hugo married Barbara Williams and worked as a technical writer for the Boeing Company until 1963, when both quit their jobs to spend a year in Italy. He needed to face the demons of war, fear, and memory, and he began to drink heavily. When he returned to the United States as a visiting lecturer at the University of Montana in Missoula, Barbara went on alone to the West Coast; they ultimately divorced in 1966. Thereafter, he remained at the University of Montana except for brief stints at other universities, eventually rising to the rank of professor and director of the creative writing program. His benevolent influence on young writers was extraordinary.

Hugo’s life changed dramatically in 1971 when he suffered a nervous breakdown two weeks before the end of his term as visiting poet at the University of Iowa. He returned briefly to the Seattle psychiatrist he had consulted in the 1950’s; in addition, a bleeding ulcer forced him to give up alcohol permanently. Nevertheless, these unfortunate events heralded the most productive, satisfying period in his writing life, intensified by his 1974 marriage to Ripley Schemm Hansen, with whom he was happier than he had ever been. In January, 1981, he underwent surgery for lung cancer and seemed to recover, but twenty-one months later he was dead of leukemia, just short of his fifty-ninth birthday. The epitaph on his grave in Missoula is taken from his poem “Glen Uig”: “Believe you and I sing tiny/ and wise and could if we had to eat stone and go on.”


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Richard Hugo (HYEW-goh) is an American poet of the Pacific Northwest who considered himself a regionalist, yet he is read by most critics within the traditional context of mainstream American Romanticism. There is a strong sense of place in his poetry, but often the rural simplicity of his poems conceals the underlying emotional complexity. The literal settings suggest a deeper landscape, and at his best he writes like an archeologist of the mind.{$S[A]Hogan, Richard;Hugo, Richard}

Born Richard Hogan, he was abandoned by his mother and raised by his grandparents in a working-class community outside Seattle. His early sense of displacement and alienation is shared by many of the characters in his poetry. They, like Hugo, are survivors. Growing up in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, he became intimately acquainted with the spiritual and material impoverishment that ruined for a generation the hope of the American Dream. During World War II he flew thirty-five missions over Italy as a...

(The entire section is 1,743 words.)