richard hugo | making certain it goes on

1 10 2010

Poetry Dispatch No. 334 | September 30, 2010

Richard Hugo

I don’t hear Richard Hugo’s name bandied around much these days. I never see his poems reprinted anywhere. I haven’t met a college prof or student (English major) in years who told me he was reading Hugo. Then again, I’m more than a little isolated up here in the rural, isolated from the old city-ways of a greater, wider culture, writing shop-talk, more intensity of conversation and experience.

Yet something, I don’t remember what exactly, probably my own awareness of the long absence of Hugo’s poems in my life, led me to pull his collected poems from my shelf a few weeks ago and pick around his poems, his pictures of small town life around Seattle…the Pacific Northwest…Montana too. Depression / depressive times. He caught all that in a personal, profound way. A WWII guy …he caught that too, all those poets like James Dickey and others who made that time and place a part of their interior landscape. He gave nature a voice as well, and a hymn and a hum of such loneliness you can almost hear his words cry–alcohol playing no small part as backup music, discord.

In his early days he was a student of Theodore Roethke, who played a large role in Hugo’s life as an up-and-coming American poet of considerable consequence. They led similar sad lives. To some extent, they even looked alike, big and balding and always looking somewhat askance in rumpled clothing. Distant. Dissipated. Despairing. I’m searching for the right word here—which Hugo would appreciate. He had a passion for teaching.

Which brings me to yet another sidetrack, when all I intended, for the past few days, was say just about what I said in my first paragraph and bring you all to the setting of Hugo’s marvelous poem “Making Certain It Goes On” and leave you there to feast on it for the moment, days, weeks, maybe forever.

But Hugo as writing teacher reminded me of a little book of his that remains a classic, THE TRIGGERING TOWN, Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. A book every aspiring and accomplished poet needs to take to heart and keep there—then pass it on to another. My copy is thirty years old, all marked up, the spine broken, the pages yellow and loose, held together by a rubber band. I should buy a new one. But this one is such an old, good friend, I can’t part with it. Among his very quotable thoughts:

  • “I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write.”
  • “I caution against communication because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”
  • “Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.”

What interests me most about unknown and successful writers is not their work that is well known, titles immediately associated with their name, but the ‘little books’ they may have penned in their lifetime. Books that often appear down at the bottom of their bibliographies, sometimes listed as “Other.” There’s always something pure, more revealing, more satisfying, more innocent there. More truth. More the ‘real writer.’

Some writers (this one included) make it their secret mission to pen, put together, as many of these odd creations as possible. They make all the downfalls of the writing life, acceptable. Worth it. Not every work has to be MAJOR.

Someday I would like to teach a writing class devoted entirely to the oddball-book. In addition to TRIGGERING TOWN, some (just some) of my required reading list might include Kenneth Gangemi’s, OLT; Ray Carver’s, FIRES: Wallace Steven’s, THE NECESSARY ANGEL; William Carlos William’s, KORA IN HELL; Bob Kaufman’s broadside, ABOMUNIST MANIFESTO; John Wiener’s THE HOTEL WENTLY POEMS; Jacques Prévet’s, PAROLES; Henry Miller’s, THE SMILE AT THE FOOT OF THE LADDER, TO PAINT IS TO LOVE AGAIN, ON WRITING; Samuel L. Clemens’, 1601; Gilbert Sorrentino’s, SPLENDIDE-HOTEL; William Faulkner’s, NEW ORLEANS SKETCHES, Summer Brenner’s, THE SOFT ROOM; John Bennett’s, ANARCHISTIC MURMURS FROM A HIGH MOUNTAIN VALLEY; Andrei Codrescu’s, & GRAMMAR & MONEY; Roberta Allen’s, THE TRAVELING WOMAN; Bill Holm’s, NEUMANN”S BAR, and BOXELDER BUG VARIATIONS, A Meditation On An Idea In Language And Music:…etc. etc. etc. If I don’t stop now this piece will never be finished.

Back to the beginning…Richard Hugo’s poem below, which is all I intended to deal with today before he ‘triggered’ something else gnawing inside me for too long a time. Then again. there’s something about his title…

That’s all I’m trying to do. –Norbert Blei

Making Certain It Goes On

Richard Hugo

At last the Big Blackfoot river
has risen high enough to again cover the stones
dry too many months. Trout return
from summer harbor deep in the waters
of the power company dam. High on the bank
where he knows the river won’t reach
the drunk fisherman tries to focus on
a possible strike, and tries to ignore
the hymn coming from the white frame church.
The stone he leans against, bleached out dull gray,
underwater looked beautiful and blue.
The young minister had hoped for a better parish,
say one with bells that sound gold
and a congregation that doesn’t stop coming
when the mill shuts down.

