Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

4. Richard Hugo, 1923–1982

It wasn’t long ago that Northwestern literary maps placed its major poets in just three cities: Theodore Roethke and David Wagoner and Carolyn Kizer in Seattle, although none of them moved there until they were mature; Richard Hugo in Seattle and Missoula; and the Kansan, William Stafford, in Portland. The book Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest (Skelton 1964), a sort of posthumous tribute to Roethke, also includes Kenneth Hansen with the group, though the Boise State University’s Western Writer’s Series begins its pamphlet on Richard Hugo with only four men: Roethke, Stafford, Wagoner, and Hugo (Gerstenberger 1983). Fortunately, the region now recognizes more writers than it did; many writers have moved to the region and many have become poets here.

As the region’s premier teachers in the last half of the twentieth century, the poets Roethke, Stafford, Hugo, and Wagoner were responsible for much of the region’s literary maturity. Hugo and Wagoner were Roethke’s students; Stafford came to the Northwest about the same time Roethke did. When Richard Hugo began to teach at the University of Montana in 1965, he took Roethke’s style and his own reactions to it with him. From Hugo’s 1979 book The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, it’s instructive to read some of his advice to students and some of his own “statements of faith.” Hugo’s cultivated insecurity often shows though them.

When people tell a young poet he is good, they may be doing him some disservice. They are telling him he is not worthless and so unwittingly they are undercutting what to him seems his need to write (p.68).

It would be ideal if some instrument could be developed that could measure a writer’s capacity for success and then just enough acclaim, money, and praise could be doled out to keep the writer going (p.68).

Poets who fail (and by fail I mean fail themselves and never write a poem as good as they know they are capable of) are often poets who fail to accept feelings of personal worthlessness. They lack the self-criticism necessary to perfect the poem (p. 70).

An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance (p.71).

Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance. All art is failure (p.72)

Good poets have obsessive ears. They love certain sounds and not others (p.29).

Roethke was probably the best poetry writing teacher ever. That’s impossible to prove and silly, but I had to say it just once in print (p.27).

Roethke knew that poetry is an art form and a difficult one and that the enthusiasm and hope of the young poet are not enough. You have to work, and you had better get used to facing disappointments and failures, a lifetime of them (p.29).

If I had to limit myself to one criticism of academics it would be this:  they distrust their responses. They feel that if a response can’t be defended intellectually, it lacks validity (p.62).

A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters (p.65).

I’m not saying Boeing didn’t have its share of Philistines. All groups do. I’m saying that there’s a broader base to humanity than I’d been aware of (p.109).

Richard Franklin Hogan was born on December 21, 1923, in White Center, a community in southwest Seattle. When he was less than a year old, his mother, Esther Hogan, placed him in the care of her parents, Fred and Ora Monk, who raised Richard in their home even after his mother remarried in 1927 and until he was in his twenties. In 1942 he changed his last name to Hugo, after his mother’s second husband, Herbert Hugo. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1943 and served as a bombardier on 35 missions in the Mediterranean Theatre. He became a First Lieutenant and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals. He had always loved books, baseball and fishing, and when he was discharged from the military in 1948, he went to the University of Washington on the G.I. Bill and a baseball scholarship he soon lost for playing intramural softball. He majored in English and enrolled in Theodore Roethke’s first two workshops. He earned his B.A. from the University in 1948 and he married Barbara Williams and earned his M.A. in 1952.

In the University of Washington’s Special Collections, where all Roethke’s students’ work is filed, Hugo’s poems don’t show much evidence of his mature poetic voice. There are few, if any, hard declaratives that inhabit so many of the collected poems in Making Certain It Goes On (Hugo 1984). “Say your life broke down, your last good kiss was years ago,” from “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” (p. 216), or, from “Bearpaw,” “Pray hard to weather, that lone surviving god, / that in some sudden wisdom we surrender” (p.215), or from “The Way a Ghost Dissolves,” “I will garden on the double run, / my rhythm obvious in ringing rakes, / and trust in fate to keep me poor and kind/ and work until my heart is short, / then go out slowly with a feeble grin, / my fingers flexing but my eyes gone gray/ from cramps and the lack of oxygen” (p.55).

