Authors: Richard Hugo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


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

Long Fiction:

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.{$I[AN]9810001845}{$I[A]Hugo, Richard}{$S[A]Hogan, Richard;Hugo, Richard}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Hugo, Richard}{$I[tim]1923;Hugo, Richard}

Richard Hugo

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.”

BibliographyAllen, Michael S. We Are Called Human: The Poetry of Richard Hugo. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1982. A biocritical study of Hugo’s work through The Right Madness on Skye. Allen integrates details of the poet’s personal life–poverty, early trauma, and the Depression–with the “presence of hurt” found particularly in his earlier work. In an extended discussion of “the Hugo town,” he places the poet within the small-town tradition of earlier American writers, including Edgar Lee Masters, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Sinclair Lewis.Gerstenberger, Donna. Richard Hugo. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1983. A study of Hugo’s work in the context of Western writing, as he made use of contemporary Western experience and his “complete possession of and by the local region.” His awareness of physical space, distance, and direction reflects a Western consciousness as he expresses an inner journey by means of outward scene. Gerstenberger also urges a more precise definition of “regional.”Holden, Jonathan. Landscapes of the Self: The Development of Richard Hugo’s Poetry. Millwood, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1986. An insightful psychological reading of all but the final collection, including a worthwhile chapter on Thirty-one Letters and Thirteen Dreams. In the early books Hugo “project[s] his inner life onto one derelict landscape after another.” Holden argues that Hugo is a confessional poet by his attempt “to transcend personal suffering by converting painful autobiography into a myth.” Includes a detailed biographical chapter based on correspondence with the poet.Myers, Jack, ed. A Trout in the Milk: A Composite Portrait of Richard Hugo. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1982. Includes reprints of interviews with Hugo and some fine critical essays on his work as well as poems and reminiscences by an impressive group of people who fell under his influence.Smith, Dave. “Lyrics for Life’s Harsh Music.” The New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1984, 12-13. This review of Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo offers a brief but excellent overview of Hugo’s life and poetry from a critic and fellow poet, revealing “a man bearing himself with relentless introspection, intelligence, courage, and withering good humor.”
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