Richard Hugo

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Hugo, Richard F(ranklin) 1923–

Hugo, an American poet, writes of the Northwest, especially Montana. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Laurence Lieberman

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Richard Hugo merely needs to arrive at an enchanted place in nature to recognize the primitive spirits lurking in water, trees, rocks, and immediately he starts to cross over the mystical barriers to make contact with all the hidden gods of the place. They all begin to sing in his hand at once as he writes, rows his oars, or casts his fishing line…. The Northwest landscape that Hugo knows best is haunted by the spirits of many generations of dead Indians, and, in poem after poem [in The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir] he touches the deep roots of memory in the ghost town, the ghost ranch, the fallen mine or mission, the neglected graveyard. He knows he can trust the spirit of each place, setting, locale—if accurately rendered—to breathe its own hidden life into the image cluster that whirls and spirals down the plunging columns of his verse. No other recent American poet of my acquaintance shares Hugo's power to evoke the magic of place names: the Indian names assert a quiet intelligence in his poems—they carry a musical authority as well as a hidden Indian mystique into the very texture and integument of the poem's action. A name may be repeated several times for its sheer musical and rhythmic beauty, while the core of meaning latent in the name may be revealed late in the poem, suddenly emerging in a surprising new context which releases a hidden river of associations…. Indian names are demonstrated to be irreplaceable avatars of the spirit of a place or region. The gods asleep in the names are wakened in the "Indian wind" of the poem's physical climate, as weather, too, is revealed to be supernaturally alive; the primeval wind, or rain, or snow becoming a dominant symbolic motif that orchestrates the varied elements of a poem's voluptuous music.

The rhythmic intention behind Hugo's poetry, the impetus and thrust behind his meters, is to achieve a lean spare prosody, streamlined to accommodate itself to a stylized illusion of conversational rapids, words tumbling like water and heavy currents traveling at very high velocity, shattering over rocks. (pp. 209-11)

The other world Hugo explores is the cosmos of inured boredom: the small-town mountain communities, has-been boom towns wrecked by the "Silver Bill repeal"; or rest-cure havens ("Hot Springs"), which cater to the imagination of convalescence, a psychic condition of chronic half-aliveness supported by a total hospital-ward world…. It is a world of all faint grays, the "Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg." There are no decisive whites or blacks ("with so few Negroes and Jews we've been reduced / to hating each other, dumping our crud / in our rivers, mistreating the Indians"), no exploding lights or darks, only pale and fading neutrals—neutral colors for sexless neuter humans. All the senses have atrophied, not just sight; but the psychic malaise is expertly portrayed as a chromatic wasteland, a world robbed of its color, reduced to bland, diluted fakes of color. Hugo suggests that the greatest poverty, in Stevens's phrase, might be to live in a colorless world; the surest antidote to our impoverishment would be to restore radiance of color to the world by retraining the faculty of color-perception, and discovering—with Hugo—the remarkable spiritual aliveness that lurks just below the brilliant iridescent surfaces of wildlife, woods, rivers…. (pp. 211-12)

Laurence Lieberman, "Richard Hugo" (originally published under a different title in The Yale Review, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, October, 1973), in his

(This entire section contains 605 words.)

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Vol. LXIII, No. 1, October, 1973), in his Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964–77 (© 1973 by Laurence Lieberman; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1977, pp. 209-12.

William H. Pritchard

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[Richard Hugo] is our Western Wordsworth, the coarser pleasures of his earlier years all gone by…. [What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American] is continuous with his last (The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir) and together they have most certainly squeezed all there is to be gotten out of that past; touch any of these poems at any point and you get essential Hugo…. The trouble is that you can't tell one poem from another, the talker does go on and on at the same pitch, confident that his speech will turn into poems. Really the way to read Hugo is to abandon yourself and wait for the line that has a kick to it…. Hugo is trying to come to terms with his own demons; I wish him well, and don't too much begrudge the fact that this activity doesn't invariably result in poems which move beyond privacy or achieve an aesthetic shape that's there for all to admire. He is a "you-man" poet—"The souls / of unique animals and girls above the moisture / wave hello when you come into view"—and I'm sometimes though not always his man. (pp. 295-96)

William H. Pritchard, "Despairing at Styles: 'What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American'," in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXVII, No. 5, February, 1976, pp. 295-96.

