Richard Hugo (1923 -1982) Poet of the Northwest

Now I’m dead, load what’s left on the wagon
and have the oxen move on.
—Richard Hugo, The Right Madness on Skye

One of my favorite poets is Richard Hugo. Something about his world of abandoned wastelands of the Northwest with its ghost towns, lonely souls, broken worlds of survival and civilization in decay; along with the steely eye intake of the natural, almost Saga like acceptance of the way of things in all their monstrous force of impersonal and indifference, has always struck me as a poetry of the American Sublime like no other. Yet, there is the fallible, the brokenness of the poet, himself, as well. A man whose vision of nature even in his early poem Trout would harbor the truth of our predatory universe that is as well full of subtle beauty and power, and yet, without falling into the Romantic Sublime. Hugo’s poetry has a certain cantankerous obstinacy about, a vision of life and the universe that combines both a stoic perseverance and a fierce acceptance or fatalistic gesture of charm and passion for the murderous intent that exists deep within the cosmos; one that pervades the stars as much as the predatory worlds of the natural realms we share life with on this planet. An impersonal and indifferent predation, one which we as humans all too often love to ignore at our peril. For we defend ourselves against this dark truth by inventing lies or poetry, fiction, and stories that help us live as if we were the exception to the universal rule. In his poem Trout he conveys this:

Quick and yet he moves like silt.
I envy dreams that see his curving
silver in the weeds. When stiff as snags
he blends with certain stones.
When evening pulls the ceiling tight
across his back he leaps for bugs.

I wedged hard water to validate his skin—
call it chrome, say red is on
his side like apples in a fog, gold
gills. Swirls always looked one way
until he carved the water into many
kinds of current with his nerve-edged nose.

And I have stared at steelhead teeth
to know him, savage in his sea-run growth,
to drug his facts, catalog his fins
with wings and arms, to bleach the black
back of the first I saw and frame the cries
that sent him snaking to oblivions cress.

There is a certain force released in that poem, a power of metaphor and description that almost makes us believe again in language, in that ancient covenant of the word of the poet as revealer, enchanter, diviner. Poetry of such power opens up the world and exposes its inner layers darkness, offers us — not so much a window onto reality, but rather a knowing that is in excess of the objects it perceives; brining a language that goes for the juggler and shows forth the struggle of man and nature in their endless agon, a poetry that sees into things without imposing the human will upon the outer forms of existence. This sense that what is lured out of the abyss is only a fragment of the hidden force lurking there rather than some message to be deciphered. Poetry is not interpretation, but rather a dance among the stones of fire, a shamanistic enactment of vision and excess that calls down the powers, and uplifts the dark fires at the heart of existence. Poetry seeks to divine in the hidden noumenal that which can never be truly be put into words: those edges of the dark light — the aura of its nihilist tracings, without ever settling down in any one fixed form; rather showing the dance of metaphor and metamorphosis of the savage world in all its voidic glory and corruption, a movement that traces its own impersonal desires without imposing our human fantasias. If the poet’s are madmen and inveiglers of the dead they are as well the keepers of those dark images that transport us into a knowing of things that cannot be attained by some reductionary and scientific reasoning which would kill it rather than reveal its power. If the sciences have broken the atom into smithereens, the poet’s broke the etym revealing the kernel of a hidden quatum of natural power that cannot be tapped by the sciences no matter how they try to lock reality down in their hard mathemes. Hugo’s poetry does not so much capture the world, but rather releases its sparks like a hammer on flint letting the words lift if only momentarily the veil of darkness that reveals the underlying savagery at the heart of existence.

As I quoted in the epigraph Hugo’s poetry speaks of an acceptance and equanimity toward life in the universe that is neither a denial, nor a remorse but rather of a that knowing that things will go on even as we reenter the dark loam of existence. From darkness to darkness we come, we go. And while men of religion and philosophy have struggled to attain some immortal vision of escape, Hugo (like me) accepts what is here, now: the truth that this is it, the monstrous beauty and terror of our universe that gives back nothing to our questioning heart, but reveals instead a darker truth that most of us are unwilling to accept or believe but is nevertheless essential: that it is humans that seem, at least on this small planet on the edge of a small star on a minor galaxy at the edge of nothingness to be an accidental anomaly in an otherwise blank and impervious realm of process that we cannot encompass with all our linguistic or mathematical prowess; yet, must in the end neither bow down too, nor fly from, but rather see was is there to see with eyes that have been shriven of their defensive fantasies. Hugo’s poetry may fail in the end to attain such a sublime, yet it is in the indefatigable striving that is his glory and our admiration.

