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


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard F(ranklin) Hugo 1923–1982

American poet, novelist, editor, and essayist.

Hugo was a poet of the Pacific Northwest, yet his renown attests to a stature greater than that of most "regional" poets. He is noted for the tight, rhythmic control of his language and lines and for the sharp sense of place evoked in his poems. Hugo's images are urgent and compelling; he imbues the many minute or seemingly irrelevant details found in his poems with a subtle significance, thereby creating a tension between the particular and the universal. This tension is considered central to Hugo's most powerful poems.

In his poems Hugo reflected as much upon the internal region of the individual as on the external region of the natural world, and he considered these two deeply interconnected. According to Frederick Garber, "the landscape where things happen to Hugo goes as far into his mind as it goes outside of it"; Hugo's poetry "is about the meeting of these landscapes." The role of the past as a shaping force on the individual predominates. While "failed towns, isolated people and communities imprisoned in walls of boredom and rage," as Michael Allen notes, are often the subjects of Hugo's poems, there is also a pervading sense of optimism, of an uplifting hope, as Hugo puts it, "that humanity will always survive civilization."

Critics have praised Hugo's technical skills, the emotional impact of his compressed images, and the casual, sometimes humorous tone of his poems. In addition to his major collections—including A Run of Jacks (1961), Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965), Good Luck in Cracked Italian (1969), The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973), What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (1975), 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977), and Selected Poems (1979)—Hugo also wrote a mystery, Death and the Good Life (1981), and a posthumously published novel, The Hitler Diaries (1983). His forte, however, was poetry, and his characteristic stance as a self-analytic writer, a perceptive observer, and a Westerner is again evident in his posthumous collection Sea Lanes Out (1983).

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, Vol. 108 [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

James Schevill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "A Run of Jacks," Richard F. Hugo] writes short, descriptive poetry focusing on places and things. He tends to stress the word and the image rather than the complete experience, so that often wholeness is sacrificed to individual effect. Thus we have at the end of one poem such a statement as, "Tonight the sea will come like the eyes / of all cats in the world stampeding." The word "stampeding" seems too calculated an attempt to shape a striking final image. Too many of Hugo's poems suffer from the quest for a false originality that plagues so many poets today. Yet, at his best, he reaches out into the natural world with an impressive sense of identity. Based mainly on images from his native Pacific Northwest, his poems often strike through to the power of this country torn from its Indian past…. (p. 25)

James Schevill, "Experience in Image, Sound, and Rhythm," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLV, No. 18, May 5, 1962, pp. 24-7.∗

Paul Fussell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Death of the Kapowsin Tavern] brilliantly registers the poet's love affair with the wry, twisted language of Hopkins, Robert Lowell, and Dylan Thomas. Indeed, these poems take startling risks with language, and even where they fail they persuade us that the risks have been worth the taking. The very openings seize the reader and hustle him on into the poems' knotty but honest interiors…. The opening of the title poem, about the ruins of a burnt-down tavern, generates from language the sort of sheer excitement that has hardly been equalled since the appearance of Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle in 1946…. The language, even when in its excess it turns affected and hectic, seems to follow the very curves and mouldings of experience itself. But if Hugo's technique dazzles, his themes disappoint: his confrontations with sinister places, flowing waters, and the perpetual mystery of fecundity become repetitive, and his obsessions with the losses of the past come finally to seem unfresh, automatic. (p. 30)

Paul Fussell, "How to Sing of a Diminished Thing," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 27, July 3, 1965, pp. 30-2.∗

The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of the words used to describe Richard F. Hugo's first book of poems, "A Run of Jacks," perhaps the most repeated was "powerful." This second book ["Death of the Kapowsin Tavern"] is also powerful, with a raw but compassionate strength that is appropriate to the rough and dying strength of the far west where the human need for life lingers in the burned ruins and rotten rivers of a new civilization no better than the old. These poems are ugly poems often, but of an ugliness which is its own beauty, a human beauty not of form and grace but of action and passion. His discovery of beauty in violence and ugly disaster is the vision of a poet of intense insight; Richard F. Hugo, too, is a poet of skill matching that vision. (pp. cxxi, cxxiv)

A review of "Death of the Kapowsin Tavern," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Autumn, 1965), pp. cxxi, cxxiv.

E. L. Mayo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hugo, in these delightful, observant poems [in Good Luck in Cracked Italian], brings back Italy to America so that we see it not as a tourist trap but as a country of marvellous beauty that has suffered more and endured longer than America has. (p. 115)

Time past and time present fuse in many of these poems. The time dimension, sometimes Hugo's past, sometimes Europe's, gives pathos and dignity to everything the poet sees and does. He retains, nevertheless, a sharp eye for the beauties of the Italian seashore and countryside. His landscapes furthermore are always peopled, not with tourists or artists or nobility, but with Italian working people: farmers, fishermen, most of whom are still desperately poor. (p. 116)

The title of this book is very significant. It tells us that the poet is trying very hard to communicate with people, in this case with the Italian people, but that because of some defect in his accent or idiom what he has to say is not coming through. From this feeling of inadequacy or self-distrust arises the note of controlled desperation that we hear all through the poems. What could be more typical of the predicament of all Americans abroad? We all have something important we want to say, about our feeling for them, about America; and nobody will listen, or if they listen do not seem to understand.