Vereen M. Bell

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31 Letters and 13 Dreams is not a collection of poems out of which anthology pieces might be quarried, but a coherent volume which makes a kind of forlorn human ecology from its themes of creation, loneliness, and community.

Loneliness is and has been Hugo's main subject but his is of an ancient and timeless kind, existential and creative, in other words, rather than neurotic and dissociated, a loneliness in the universe out of which one is forced to make and then appropriate one's own humanity. At the core of this loneliness is the sense of unworth or, in effect, of not being, or, at least, of being inadequate to one's dream of one's self. From brooding over this condition Hugo has evolved a strange and complex aesthetic…. The poem—for its duration only—is … an act of making a better self: "An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance." For the poet, then, it is necessary that failure be the normative condition of life, otherwise there is no motive to write; success, internalized, is the nemesis of creativity…. However bizarre an aesthetic this may seem to laymen—that a poet must cause his ego to suffer humiliation in order to have the gratification of writing poems (why not suffer less and not write?)—it is morally significant as Hugo acts upon it because it has the effect of grounding the aesthetic in ethical self-awareness. Hugo is far too modest to say so, but his poems show that to resist hubris, especially the artist's special kind, is to share and understand the deprived lot of common humanity. To choose loneliness is, paradoxically, to achieve a forbidding community with simple people—in Hugo's case with whites, Indians, half-breeds, men and women who live on the margins of existence, mostly in bars, in the exposed isolation of Montana and Idaho towns. (pp. 143-45)

Over the last ten years (roughly since Good Luck in Cracked Italian) Hugo has become progressively more visible in his poems. So it is no surprise that in the latest volume there is barely any poetic structure or poetic idiom in the letters between us and him and his painfully prosaic subjects. The earliest letters are in fact morbidly self-effacing…. Self-pity is not the object here, though. These early expressions of honest and embarrassed pain and humiliation measure the poet as a man of decidedly un-Olympian pretension and earn him the right to empathize with and speak for others later whose estranged lives are darker and mute reflections of his own. Hugo's own origins in poverty and emotional deprivation have earned him this right historically, but for the volume it must be earned dramatically as well, and it is.

In craft and character the poet in these poems keeps a compulsively low profile. At the same time most of the letters are to other poets, so the continuity between poetry and living—for Hugo a necessary continuity ("I want my life / inside to go on long as I do")—is an inevitable theme. Thoughtful generalizations therefore emerge naturally from otherwise uncommemorated events and lives. The sadness of seeing a vast shopping center raised over the fertile land once farmed by Seattle's Nisei before the war—"Lettuce sparkled like a lake"—before they were cruelly compounded and their lands taken away, causes him to apprehend a cruelty in time and change which is deeper than the merely human. Such cleavages, he reflects, are so complete that we are disrupted from ourselves and are compelled to "return to the field of first games" and "to look hard for the broken toy," for "the rock we called home plate," for "evidence to support our claim / our lives really happened." So what happened to the Nisei in a sense happens to us all, and it is for the Nisei, that he says, looping back at the end of a drifting poem, "I'm going back home, not bent / under the load of old crops, still fat and erect, still with faith / we process what grows to the end, the poem." ("Letter to Matthews from Barton Street Flats")…. These are models of what I understand Hugo's creative purpose to be: what the poem does for the poet's self, make it acceptable, poetry does for even the very worst of our lives. And of course it follows from this chastened, demotic view that the whole spirit of poetry is not all in words…. For many of the towns with the austere names and the poignant population statistics … which these letters come from there seems to be no good reason for the poet's being there. This makes him seem that much more like an indigenous poetic spirit of the place. The fact that the letters are undated and arranged in no apparent chronological order makes time into something that just happens, an unspecific oppression, not to be pinned down or mastered. (pp. 146-48)

