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
Thirty-one Letters and Thirteen Dreams, 1977
Selected Poems, 1979
White Center, 1980
The Right Madness on Skye, 1980
Sea Lanes Out, 1983
Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, 1984
Death and the Good Life, 1981
The Hitler Diaries, 1982
The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, 1979
The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography, 1986
Richard Hugo (HYEW-goh) is an American poet of the Pacific Northwest who considered himself a regionalist, yet he is read by most critics within the traditional context of mainstream American Romanticism. There is a strong sense of place in his poetry, but often the rural simplicity of his poems conceals the underlying emotional complexity. The literal settings suggest a deeper landscape, and at his best he writes like an archeologist of the mind.
Born Richard Hogan, he was abandoned by his mother and raised by his grandparents in a working-class community outside Seattle. His early sense of displacement and alienation is shared by many of the characters in his poetry. They, like Hugo, are survivors. Growing up in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, he became intimately acquainted with the spiritual and material impoverishment that ruined for a generation the hope of the American Dream. During World War II he flew thirty-five missions over Italy as a bombardier in the U.S. Army. By the time he returned to the United States, he had accumulated a wealth of raw experience, which was to become an essential component of his poetry, but it had yet to be refined by formal literary studies.
After enrolling at the University of Washington, he began to read widely. He was especially impressed with courses in poetry he took from Theodore Roethke, who was then just beginning to establish his reputation in American letters. Under Roethke’s influence Hugo learned to use his deep appreciation for nature as a source for images and inspiration in his poetry.
The romantic themes in his work appeared early in poems that recall an idyllic, rustic past set against the flimsy promises of an increasingly urbanized United States. Ironically, the best of his early poetry was written while he was working as a technical writer for the Boeing Company. It was during this period that he published “The Way a Ghost Dissolves” (1961), which was seminal in the development of his style and shows the unmistakable authority of his voice and the haunting power of his imagery. Ostensibly the poem details a simple life of hard work based on homespun wisdom and faith in the familiar, where “the close remained the best” and the “earth provided.” There is, however, a desperate note in the poem, which exposes an obsession with permanence, a need to anchor the self in the fixed reality of things. The effect is of a spirit clinging to the concrete world even as it fades.
After twice revisiting Italy, in 1963 and 1968, Hugo settled into a teaching career, first at the University of Montana and later at the University of Iowa. For a time he held the Theodore Roethke chair in English at the University of Washington, after which he returned to Montana to direct the creative writing program there. During this period Hugo suffered several personal setbacks, including the dissolution of his marriage and a mental breakdown from alcohol abuse in 1971. By 1973 he had begun to put his life back together. He remarried in 1974, was awarded the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 1975, and in 1976 was chosen to select the Yale Younger Poets Series award winner.
Though his work was often uneven during the years of personal crisis, the poetry written during his period of recovery marks a return to the style and substance of his strongest work. “The Lady in the Kicking Horse Reservoir” (1973) is remarkable for the narrator’s urgent resilience when confronted by doubt, regret, pain, and death. Hugo seems to be shoring up deep memories against the natural eroding influences of life. In this sense the poem represents a triumph of the will and of poetic perseverance and renewal, much in the style of the great nineteenth century English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. The poem attempts to record the mingling of the poet’s spirit with that of the land, transforming an ordinary landscape into a scene rich with symbolic meaning. The “reservoir”–a nurturing well of inspiration–irrigates the poet’s life even as he is “sailing westward” into old age and death.
After a stay as a Guggenheim fellow on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, where he wrote some of his best poetry, Hugo underwent surgery for lung cancer, from which he never fully recovered. After a painful struggle, he died of leukemia. In the posthumously published Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, Hugo’s faith in his craft is as strong as his imagery. The river of the poet’s imagination “has risen high enough to again cover the stones” and “trout return/ from summer harbor deep.” The poet, a “drunk fisherman,” hopes for “a possible strike.” To seek the truth of life in poetry, and to render in turn an acute vision of what it is like to be alive, is the stuff of Hugo’s life and art. His final poetic achievement was to capture the timeless in the ephemeral, continuing “this community/ going strong another hundred years.”