Hugo’s style developed as he worked on it. His methods and insights came from hard desk labor and observation. From 1951 until 1963 he worked for Boeing, one of the great industries that, along with mills and shipyards, physically separated his side of Seattle from the downtown and the university. He was a technical writer at work and a persistent poet on his own, and published his first book, A Run of Jacks, in 1961. Looking east from White Center, he could see the Seattle skyline and the Cascade Mountains beyond. Past that curtain, he knew another culture waited, in Chicago, New York, Boston, and the country’s oldest universities, its staid families. By contrast, he wrote that his views of Seattle, the 1930’s Seattle of his childhood, were cloudy:

Seattle was a strange city, more Scandinavian than anything else in character. Downtown, it often seemed inhabited by silent people, everywhere but in the Pike Place Market where the Italians, Greeks and Orientals hawked their produce with loud voices and colorful spiels and gestures. One story goes that President Calvin Coolidge paraded down 4th Avenue and thousands of people lining the streets to watch him made no sound. In the 1930’s Seattle was reputed to have a suicide rate second only to Berlin. One explanation went that suicides were people running away from themselves and their lives, and that after one reached Seattle there was no place left to run to. They had reached the edge and bad things were [also] happening at that house at the edge of the city. My grandmother’s selfish possessive love of me, and her resentment of men in general and of what she perceived as their sexual freedom and irresponsibility, as well as her sudden bursts of gratuitous cruelty, were producing a spoiled, confused, extremely neurotic young man (Hugo 1983:13).

Hugo, a square, rather beefy man, was self-revealing, and his life’s work shows the man with a hand-held mirror writing all it portrayed--all his life’s conditions. For much of his life he did have a hard time of it; he drank and smoked and ate and brooded excessively, even as he opened himself up to who ever sat beside him in a bar or in a classroom. At his October 21, 1982 memorial service in Missoula, Jennie Herndon, proprietor of the Milltown Union Bar, Laundromat and Cafe, said, “He’d come out there on Saturday and he’d do his laundry and, needless to say, half the time he’d have a hangover. So he would drink his beer, and talk with all the millworkers and everything—they dearly loved him, very much.”  For much of his first years at the University of Montana, his students saw him most predictably if they drank with him.

He drove a big Buick convertible, as Roethke had. He looked for objective combinations to make sense of himself; a fish that shook free was a lost love, a car was wind, wind and weather were his idea for God. Small towns were lodes of metaphor. Yale University, when he became its editor for the Yale Younger Poets series in 1977, stood for all he was afraid of as well as for all the work he’d done to get across the Cascades to the world he imagined in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” a world of “towering blondes, good jazz and booze, the world will never let you have until the town you came from dies inside.” His professional life in poetry, his teaching and fellowships and sponsored travels gave him increasing reason for confidence. Hugo published thirteen books, some posthumously, including a Pulitzer Prize nominated mystery, Death and the Good Life, in 1981, a much-used book of essays on the art of poetry, The Triggering Town, in 1979, and The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography, in 1986. The poet Dave Smith and the author and filmmaker Annick Smith each made remarkable films with Hugo as subject. Hugo became a happier poet, by far, than he had been. He married Ripley Schemm in 1974, quit his heavy drinking, and was a proud stepfather. He was active as a reader and visiting lecturer until his death from leukemia in Seattle on October 22, 1982.

Richard Hugo still inspires writers. The Richard Hugo House in Seattle is a home for the region’s poets, for writing education through workshops and consortia. Its mission statement declares the Hugo House is a place to “build a vital learning community that develops and sustains practicing writers doing essential work.”  His papers are at the University of Washington. Hugo’s grave in Missoula is set between the roots of an old tree, where its visitors read on the headstone his lines from “Glen Uig”: “Believe you and I sing tiny / and wise and could if we had to eat stone and go on.”


Academy of American Poets Richard Hugo website at:

Richard Hugo’s publisher W.W. Norton website at:

Richard Hugo House in Seattle:

Richard Hugo, “Bear Paw” in The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973.

Richard Hugo, “Overlooking Yale,” in Making Certain It Goes On. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1984.

Richard Hugo, "The Real West Marginal Way" in The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet's Autobiography, ed. Ripley S. Hugo, Lois M. Welch, and James Welch. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

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