The volume's dreams are wonderfully rendered and they express the deepest and most intractable fears of rejection and alienation, the paranoia, which the conscious communication of the letters strives to transcend. The relationship between the two forms seem to be inversely reciprocal in the way that 31 and 13 are. If they influence each other at all, it is the communion of the letters which seems to prevail, to relieve the neurotic pressure in the dreams. The dreams begin to take on the cryptic intelligibility of Taoist parables, to seem like messages indicating a way…. And indeed it is the dreams which confirm for us the realization that a kind of clearing and a temporary Edenic peace have been achieved, or at least are imaginable, by the volume's end…. [The] last poem, balancing (or perhaps balanced by) a penultimate lonely, motel-on-the-road letter for Richard Howard, is another "Good Dream" which this time is not dreamlike in structure and therefore seems intended to be a dream—in the other sense—a dreamed vision of a town. This one is the positive reverse of all the towns (except Pony) which we have seen before. For here peace prevails and "All day festive tunes / explain your problems are over." "Storms are spotted far off enough / to plan going home and home has a fire." The policemen are old and kindly. Anger is outlawed…. If all of this seems a bit sappy, considering everything that has gone before, that, probably, is part of its point: it expresses the extravagance of delight at having, temporarily, come through; and the final "town" poem is a wish of the poet's to share his private euphoria, as before in the raw town he has shared and projected his private grief. We may also be intended to be turned away by this pastoral fantasy back toward the center with the realization that this is not after all what we truly want, that insofar as we are human, as Stevens said, "the imperfect is our paradise" and that it is this "bitterness" with its "flawed words and stubborn sounds" which Richard Hugo, we know by now, was born to strive, and willfully fail, to transcend. (pp. 148-50)

Vereen M. Bell, "We Are Called Human," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1978, pp. 143-50.

Alan Helms

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There is no question that Hugo is a poet of talent, but his work is marred from its beginnings to the present: Though there is excellence in many of the poems he has written, he has hardly ever written an excellent poem.

In general, Hugo's poems behave erratically, moving in starts and stops, dispersing energy and scattering attention. "A Night With Cindy at Heitman's" demonstrates some of the problems…. Despite some excellent writing and an intermittently strong emotional appeal, this poem never achieves coherence. (pp. 107-08)

"A Night With Cindy" is typical of Hugo's poetry in being stopped short of a finished art. Several problems thwart the poems, and they occur throughout Hugo's writing. Sometimes a poem stumbles because of forced diction: "transpierce," "dural," "lunitidal"—words that only dictionaries speak. More often, poems bog down in convoluted syntax…. The impression is of clotted perception, of meaning struggling to free itself from the toils of labored language. Sometimes poems falter because they propose the incredible…. Hugo occasionally twists what he knows to be true in order to suit the mood of a particular poem or to gratify his own slant vision. The resultant odd perspectives crop up in similes like "a line / strong as Transatlantic cable and weak ideals," "a past weak as the future of stone," or that in mention of a place "where the ocean / scatters on the rocks to die like homes." In this last simile, the image of "homes" is a powerful one for Hugo, who thinks of "home" as a place of loss, humiliation, and defeat. (p. 109)

Because of such private associations, Hugo's writing can become hermetic. (p. 110)

Hugo's pose as poet also damages his work. He concocts awkward phrases like "southless birds" and "officed lawyers," speaks of "waiting the train," and in describing an old Italian woman, refers to "the flies that crawl her face." "Indian Girl" opens with a beautiful evocation of the pathetic girl "preparing herself for years / of shacks and drunks, stale air filling morning / and the fire out, grease a soapy gray in pots."… A moving truth, simply stated, is followed by a farrago of language gone berserk. Indian girl and poem become distorted as two voices—one Hugo's, the other Stevens'—compete for our attention; the Indian girl disappears in a bizarre daydream of what a poem should be. (pp. 110-11)

