Skip to content

Degrees of Gray in Hugo


To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance, not in real life I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.

Richard Hugo, in real life, it seems, was a pretty modest dude. Content in his Seattle and Montana settings, a drunk and then a sober father, derided by some as a ‘regionalist’, whatever that means (regions of the heart? the soul?), a poet who, like Jeffers, breathed naturally in outdoor air.

He also had a knack for breaking down what writers do, taking away the romance and the mystery and the bullshit. As he once said about wanting to be a writer: “Being in love with your own responses to things. That must be it.” That is it. Perhaps the best, most succinct definition of the writerly (or, generally, artistic) impulse I’ve ever come across.

I was introduced to Hugo’s essays before his poetry. His insights into the writer’s life seem so original and ring so true, they are hard to resist. In his well-known essay, “The Triggering Town”, which he probably wrote, at least in part, to defend himself from those ‘regionalist’ critics, he writes:

Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost. It can be hard. It can be worse forty years from now if you feel you could have done it and didn’t. It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.

Poverty in the cities is hell. Hugo went through that as a child. As an adult he realized quickly that if you have no money in the mountains you are still rich. In his poems you can feel this love for the mountain, the rural, richness, in the Montana dive bars and old bust towns, in the Northwest poems and the river poems and the hiking poems. He also recognized the deliberate poverty of the working writer, brought on by “not a lack of money, but of friends. I come here to be cold.”

The writer’s necessary isolation and general arrogance went hand in hand for Hugo with a reliance on one’s narrower individuality and a realization of one’s place in the world. The arrogance serves no power purpose, it simply lets you write the poem, after which, be grateful if anyone reads it and likes it.

Later in “The Triggering Town”, he writes:

By now you may be thinking, doesn’t this lead finally to amoral and shallow writing? Yes it does, if you are amoral and shallow. I hope it will lead you to yourself and the way you feel. All poets I know, and I know plenty of them, have an unusually strong moral sense, and that is why they can go into the cynical world of the imagination and not feel so threatened that they become impotent.

Don’t make the language serve the subject, Hugo always said, make the subject serve the language. Be true to your voice. “And don’t you leave that kind of language for a minute,” he remarks to one of his university classes. “This is the art of poetry: it is the art of meaning what you say. And you keep right on meaning it.”

In much of his poetry, Hugo embraces nuance, the “degrees of gray” in people and events and places, and he trusts himself when he sees this nuance hiding in things. “I loved some terrible way / he lived in his mind and tried to be decent to others. / I loved the way we loved him behind our disdain.” These are the kinds of ambiguous human emotions Hugo revels in.

From “At the Cabin”:

The river loosens at its pools
and takes off shooting wildly at the sky
like some drunk cowboy, his first night back in town
after centuries of good work done.

The deft command of the small, the passing, the momentary; Hugo seemed to love the little shifts in his landscape. His modest approach and the persistence of his voice created some beautiful poems. He knew the loneliness involved, the doubt and the dark times, but he also knew, in life’s subtle way, the good times and the confident times and the real happy times, and how you have to work all your life for both of them.

I think over a matter of thirty, forty years of writing what happens is the mask comes closer to looking like the face, and the face comes closer to looking like the mask, so that finally the person you want to be isn’t that much different than the person you are.

Richard Hugo


From → Readings

One Comment
  1. Grant HIer permalink

    Excellent. “Being in love with your own responses to things. That must be it.” Yes, that is it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: