03
Oct
15

Quick Notes of Richard Hugo

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Richard HugoRichard Hugo (1923 – 1982) is an American poet, and is typically associated with the Pacific Northwest. During World War II he was a bombardier. Most, if not all, of his poems are metrical, and usually iambic or trochaic, and eventually he picks up a colloquial tone.

The selected poems from A Run of Jacks (1961) that appear in Selected Poems: Richard Hugo (Norton, 1979) are mostly observational poems of environments, people, and people in environments. The speaker, or the I, does not appear often in these poems, but the speaker does try to observe and sympathize with his surroundings. For instance, in line 13 of “Neighbor” – “I try to guess what’s in that dim warm mind” – is an example of how he tries sympathize with the characters he finds. Or in “Duwamish,” where he observes not only the environment, but how four different cultures – the Northwesterner, a Greek, the speaker, and a Native American – interact with the land and what it means to each. “Back of Gino’s Place” might be a good overall example of these types of observations.

     Back of Gino’s Place

     Most neglect this road, the concrete torn
     and hunched, purple boxcars
     roasting in the wind or in the sun,
     both direct as brass. Only smoke
     from two shacks and a scratchy radio
     prevent abandonment from falling
     on this lateral bare area like fog.

     In the winter what clean nightmare
     brought a sketcher here
     to risk his hands, the loss of line
     in this much light? Not the poverty
     alone, but other ways of being,
     using basic heat: wood brought in
     by the same sea that is blaring
     wealthy ships to a freshly painted port.

     He was right to come. Light
     in this place cannot kill the lines
     of the charred boar, the rusted net,
     the log-boom beached and slanted
     waiting for a tide. Not when a need to die
     here, just to be an unobtrusive ghost,
     takes from mud and wood the color of the day.

The poem begins “Most neglect this road,” but it’s more than the road they neglect, it’s the place to where the road leads. More importantly, it’s “most,” but not all, as some have taken the challenge to go into this barren environment. A few interact with this environment in a most humble way, including an artist who is willing to sacrifice his hands to make his art, and to draw in too much light. The artist does become accustomed to the environment and “He was right to come” so he could catch the colors and lines he needed.

The selected poems from Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965) have a more involved “I,” but an I who is still observing, but less objectively. In many of the poems he comments on the industrialized world either entering into and disturbing some local town or environment or ignoring the small town or environment. In other words, he points out (indirectly) how industry determines the value of an area, by how it interacts with it. The book shows this on a small scale and larger scales. Early on is the poem “Between the Bridges,” where a loan shark sets up a “shack” in a desolate area to hide away with his money. He is disguised as “poverty” in that shack, like the poverty in the surrounding area. The loan shark takes the environment for his advantage. In “Tahola,” a Native American town prepares for the white tourists, who will buy baskets “rumored [to have been made by] Cherokee” or who will bribe Native American nature guides with booze in order to “pry stories from the guide.” When the white people’s money is gone, they leave. They can no longer afford the commodities of the town. They have gotten all they can, and so the town is of no use, or value. On a larger scale of this industry invasion is the poem “What the Brand New Freeway Won’t Go By,” where the speaker notes “the freeway soon will siphon / the remaining world away.”

Even the speaker gets caught up in using nature for his own. In “The Blond Road,” the speaker describes an environment with “Not one home or car. No shacks.” In other words, no humans live there. There is no human interference in this environment, save the worn down dirt road, and “no man will improve it with macadam.” But he briefly fantasizes about colonizing this land, “I planned to cheat the road with laughter. / Build a home no storm could crack.” In the end, he realizes the sanctity of the area. But it also sets up a theme of the individual’s relationship with their environment, which I’ll get to. Before that, I want to look at:

     December 24 and George McBride is Dead

     You a gentleman and I up from grime –
     now wind has shut your dark, dark eyes
     and I am left to hate this Christmas eve.
     Christ they’re playing carols. Some crap
     never stops. You’re dead and I’m without
     one goddam Wagner record in the house
     to play you up to what for some must be
     behind the sky with solid orchestration.

     Rest in your defeat, you stupid jerk,
     so fat your heart gave out, so sweet
     you couldn’t help but hear the punks.
     “One gulp. The whole quart, Mac.” That town
     you died in – so unlikely – vineyards,
     sunny valleys, stark white mansions
     and the pale priest summoning
     brown sinners from the olive grove.
     I’ll not know your grave, though I believe
     our minds have music that can lead us
     through the tangle to the lost stone of a friend.

     I get along, write my poems. Essentially
     a phony, I try to write my feelings now
     and know I fail. George, it’s Christmas eve
     and bells are caroling. I’m in the kitchen
     fat and writing, drinking beer and shaking.

In this poem, the speaker is at his most engaging personal involvement with another, an intimate friend who just died. Together they grew up “from the grime,” as if they evolved from the lowest form of life, but now they are cultured, as evidenced by his friend being a “gentlemen,” and the speaker hating Christmas carols, missing have Wagner to play to properly mourn his friend, and writing poetry. Despite the evolution from grime to culture, there is a colloquial language, such as “crap,” “jerk,” “punk,” gulp,” and “Mac.” These conflicted high- and low-cultural traits complicates the speaker, but I think it gets us closer to who Hugo is – an educated man but grounded in the life of small, hardworking, dying towns in the Northwest. Further, at the end of the poem, we see a self-deprecation come through. All of this, to me, feels like Richard Hugo. We see who is by how he reacts with another or with environments.

The selections from Good Luck in Cracked Italian appear to be poems about his time as a bombardier in World War II in the Mediterranean. In these poems, we again experience more involvement of the I and the human imposition on nature or selected areas. This time, however, the impositions come from war. More still, something maybe even more interesting happens (and it may have been something that happened in his earlier poems, but I didn’t pick up on it). In these poems, Hugo writes about how a person’s inner being or state is reflected in the environment and/or how the environment affects a person. In other words, Hugo engages in the intimacy between person and environment. For instance, in “Spinazzola: Quella Cantina Là,” Hugo learns about the clouds, how to navigate through them, and how he can be safe in a flying environment, whereas in the opening poem of this collection, he says, “You never understood a cloudy north” (“Docking at Palermo”). In “Spinazzola,” Hugo “can’t explain the wind” (which becomes a refrain of sorts), but he can intuit meanings of the wind and nature, such as “A field of wind gave license for defeat” or that there are certain clouds he shouldn’t “fly into.” From flying so much, he has come to intuitively understand his environment, though he can’t explain it. There’s also the poem “Remote Farm on the Dubrovnik-Sarajevo Run,” where Hugo imagines a child imagining his (the child’s) place in the earth (his grave, “a rich cut into the soil”) and becoming part of the environment after he dies. This displaced farm, where he lives, (displaced by the commerce of trains) situates the child in an environment he must come to know because he can’t escape it, as the last stanza shows:

                                                If you run away
     you cut your feet, your first scream comes back
     doubled in the city, and day old walls
     seem like arms [. . .]

In the end, Hugo is effective at interacting with others and environments and showing how the act upon each other. Hugo’s a poet of lost environments, towns, and people.

Hopefully, one day when I have time I’ll write a paper about the use of roads in Hugo’s poems.
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