Of all the elements of his art, however, it is prosody which gives Hugo most trouble…. In most of his poems, Hugo "contracts" with his reader for a blank verse line, a public metrical property which we recognize easily and which carries with it the expectation of many end-stopped, thought-shaped lines. While maintaining the appearance of blank verse, however, Hugo writes to a quirky rule which places priority on initial and medial breaks, occasional four-beat lines, and what might in his case be called end-starting instead of end-stopping: practices which violate the dynamics and conventions of his line. (pp. 111-12)

Hugo's partial poetics demonstrate how much he himself relies on unmediated feeling and piecemeal attention to guide him in his writing. It is the character of these impulses—the intuition, the feeling—which accounts for the problems in his poetry…. A desire for distraction followed by a celebration of diffusion and non-relation—these are harmful impulses in anyone from whom we expect focus and unity, sustained concentration, and the discovery of relation. Nevertheless, these impulses are powerful ones in Hugo, and they explain why his poems behave so erratically. (pp. 112-13)

Hugo surveys one of the bleakest prospects in American life—the cramped battleground on which the loser wages war with himself. Often characterized as a poet of loss, of the uninviting and unloved, Hugo is by the same token a poet of the uninvited and unloving, the American loser who's down, but not enough out of the running for the American Dream to be relieved of its attendant obsessions…. (p. 113)

He acts out in his poetry the psychosocial dynamic of the oppressed as described by [Frantz] Fanon. Thus, he hides in his poetry, self-consciously sees himself as he imagines others see him, feels "wrong" and unwanted and apart, thinks ahistorically and apolitically, imitates the attitudes of the "masters" in gestures of propitiation and self-defense, and though filled with rage for the people who victimize him, cannot direct those feelings at his "oppressors." Bred to a divided consciousness, he is unable to discern how his own victimization relates to the victimization of others. For example, Hugo perceives fully his own need for sympathy and acceptance, yet he writes some of the most unsympathetic, even cruel poetry I've ever read. (p. 114)

A similarly divided consciousness afflicts Hugo's attitudes toward his art. On the one hand, he theorizes with Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Valéry, Hopkins, et al in his prose; publishes "A Poet's Statements of Faith" in the Atlantic (April, 1977); names his fifth book after a famous line from Pound; and concludes the same book with "The Art of Poetry," a title that clearly means business. Yet this is the same man who in a prose excerpt from his forthcoming autobiography has written that "All art is corny or it isn't art, a thing some modern poets seem to forget."

Or is it the same man? Don't we rather have two Richard Hugo's speaking to us throughout this troubled body of work? One Hugo has learned to pose and dissemble, to brandish imperatives and absolutes in a show of confidence, to play it tough and write butch…. Then there is the other Hugo, a talented writer who tries in his moving but fugitive voice to confront the difficult meaning of that life…. (p. 115)

The beliefs on which Hugo's poems are founded are ambivalent and often inconsistent. Deprived of a strong, coherent center, the poems behave centrifugally—dispering energy, scattering attention, breaking into parts, tumbling down one after another. Although this judgment holds for Hugo's latest book, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, oddly enough it doesn't matter, because Hugo has now found forms and materials which obviate the problem. We don't expect the parts of a letter to be related necessarily, nor do we ask of a dream that it be coherent. Hugo is therefore free to meander as he pleases, proceding on the assumption that "the next thing you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense or narrative development, but because you put it there." Nothing is too private or too trivial to find a place in this book; if it happened to Hugo, it merits mention, as if Hugo somehow needs to publish the paraphernalia of his life in order to verify his existence: "evidence to support our claim / our lives really happened." Because of such eager self-exposure, and because too of Hugo's use of the poem as an instrument of self-therapy, the book feels distinctly contemporary.

In the letters, Hugo surrenders any obligation to shape his materials and merely arranges flaccid, occasional prose into verse lines. The writing is less convoluted and posed than in the past, but this new clarity and directness make the extremes of good and bad writing more obvious. Since most of the book is dominated by the self-pitying, self-aggrandizing Hugo, most of the writing is breezy, vulgar, simplistic, drunken, or boring…. When the more modest, thoughtful, sympathetic Hugo is allowed to speak, the writing becomes coherent and sometimes deeply moving, as it is throughout most of "Letter to Levertov from Butte."