There are, incidentally, no aristocrats, intellectuals (except Galileo), writers...

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J. D. Reed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Good Luck in Cracked Italian] deals with a revisit to Italy, twenty years after WWII. Unlike most such collections it does not smack of the "where are the meters and sentiments of yesteryear?" Here, the young bombardier of twenty years ago sees an even more terrible world. This intensification of feeling calls up a new force in a poet whose ability to handle dynamite was proved in Death Of The Kapowsin Tavern…. Hugo's special and abiding force as a poet is landscape, an art in rejection. He can present land as raw and undeniable as a welfare check. Italy is perfect country for this kind of presentation, but I think we can all be glad that this fine poet has done his damned Italian book. Though the book contains some of his finest poems, they lack sometimes the stark music of his Northwest poems. Perhaps now he'll concentrate on the renaming of Montana, and heal more wounds that sing with such a grace.

J. D. Reed, in a review of "Good Luck in Cracked Italian," in Sumac: An Active Anthology, Vol. 3, No. 11, Winter, 1971, p. 154.

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Italian interval—wartime service and the return, twenty years later, to not only the tourist trappings (Keats's grave, Galileo's chair, Tiberius's cliff) but to horrid Puglia, "a country where we never fail, / grow old or die, but simply move unnoticed / to the next cold town"—is shown, in this crisp, level book [Good Luck in Cracked Italian], to be a kind of developing-tank for what has been Richard Hugo's negative all along, enabling him to conjugate his themes into their final, obsessive twist: "what endures is what we have neglected".

Turning from the desolations of the Pacific Northwest which his first two books had constituted as the grounds for his divorce from himself, the poet...

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Frederick Garber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Hugo's poems are infused with an essential strangeness that is both immediate and pervasive, the first and last qualities in all the landscapes where things happen to him. It is comforting to say that Hugo is a regional poet, a celebrator of place who stares out at the Pacific Northwest; but its glance meets his stare as a lighthouse beacon hits the eye of a beguiled fish. Furthermore, the region in which he is located is as much within him as without, and most often in both places at once. The landscape where things happen to Hugo goes as far into his mind as it goes outside of it, and the landscape inside has a relationship with the one outside which words like contiguity and continuity,...

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hugo's America is a post-frontier landscape-and-community. His poems are elegies for what was already moribund, the ghost towns or the by-passed crossroad villages of the North Central West, Lutheran and impoverished; company towns abandoned by the companies, or relegated by a high-powered economy that had scant mercy for the small farmer fighting drought or the storekeeper who hadn't moved out when the copper mine was exhausted. Whatever sociology or waterless acre of history may be gleaned from Hugo's arid, dehumanized small town is not his frontal subject. His poems are about the ethos of the Protestant provincial survivals beyond the American Pale. He doesn't, very often, mourn the heroic...

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Michael Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Any understanding of Richard Hugo's West must begin back in the 1890s when three easterners invented the West that has played such an important part in American culture in this century. The West of Frederick Remington, Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister grew out of the expansive energies of easterners who made, consciously or unconsciously, a myth of American toughness overcoming the vast potentialities of the West's natural resources. Owen Wister wanted his novel, The Virginian (1902), to become a national fable, uniting North and South, East and West; what he created was the figure of male hero who would have few feelings, few human connections and few needs; who would do his job in the wilderness...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Hugo is … a serious writer, a poet and essayist, and he has managed to hold on to some of his virtues in "Death and the Good Life." His hero, Al Barnes, is not only a deputy sheriff, but a poet as well. He may be the only poet in America who has read Rilke but not Baudelaire, but aside from that, he's reasonably disarming.

Barnes is more interested in women's "bottoms" than their breasts, which shows what poetry can do for suspense fiction. Mr. Hugo has a nice old-fashioned Dashiell Hammett-Raymond Chandler fondness for the labored simile. Barnes's police uniform impresses a bartender "about as much as the death of Jean Harlow." A hotel clerk looks "as prudish as Mae West."


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Roger Mitchell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Right Madness on Skye] is a very good effort. That came as a surprise—I think because of two large and unreliable preconceptions of mine about Hugo's work. In the first place, I have always taken his locating and describing of places as evidence in him, at a fundamental level, of a regional realist. He seemed to have much in common with Sherwood Anderson or Edgar Lee Masters, even Edwin Arlington Robinson. Reading my way recently through his other books, however, I saw a Hugo I hadn't seen before, one far less interested in region and regional identification than in what I'm tempted to call myth, a word he sometimes uses himself…. [Most of Hugo is compressed into the last stanza of "Duwamish No. 2"]:...

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Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When a poet turns to crime fiction, what do we get? Elegant writing? Avant-garde writing? In Richard Hugo's case, traditional writing. His first mystery is "Death and the Good Life" …, and it introduces a cop named Al Barnes, who operates out of Plains, Mont.

