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...
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William H. Pritchard
[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
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...
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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)
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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...
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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.
"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.
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...
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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...
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