Hugo also wrote a novel Death and the Good Life which seems to bring out that world tapped into such men as James Crumley another Montanaite and writer of detective fiction and noir mysteries; along with another of my favorite authors of noir James Lee Burke, whose  best known for his Dave Robicheaux series, and though a native of Louisiana spends a great deal of time living up in Montana and the Northwest territories. As Kirkus says of Hugo’s work:

A strong mystery debut for poet Hugo–and for narrator-cop Al Barnes, a 17-year Seattle policeman who has opted for the quiet life as a deputy sheriff in Sanders County, Montana. All of a sudden, however, things aren’t so quiet: the accountant from the local mill is axe-murdered on a fishing trip, soon followed by the axe-murder of the mill manager. And Al himself quickly tracks down the homicidal maniac–a beautiful 6’6″” woman who hates men and is responsible for the first death. . . but not the second (she’s got an alibi)! So, clearly, someone is trying to pass off the death of mill manager Robin Tingley as one of the maniac’s series–and Al thinks he’s found the motive: lingering revenge stemming from a murder case some years back, when high-schooler Robin testified against one of his classmates. So it’s off to Oregon to interview all those old classmates (a divertingly sleazy crowd) and to focus in on Robin’s estranged (and strange) wife.

As Alice Bolin said of Hugo in the Paris Review speaking of his graves poems, tells us ” It is hard not to think of the pictures of Hugo that are ubiquitous in Missoula, of him grasping a gigantic fish and cackling or standing stoic, holding a whiskey and a cigarette in the same hand. Living here and seeing him so often, you can feel like you know him. But any photo fades, and these pictures of Hugo are less reminders of him than reminders that no photo can convey what he was really like—in fact we are getting farther away all the time.” So it goes with words, no matter how we try to divine the past, to bring alive the natural which is already seeping into the dark we seem to always be tracing the pattern on the shores of oblivion that will exceed our linguistic prowess, and yet it is in that very temptation that has brought us the great poetry from Homer to Shakespeare and beyond. For in the end poetry is not so much a revelation, as it is a desperate cry in the wilderness of time that humanity existed even if only for a moment in the darkness of the scattered light that is this universe. That will have to be enough.

Yet, not all is rosy with Hugo, either. A lifelong alcoholic like his friend James Wright, Hugo seemed to allow a certain sentimentalism into his poetry that mars an otherwise powerful poet from attaining a certain excellence. Hugo married Barbara Williams in 1952, a marriage that ended unhappily when she left him in 1964; they were divorced in 1966. Many of his poems seem to reflect a bitterness and failure at the heart of his life and thought that pervade many of his unmemorable poems.  In 1963, Hugo and his wife Barbara traveled to Italy. This trip would provide inspiration for his 1969 book, Good Luck in Cracked Italian. Upon returning, he took a position as visiting lecturer at the University of Montana in Missoula. After his wife left him, Hugo endured a very tumultuous and emotionally unstable period. He had never taught before and feared that he couldn’t do it. Frequently, he took refuge in the country at the Milltown Union Bar. Many of his poems deal with this seamy side of his life, as he wallows in self-pity and misery so that he’ll catalogue a litany of waste and self-destruction in others that for the most part expose his own heart rather than the outer form of the world. As he says in The Milltown Union Bar:

You could love here, not the lovely goat
in plexiglass nor the elk shot
in the middle of a joke, but honest drunks,
crossed swords above the bar, three men hung
in the bad painting, others riding off
on the phony green horizon.

This sense that most of us are those painted figures on a phony world that has us hooked into such errors and illusions of a two-dimensional artificiality that we think we’re somehow the exception, when in fact we are the most blinded to our own drunk stupors and delusions. As he’ll say in self-accusatory tones of judgment at the end of that poem: “When the mills shut down, when the worst drunk / says finally I’m stone, three men still hang painted badly from a leafless tree, you one of them, brains tied behind your back, swinging for your sin.” One thinks of a badly tied in reminder of the ancient Christ hanging between the two thieves, and Hugo impaling himself not as Christ but as thief of life whose brains fried on alcoholic escape plans is bound and delivered to his own inner judges who will show no mercy nor salvation. As he ends it: “Or you swing / with goats and elk. Doors of orphanages / finally swing out and here you open in.” This sense that one cannot escape the self like the orphaned thoughts of freedom, but is forever closed off in one’s solitude and solipsistic narcissism bewailing one’s fate. For Hugo there would be no escape.