Mr. Hugo has a sympathetic eye for character—starting with Barnes himself, who is a former poet and the most soft-hearted deputy sheriff ever to track down evil. He feels sorry for people in trouble…. But Barnes is not really a softie, and nothing can stand in his way when he is determined to ferret out the truth. Two axe murders lead him to an old murder in Portland, Ore., where, in turn, a baseball game makes him sound the unlikely...

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Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hugo's is … a personal, even romantic, kind of poetry; in all his work there is a submerged, shadowy version of autobiography lying just beneath the detailed, descriptive surface. In White Center the poet returns to his starting place, the community contiguous to Seattle where he was raised. The early days were not happy ones for this speaker, as he makes clear in a comment on his verse in "Beaverbank."… (p. 185)

The process revealed by this book is an inherently healthy one, involving the gradual discovery of self, of happiness. The change is revealed most starkly, most dramatically in the beautiful concluding poem of the volume. "White Center" is directly about the original neighborhood,...

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Peter Serchuk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For even those who have followed the careful and steady development of Richard Hugo's verse these past ten to fifteen years—in particular since the publication of The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973)—White Center will seem a remarkable achievement. Although the book touches on most of the usual Hugo subjects—the West, the past, small towns and rivers—it moves far beyond the poet's other work in its thematic continuity, its control of language, and its imaginative zeal. What is more important, the book carries with it a tone of greater authority, a more seasoned and stable voice sure of its fifty-odd years of hard survival, yet free of the glorifying narcissism that often plagues our...

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Dave Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading Richard Hugo's Selected Poems one discovers a poet of unusual continuity in vision and execution. There are the benchmarks of change and of some evolution, but he does not show the radical alterations of style or thought which mark his contemporaries such as, say, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, James Wright, or Donald Hall. Indeed, the poems he includes here reinforce the sense that Hugo was born to say one kind of poem and knew what it was from the start. This is slightly deceptive. Just as Hugo has always tempted readers to see him as an immediate confessional poet of self-degradation, his Selected Poems eliminates work that shows his struggle to create an art characterized by tense passion and...

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Michael S. Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rejected. Humiliated. Degraded. Again and again when speaking in interviews, autobiographical essays, and poems, Richard Hugo brings these words into the discussion of his life. Besides offering, as Roethke had, a psychological theory for writing from obsession, Hugo also talks freely about the psychological problems in his past, covering the bleak areas of his life with an evenhandedness free from self-pity or posturing, admitting the power of emotional forces that we are sometimes born with and sometimes learn to submit to too easily. His talking about such matters in interviews and essays provides a basis for understanding the importance of those poems scattered throughout his work that refer to loss and...

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Peter Andrews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To a considerable degree an adventure novel represents a bargain struck between the reader and the author. I am willing to suspend my disbelief to the fullest if it will help the narrative get under way. But the author has to promise me that I will not be made to look like a fool if I do. In "The Hitler Diaries," despite recent events that have made the plot seem prophetic, Richard Hugo fails to live up to his end of the deal and what might have been a promising novel falls apart almost as quickly as the author puts it together.

Mr. Hugo starts with the interesting premise that during the war Adolf Hitler kept a secret diary which has been unearthed and is now being offered to an American publisher...

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Dave Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Hugo, widely considered the preeminent poet of Western America, proclaimed, "those words you can own … by right of obsessive musical deed." His subject was the American orphan, himself, refracted by scenes, people, weather, objects and creatures. Reading him is like browsing through second-hand shops with Wallace Stevens and Ernest Hemingway, chanting the mute histories of each cracked mirror and dented spittoon. Hugo felt and voiced the unprivileged, inarticulate world. His poems, although they are rarely outright narratives, tell the tale of the American search for identity and knowledge from the underbelly. One might say of him what he wrote about President Kennedy: "He was not afraid of what we are." His...

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Don Bogen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Hugo is not well served by this volume of collected poems [Making Certain It Goes On]. His eight large books are crammed together here, with poems beginning and ending in mid-page, some annoying typographical errors—including an abrupt change in the typeface of one poem—and a welter of blurbs cluttering the dust jacket. The title, with its fashionable gerund and open-ended tone, seems almost a parody of current literary fads. As a phrase, "making certain it goes on" is awkwardly colloquial and vague—making certain what goes on? As a title for twenty years of a man's work, it lacks dignity. Yet even with a cleaner format, more stringent proofreading and a sensible title, such a collection...

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Lex Runciman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Written after Richard Hugo's lung surgery in 1981, and completed just before his death in October of 1982, the poems of Sea Lanes Out are dominated by two competing yet complementary impulses: a sense of mortality on one hand, and persistence on the other. The mortality finds its expression in elegies, for Harold Herndon (owner of the Milltown bar of Hugo's earlier famous poem), for Hugo's father, for Zen Hoffman "in his powered wheelchair," for the "Confederate Graves in Little Rock," for Hugo's childhood house "now a church parking lot…." Against such destructions and provoked by them are the facts of memory, the effort to remember, and Hugo's insistence that imagination can assert people amount to more...

(The entire section is 496 words.)