Hugo has written that this poem is his favorite of all the letter poems, because "there I tackled head on the problem of many poets in my generation, those of us who were children during the depression and who saw our parents trapped by economic circumstances."… Moving with purpose and direction, the [second half of the poem] accumulates energy as it builds to the scene of despair which is perhaps the most powerful illustration of Hugo's theme. By writing on his subject and to his reader, he sharpens and sustains his focus; by admitting and addressing his "ambiguous feelings," he confronts the ambivalence that unbalances earlier writing. The result is a poetry of confrontation instead of evasion, as well as a coherence and fullness of vision unmatched by his previous work.

To speak of such important matters with sustained power—this is Hugo at his best, and it demonstrates, I think, what people have in mind when they praise his work. Unfortunately, Hugo rarely writes at his best. He continues to create in the rut of an obession, and his poetry consequently seems claustrophobic, self-absorbed, and narrow in vision. His considerable talent continues to be unfocused and to result in unbalanced writing, for the same conflict which gives him his vision prevents him from ever fully conveying it. This seems the inevitable tragedy of a work the poet himself has described as "constant replay of harm." (pp. 116-18)

Alan Helms, "Writing Hurt: The Poetry of Richard Hugo," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1978, by Media Study, Inc.), Vol. 9, No. 2, Autumn, 1978, pp. 106-18.

Robert Holland

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Since the earliest days of his career, Richard Hugo has lived with the "snakey thought that art is always failure." It is a suspicion with which, by his sixth book, he has become reasonably comfortable. Now it is success which has become the demon…. Hugo's strategy for dealing with this success is to meet it head on, to embrace it. Most of the letters in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams are written to poets—fellow contemporary poets whom Hugo has met at readings, workshops, universities; poets with whom he has fished, drunk, brawled, and taught; in one case, a poet he has bombed. Having, by his own admission, for many years felt isolated from the larger literary community, Hugo here seems to revel in his acceptance, even as he is apprehensive. The familiar dispossessed first person of the earlier books is still here, no less pained, but more relaxed and open, less ponderous, less possessed by the past, willing to chat gregariously about his sexual desires and frustrations, his analyst, his teaching career, his humiliations with women, his love of poetry.

I have always had little sympathy with the Western literary mythos which has informed a certain segment of American poetry, the two-fisted, hard-drinking bard of the harsh landscape, fighting with his demons, sorry for his sins in the morning, even as he writes about them. And I have even less for the poetry of the Workshop, full of coeds and academic name-dropping, prattling of Bread Loaf and tenure. So it came as a pleasant surprise to me to find that Hugo here combines the two and makes out of such unpromising material some of the best poetry he has yet produced. What makes these poems transcend the limitations of the Western confessional mode are the qualities which make any poetry good: strong language, scrupulous honesty, a steadfast refusal to oversimplify the issues. And, as antidote to the egotistical sublime (as well as the egotistical ridiculous), a generosity of spirit and a large portion of self-deprecation. (p. 351)

Fear of success, for a poet like Hugo, who has told himself "suffer, stay poor and I can create," is merely another manifestation of his fear of failure. But obviously he is surviving his success, knowing somewhere inside that all of it is irrelevant as long as he rededicates himself to his art…. (p. 352)

Robert Holland, "Lost and Found: '31 Letters and 13 Dreams'," in Poetry (© 1979 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXIII, No. 6, March, 1979, pp. 351-52.

Donald Hall

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Richard Hugo has the knack of always sounding like himself. "The Triggering Town" consists of "Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing," and every page reads like a man talking, a man who celebrates, blames, remembers, argues, praises and reveals. We listen, alternately nodding and shaking our heads, always aware of one man's voice.

The best writing here is reminiscence….

