My Friend, Richard Hugo

4 December 2017:

Maybe he was right, the hope of roads goes on…

—Richard Hugo, “Reconsidering the Madman”

When I think of Richard Hugo, I think, of course, of roads, and Montana, and certain grey areas outside Seattle. I think of movement, the wandering mind and the imagination.

For me, Richard Hugo is a particular stretch of highway I love—Norris Road, U.S. 84—west of Bozeman, Montana, where the highway ribbons itself through rolling hills and the ancient grain bins shine in the sun. It is all something he could write. It is all a bit of landscape he could pass through and pull from for a poem, days—maybe years—later.

But let’s go back. Back to where old Dick Hugo starts for me.

I discovered Richard Hugo in Miami, Florida—of all places—working part-time as a writing tutor, catering Cuban weddings, living in a converted shed in the backyard of my girlfriend’s parents’ house.

Living with palm trees and quick, finger-length lizards, I am not sure how Hugo ambled—or should I say roared—into my literary life.

But I think, maybe, this is how it happened:

I know he is in an anthology of poetry on the American West I bought years ago in Oklahoma. But back then—2012—I simply glossed over his poems.

Admittedly, I didn’t take note of Hugo in the anthology until some damp and humid night in Miami—two years later—when I needed him most, pulling him out of a box of books I had carried all the way from Oklahoma. I do not remember his poems in the anthology, exactly, but that night in Miami, as lizards ran along the walls, Hugo bowled me over in a way no poet has done since. (Sorry, Robert Bly. Sorry, Rose McLarney). The next day—without hesitation—I ordered his posthumously collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On.

Making certain it goes on

As a gesture to posterity, I keep as bookmarks all the receipts for books I buy in the books themselves, so I know Making Certain It Goes On arrived in my hands in Miami—via Monroeville, Pennsylvania—on February 20, 2014.

I sat in my shed-apartment in Miami, late, reading Making Certain, learning a new way to write a poem, while my girlfriend worked the night-shift at the local CBS. She slaved away, editing the news, while I pored over Hugo’s collected poems—some 400 pages—beginning with A Run of Jacks and ending with the final poems he got down before leukemia caught him in a Seattle hospital (October, 1982).

***Here I offer a peripheral side note, for the diehards: Richard Hugo is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Missoula, Montana, beside a softball field, beneath an elm. Last year, I stood above his stone, and bent down to run my hands across his name. Go, if you see fit, and see for yourself, and try not to write a poem about the soggy elm above his grave or the handful of fathers playing softball in the rain.

I say today that by reading Hugo I learned a new way to write a poem because that’s exactly what reading Hugo did for me. I learned to let a poem veer from its impetus and roll through the grey bogs of the unknown, finding its own road.

Of course, a poem stays true to something as it tractors across (and down) a page. But I learned from Hugo that a poem follows the sound of language more than sense, more than a flash-memory of some place from childhood or the quick instance of a passing train.

These instances—a passing train, the stairs in the house we grew up in—are what Hugo called “triggering towns.” They are quick doors into the house of writing a poem. A strange, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, house—with many doors, many hallways, many windows, and, in Hugo fashion, many gravel roads leading away from that house entirely.

“The more stable the base,” Hugo wrote, “the freer you are to fly from it in the poem.”

With a “stable base,” the initial trigger, Hugo got the poem rolling, then, from there, well, come what may.

His poems are full of tiny towns with shabby bars, quick bends in rivers, bridges, cemeteries and derelict barns, boxcars, snapshots of old homes he may or may not have had.

I know that a poem—for Hugo, and subsequently, now, for me—loses its worth, its oomph, by trying so hard to keep itself in line with a memory or how, exactly, some ghost town outside of Butte really is.

Only true to itself, a poem—as I understand it—becomes what it becomes.

Hugo told aspiring poets, “you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words.”

And that’s exactly it, Dick. Our relationship with words becomes the thing. The thing upon which our poems hang.

Today, when I am struggling with a poem or digging my way in and out of an essay, I like to think of Hugo driving a big, open highway along the eastern stretches of Montana. There where the mountains become the plains and the plains become the mountains. Where space expands and the land crawls slowly in both directions. I imagine Hugo with the windows down on a summer evening. The sun has fallen below the mountains. He has the road. He has mobility and—in Wallace Stegner’s words— “the space that enforces it.”

Within an hour, he’ll find a town. A bar. A beer. A poem.

4 thoughts on “My Friend, Richard Hugo

  1. I’d like to read the poem you wrote after visiting his grave: the soggy elm, the rain and the crack of the bat when it hit the ball. Men trying to keep their cigarettes lit in the rain as they shouted orders to their sons behind the batting cage. While a dead poet lay still drinking it all in and swirling it into prose.


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