Richard Hugo Hugo, Richard F(ranklin) (Vol. 6) - Essay

Hugo, Richard F(ranklin) (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hugo, Richard F(ranklin) 1923–

Hugo, an American poet, writes of the Pacific Northwest, especially Montana. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

[Hugo's] new book [The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir] contains many of the best of [his] poems…. Hugo, like Thomas Hardy, is a writer whose work is all of a piece. Some of Hugo's best poems appear in his first book, A Run of Jacks. And some of his best poems appear in The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir. So we are not dealing with a poet who presents us with a sudden dramatic change from one language to another. We are dealing with one of the precious few best poets of our age (how he would hate that phrase! but I can't help it) who has, and sustains, an abiding vision.

To make full sense out of Hugo, it is necessary to recognize that, in spite of his Letters to Friends, he is not a "confessional poet." He has great powers of affection, but he does not write lightly about them….

Like Orwell, a man with whom he has deeper and truer spiritual affinity than any man I know, Hugo has labored to cluster the best labors of his art around his best theme. It is "the peculiar flame inside you." In one of his Letters to Friends, Hugo catches himself using the phrase "breaks my heart" to suggest his feeling about the inarticulate drunks in one of those God—forsaken taverns in the Northwest, and then he adds that he hates the phrase. But it is what I would have said, if I had Hugo's courage, and so would you, unless, reader, we are both liars….

That is a huge thing to say, especially if a poet can say it without sentimentality and with what has become an almost perfect precision. The music of the new poems is a masterful shift from a perfect control of traditional English; the diction constantly reveals itself, the offhand slang becoming a stony music. I believe that Richard Hugo has become one of the best poets alive, in any language I know.

James Wright, "Hugo: Secrets of the Inner Landscape" (copyright © 1973 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of James Wright), in The American Poetry Review, May/June, 1973, p. 13.

Like [James] Wright, Hugo is, loosely speaking, a regional poet. Like the [late] Roethke, the region he celebrates is the Pacific Northwest, specifically his home state, Montana. If his new book [The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir] is not a notable departure from his three earlier ones, this is perhaps all to the good for, although Hugo's limits are narrow, within those limits he is superb. The poems in this new volume could have as their epigraph Robert Frost's phrase "what to make of a diminished thing." Hugo's landscapes are like so many backdrops for James Dean's "East of Eden"; they are uniformly bleak, alien, dehumanized. Yet Hugo knows how to make these uninhabited wastes memorable, even desirable…. (p. 6)

In Hugo's imagination, this land becomes the paradigm for the starkest, barest, existential reality, and contemplating it from the distance of Italy, he understands, perhaps for the first time, why our westerns have such universal appeal. (p. 7)

Marjorie G. Perloff, "Roots and Blossoms," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 16, 1973, pp. 6-7.

I would single out Richard Hugo as a man who does not worry much, or so it seems, over the appearance and shape of individual poems. His energy level is pretty high and relatively unvaried, and it's possible to tire after you read through a chunk of his work; but he's fortunate in having a country to write about—Montana—that he knows and that we (how cozy that "we"!) don't…. [When] Hugo's eyes take visionary possession of land or a townscape, they make it his and our own in ways that touch and disturb…. I find myself often saying yes to Hugo's rhetoric, made to participate in responsive gesture to the beckonings and directives of his voice. I'm uneasy about the form, or lack of form, to many of [his] poems; but the appealing boldness of his obsessions makes that uneasiness livable with. (pp. 584-85)

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973.

It is the sense of the man which compels our admiration for Richard Hugo's poetry. Reading The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir we are forever at the side of the poet: having fun, fishing, driving through Montana, constantly participating in the life about which he writes. Hugo illuminates the almost lost places in America and in our own lives. He loves "places", real places with real names; and he dearly loves his friends—to whom many of these poems are dedicated. (p. 104)

[Always] in Hugo, there is the splendor of the moment, the image captured, the loveliness which can be found anywhere….

Richard Hugo, in The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, is our guide to regions only pinpoints on our maps. He has created a work like [Michael Lesy's] Wisconsin Death Trip without the unrelenting despair of that thesis. By showing us forgotten places and forgotten lives, by being able to identify so deeply, Hugo brings us close to totalities of existence not appearing on our TV sets. His poems of place give us perspectives, force or lead us into finding perspectives. Dying, being lost, being sad, vanished from the current events of society, is not something new to humans. Anywhere, the sorrow is watercolored with moments of joy. If we, too, are lost, we are not alone. What is important is to keep the mind and senses alive, to be able to judge, to share, as Hugo does.

The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir is dense in its technique, perhaps over-specific in its personal allusions, and sometimes forces meaning onto a subject not able to be so weighted. There is a sameness of technique: the observation, the getting into a feeling of a place, a main image growing stronger, an implicit or explicit judgment, balance and understanding reached. But one accepts and grows comfortable with the method. The collection is an exceptional one. (p. 106)

Dick Allen, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1974.

Richard Hugo's badly-titled new book ("What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American" after Pound's "What thou lovest well remains") improves on the sure and deliberate exploration of drabness begun in earlier collections. The last third of this book is a bit scrappy, but the landscapes and portraits of the first two sections have a good deal of somber power, even for a reader ignorant of the West. The poet has a flat authority and a heavy tread, leading us through his album of childhood presences…. These poems are almost all one length, as though the poet wanted a linear equivalent to the perimeter of album photographs; they seem interchangeable rolls on a player piano, each one unrolling a fixed segment of the past. In Hugo's memories, two opposite feelings mingle and separate; a wish to believe that things are better now, that he has improved his life, that he can rise above the past—and on the other hand, the certainty that internal geography is immutable, and that his life is one long living-out of the landscapes of his birth…. (pp. 8, 10)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1975.

I have never read a poem [elsewhere] that had the single intonation of Hugo's [in What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American], although many have been written to commemorate a moribund tract of America lying beyond, you'd suppose, the probability of poetry. The color, gray, is as omnipresent in Hugo as snow is in Maura Stanton's verse. But her snow is a shifting symbol, whereas gray in Hugo's world is insistently gray. The woman speaking his introductory poem, "A Snapshot of the Auxiliary" (i.e. St. James Lutheran Womens' Auxiliary) forecasts the moral pigment of Hugo's dirt-road Americans. "… That gray/in the photo was actually their faces./On gray days we reflected weather color./Lutherans did that. It made us children of God." Hugo does marvels with the flat tone, all the more effective when he imperceptibly deserts it and rides the wind. (p. 594)

Hugo is writing American gothic, if you don't identify that with Grant Wood's two-dimensional picture. His poetry is much more than formalized naturalism; the visible is compelling; the invisible remains supreme. Riding a frozen flatcar south from Tacoma; driving through Jerome, a broken-limbed township mile-high above the Tonto rim; bedrolled on the outskirts of Selma, Butte or Gallup—who has not quickened to an effluence which is extrinsic to the actual scene, imposed on it perhaps by one's own fear that a landscape, or a community so-called, cannot endure without an ambience contrived by one's own flights of imagining, composed from the detritus and the shadows of these wastelands where history never happened? Abhorring a vacuum, the poet rushes in. He peoples the gray air. And who can envision a future less gray than the past? (p. 595)

Vernon Young, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.