In the argumentative and pedagogical essays that make up most of the book, Mr. Hugo's manner is a foxy informality, relaxed to the point where you believe he may fall off the stool, as informal as Perry Como—and whenever we become beguiled, Mr. Hugo makes an apothegm. This book is full of sentences about writing…. (p. 11)

Mr. Hugo asks for short sentences, banishes the semicolon as ugly and argues against the conjunction. Demonstrating a revision, he steps back from a newly derived compound sentence and says of his clauses: "Now they are equal. Style and substance may represent a class system. The imagination is a democracy." But the society of simple sentences, or of compounds linking comradely arms with "and" or "or," reminds me of George Orwell's dronelike proles. Faced with this coordinate mass, I must defect to the White Guard of complex, subordinated, even periodic aristocracy.

For all Mr. Hugo's advocacy of this democracy, he writes in his own prose and poetry a mean subordinate clause. The contrast is typical of his manner: relaxation relieved by epigram. It seems to me that American poetry now is afflicted with simplicity, with a tendency toward artificial naïveté, and with the willed transparencies of basic syntax. In this good book, which accuses itself as often as it defends itself, Mr. Hugo makes a wonderful confession: "I confess I'm not nearly as naïve as I sometimes appear…. Our vulnerability can also be unhealthy—the social counterpart of the kind of exposure some report to the police." This sentence is naïve the way a fox is dumb, the way a trout is foolish. (pp. 11, 34)

Donald Hall, "Like a Man Talking," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1979, pp. 11, 34.

Tom Simmons

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"Selected Poems" confirms Hugo's reputation as a poet with arresting approaches to the issues of human values and technology, of power, desolation, and love.

The idea of place, of a geographical focus, is important to Hugo. The landscapes of Italy and the American West dominate his writing. But Hugo does not simply derive his themes from the natural environment. His strength lies in his ability to portray and interpret the character of life in these places….

Hugo often reminds the reader that an artist risks his own betrayal by converting the human world into metaphysical symbols. For Hugo, the mingling of the mind with the concrete substance of the human world is the beginning of mystery….

Hugo is well-acquainted with the hard stone of life, and he makes no attempt to conceal this experience in his poetry. On the contrary, one of his greatest strengths is his willingness to examine the backs of things, the remnants, the junk-yards of society.

Love is finally the extraordinary power. Though rarely divorced from pain in Hugo's poem, love provides support for dealing with grief and fragmentation; and when it bursts forth, purely, in Hugo's poetry, it is at once touching and thrilling.

Tom Simmons, "Technology—and the Power of Love—in Verse," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), August 13, 1979, p. B1.

John Vernon

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Hefting the Selected Poems … and thinking of reading it, I realized that I don't always contemplate or remember Hugo's poems with the same fondness and excitement I feel while actually reading them. I think this is because when they're remembered, the tone and voice of the poems predominate, and this is an amazingly uniform tone over the body of his work, one that can seem monotonous after a while. The line is basically a blank verse line, always quantitatively if not rhythmically regular, always predictably filled out. This predictability is obviously a choice Hugo has made, a decision to confine his risks by means of habit, to limit his gaze so he can see things clearly and sharply. In some ways it's a decision to plod, and a brave decision when all around you are experimenting with this and that and extolling the virtues of not knowing what you're doing, of writing to discover. Hugo didn't join that revolution in the 60's when poets who had been writing formal verse suddenly relaxed their lines and wrote highly personal and/or visionary poems (Merwin, Lowell, Wright, Bly, etc.). He stopped rhyming perhaps, but that was something he had done only occasionally anyway. That revolution hasn't really ended, and many still feel today that one has to constantly renew one's style and take risks. I don't necessarily think this is wrong, as I'm sure Hugo doesn't, but it obviously isn't this way, and a large part of the excellence of his work lies precisely in the knowledge of what is his way, what is his range, his subject matter, his style, what he can do with words and what he can't. He doesn't fall on his face like a lot of poets do because he walks carefully with his eyes wide open. This lessens the possibility of the unexpected in his poems, but guarantees that the knowledge contained in them will be true and solid and exact.