And, yet he would persist,  and in a poem or Last Words to James Wright who died of cancer Hugo will say: “This time, the branch is broke. In early work / you urged the criminal, derelict, / the dispossessed to run between the stars. / You wanted words to sing the suffering on / and every time you asked the words came willing.” Like many poets Wright and Hugo spoke for the dammed and forgotten, the weak and broken souls of the world for whom existence had brought neither joy nor glory, but rather much pain and affliction. As he’ll admonish his friend: “Those saints in solitary where the dirty river rolls, / they know each life clicks off and on, the off darker than a shabby habit.” This sense of the machinic aspect of process and reality, of a life that is just part of the inertia of the universe without meaning or purpose. Except that we as humans have attained something, a illusion of purpose and meaning, our poetry which is an addition rather than a subtraction from the destitution; an illusion that holds the world at bay if only for a moment. As Hugo says in the end of this poem: “Be glad of the green wall you climbed across one day. / Be glad as me. / What’s a lie between Eds? What’s one more dirty river?” If nothing saves us in the end, then at least we have those moments of remembrance, the attainment of those singular sparks of momentary existence that hover and remain even if they are those sweet lies we know as lies yet keep as remembrances of the actual and fulfilled.

In his final poem Making Certain It Goes On Hugo attains a grace and resilience that passes on if not wisdom then a spark of the flame of poetic power: “This brings us to us, and our set lines / set deep on the bottom. We’re going all out for the big ones.” In this poem that celebrates the passing of things, of change and the future, the past as a falling away that cannot be recaptured in words but is like the weary stone of a dead and “unknown fisherman” something erased and effaced in time; a fisherman who will remain anonymous after all, never having entered the social world of language and memory. Here “[t]he stone will bear / no inscription and that deliberate anonymity / will start enough rumors to keep / the mill operating, big trout nosing the surface, / the church reforming white frame / into handsome blue stone, and the community / going strong another hundred years.” The poet, too, will go under, become mere rumor and passion, mere words to be passed on and over in time as others take up the struggle, persist, an make certain it goes on. Maybe in the end it is all rumor and innuendo, a passing of words among strangers, a stone slab that no longer holds a name or answerable history, but rather keeps us guessing, keeps us striving against the age, the currents of life like fools and scoundrels, jokers and madmen; or maybe just common people of a community going on with their lives, doing what people do and have done in anonymity from the beginning. Maybe this is enough, that the rumor of an intent and a passage, an anonymous folding of thought and speech from lip to lip is all that keeps it and us going. And, of course, the disquieting question is: Is this enough? For Hugo this was the little lie between friends, the one that we pretend to pretend is true enough to keep us and hold the darkness at bay.

Short Bio

Richard Hugo was born on December 21, 1923, in White Center, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. His father, Richard Franklin Hogan, left the family shortly after Hugo’s birth; Hugo was raised by his mother’s parents. He attended public school and from a very early age took an interest in books, fishing, and baseball. In 1942, he legally changed his name to Hugo, the name of his stepfather. He volunteered for World War II, where he served as a bombardier in the Mediterranean. Hugo flew thirty-five combat missions and reached the rank of first lieutenant before leaving the service in 1945. Like other World War II poets such as James Dickey and Randall Jarrell, he would later recount his experiences in his poetry.

After the War, Hugo entered the University of Washington where he majored in Creative Writing. He studied with Theodore Roethke and completed a B.A. in 1948 and an M.A. in 1952. In 1952, he married Barbara Williams and began to work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he was employed for nearly thirteen years. A Run of Jacks, his first book of poems, appeared in 1961. Hugo was thirty-seven years old at that time. Soon thereafter, he began to teach English and Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. His wife returned to Seattle in 1964, and they soon divorced.

Hugo taught at Montana for nearly eighteen years. Rather than becoming more academic, however, his poems often celebrate the abandoned towns, landscapes, and people of the Pacific Northwest. In one of his best-known and often-anthologized poems from this time, “Degrees of Gray at Philipsburg,” he opens with the lines “You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.”

In 1974, Hugo married Ripley Schemm Hansen and helped to raise her children, Matthew and Melissa. In 1977 he was named the editor of the Yale Younger Poets Series. Among his most well-known books are Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965), Good Luck in Cracked Italian (1969), What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (1975), 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977), and The Right Madness on Skye (1980). He also authored the small but influential book on creative writing, The Triggering Town. Among other advice, he suggests that a poet should “Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.” Richard Hugo died on October 22, 1982, at the age of fifty-eight. (from