Hugo always seems eminently balanced to me. His opposite among poets might have been Charles Olsen, wheezing, reeling, off-balance and giddy in everything he did and wrote. Hugo's balanced tone is created partly by the method of economical, reporterly observation. He gives us news, and usually news of a place: travel reports and tourist brochures of the spiritual landscapes most tourists ignore, the shacks and boarding houses, rivers reduced to a trickle, abandoned brick yards, dead end roads, marginal ways (as in the title of one of his poems). Most of these places are in the American West; even when he writes about a cantina in Italy, it sounds like a bar in Montana. This is due in part to his uniformity of tone, and in part to his obsession with the forgotten and abandoned things of history. The West is the land of the American imagination, and of the failures of that imagination, the abandoned mining towns with their dance floors built on springs. The West is a land that seemed to be abandoned almost as soon as it was discovered; one feels that the gods just disappeared over the horizon, leaving these splendid ruins, these mines and mountains. It is a land, as Hugo knows, where the abandoned past and the unfulfilled present live side by side. "Isn't this your life?" he asks. (pp. 352-53)

Hugo's impulse to write in the second person must have something to do with a suspicion of the lyrical "I." There is a kind of superficially personal poem which asks us to be interested in it by virtue of the pronoun: I woke up this morning, I'm drifting in a rowboat, I'm walking through the fields, and so on. The difficulty with that voice has always been that the assumption of interest in the self will overwhelm the drama of a self in a landscape. Naturally the reader can always say who cares? In other words, the difficulty is that of the poet engaging the reader in his own solipsism. Hugo's second person is an antidote to solipsism, even if its subject often is a kind of solipsism…. The second person is often accompanied by qualifiers—you should, you could, you might, if you—which make it clear that there's always something fictional and provisional about it. But it also often assumes an imperative tone, in which the poet tells us what to do, what to see, think, imagine. Of course, in all this Richard Hugo is still the subject of the poems every bit as much as in an "I" poem. But he's a displaced subject in a displaced landscape, trying to make connections, to find the link between himself and the places around him. "You might come here Sunday on a whim." You begin to realize what a great poet Hugo is when you sense the perfection of that opening line. It's all downhill from there, instructions and accounts dealing with the self engaging a landscape and losing some of its bloated ego and learning something in the process. No one else can do this without sounding like Hugo (and many do, these days), but Hugo does it in order not to sound too much like himself, in order to go out into things, to engage and confront them. He doesn't, however, lose himself in things; he's not a visionary poet. The instructions he gives are clear, deliberate, and work in part to preserve the boundary between self and other. The boundary is part of the clarity which then enables the self to confront the other, touch it, engage it, know it, describe it, bring it to life. None of this happens through tricks or flashy images or fractured syntax, but through intelligence, clarity, and the absolute attention to what is there. (pp. 353-54)

John Vernon, "Recent Poetry: Richard Hugo," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1979, University of Utah), Vol. 33, No. 4, Autumn, 1979, pp. 352-55.

Emily Grosholz

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Richard Hugo's letter-poems appear towards the end of his Selected Poems, culled from his book 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. These letters, written mostly to other poets from various western locations ("Letter to Kizer from Seattle") are wise and moving meditations on friendship, place, displacement and poetry. They are far superior to the dreampoems which accompany them; most dreams, as such, have no natural public content, and I find these recountings unintelligible. The letter-poems, in contrast, are doubly shareable, for by writing his letters as poems the poet has raised intensely personal communication to statements of universal significance. (p. 300)

Hugo, in particular, is primarily a pastoral poet, though in a precarious sense of the term, for the nature he broods over is blasted and disjointed. He writes of mill-towns on the reeking, polluted rivers of the American Northwest, and of the poor (including most of the remaining Indians) who scratch out a living and drink away their weekends there. The power of his vision is undeniable….

Hugo knows this countryside like the back of his (mechanic-poet-fisherman's) hand, its desolation, its enormity, and he is harshly clear-eyed about the hopelessness of mythical, the viciousness of mechanical, constructions upon it. Reading through his Selected Poems, I can see that the poet has worked out a separate peace for himself; yet that leaves unsolved the dilemma of how the human figure is to be integrated into the torn landscape. (p. 301)

Emily Grosholz, "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1980 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 293-308.∗




Hugo, Richard F(ranklin) (Vol. 32)