We love to imagine
a giant bull trout or a lunker rainbow
will grab the drunk fisherman’s bait
and shock the drunk fisherman out
of his recurrent afternoon dream and into
the world of real sky and real water.
We love to imagine the drought has ended,
the high water will stay, the excess
irrigate crops, the mill reopen, the workers
go back to work, lovers reassume plans
to be married. One lover, also the son
of the drunk fisherman, by now asleep
on the bank for no trout worth imagining
has come, will not invite his father
to the happy occasion though his father
will show up sober and properly dressed,
and the son will no longer be sure of the source
of the shame he has always rehearsed.

Next summer the river will recede,
the stones bleach out to
their dullest possible shade. The fisherman
will slide bleary down the bank
and trade in any chance he has of getting
a strike for some old durable dream,
a dream that will keep out the hymn
coming again from the church. The workers
will be back full shift. The power company
will lower the water in the dam
to make repairs, make repairs and raise rates.
The drunk fisherman will wait for the day
his son returns, divorced and bitter
and swearing revenge on what the old man
has come to believe is only water
rising and falling on climatic schedule.

That summer came and is gone. And everything
we predicted happened, including the death
of the fisherman. We didn’t mention that before,
but we knew and we don’t lie to look good.
We didn’t forsee the son would never return.

This brings us to us, and our set lines
set deep on the bottom. We’re going all out
for the big ones. A new technology
keeps the water level steady year round.
The company dam is self cleaning.
In this dreamy summer air you and I
dreamily plan a statue commemorating
the unknown fisherman. The stone will bear
no inscription and that deliberate anonymity
will start enough rumors to keep
the mill operating, big trout nosing the surface,
the church reforming white frame
into handsome blue stone, and this community
going strong another hundred years.

[from MAKING CERTAIN IT GOES ON, The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, W.W. Norton & Company]

P.S. Richard Hugo died in 1982, at the age of fifty-eight.

Richard Hugo (December 21, 1923 – October 22, 1982), born Richard Hogan, was an American poet. Primarily a regionalist, Hugo’s work reflects the economic depression of the Northwest, particularly Montana. Born in White Center, Washington, he was raised by his mother’s parents after his father left the family. In 1942 he legally changed his name to Richard Hugo, taking his stepfather’s surname. He served in World War II as a bombardier in the Mediterranean. He left the service in 1945 after flying 35 combat missions and reaching the rank of first lieutenant.

Hugo received his B.A. in 1948 and his M.A. in 1952 in Creative Writing from the University of Washington where he studied under Theodore Roethke. He married Barbara Williams in 1952, the same year he started working as a technical writer for Boeing.

In 1961 his first book of poems, A Run of Jacks, was published. Soon after he took a creative writing teaching job at the University of Montana. He later became the head of the creative writing program there. His wife returned to Seattle in 1964, and they divorced soon after. He published five more books of poetry, a memoir, a highly respected book on writing, and also a mystery novel. His posthumous book of collected poetry, Making Certain It Goes On, evinces that his poems are marked by crisp, gorgeous images of nature that often stand in contrast to his own depression, loneliness, and alcoholism. Although almost always written in free verse, his poems have a strong sense of rhythm that often echoes iambic meters. He also wrote of large number of informal epistolary poems at a time when that form was unfashionable. Hugo was a friend of poet James Wright.

Hugo’s The Real West Marginal Way is a collection of essays, generally autobiographical in nature, that detail his childhood, his military service, his poetics, and his teaching. Hugo remarried in 1974 to Ripley Schemm Hansen. In 1977 he was named the editor of the Yale Younger Poets Series. Hugo died of leukemia on October 22, 1982. Richard Hugo House is named after Hugo.

click the image to visit the Richard Hugo House…


  • * 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)
  • * 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977)
  • * The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (1979)
  • * Selected Poems (1979)
  • * The Right Madness on Skye (1980)
  • * White Center (1980)
  • * Death and the Good Life (Mystery Novel) (1981)
  • * The Real West Marginal Way: a Poet’s Autobiography (1987)
  • * Making Certain it Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo (1984)



20 responses

1 10 2010

well, I guess no one shall ever read me either… not that I’m readable, but ah! I’m a good human… I thinks so anyways? 🙂

1 10 2010
David Clewell


Thanks so much for writing about Richard Hugo. Without a doubt, the example of his poems–more than any other single writer’s poems of his generation–really got me going…made me consider that there really might be something in the art of poetry that could make room for the oddball-singing likes of me.

And, sadly, I think you’re right when you pass on your sense that people aren’t reading Hugo much right now (college profs…students…ANYone). So I just wanted to hit you with this brief missive from a guy who’s actually never stopped reading him…”teaching” him”…teaching myself more about him. And I’ve year-in-year-out tried my level best to do my own small part in “making certain it goes on.”

Bless Stephen Corey (current editor of The Georgia Review) too: the Summer 2008 issue contains a nearly-100pp. “special feature” on Hugo…leading off with Corey’s lament that’s in the same ballpark as yours: who’s reading this guy these days–and why the hell aren’t they? The feature’s aptly titled after one of Hugo’s truest locutions: “We are called human.” Well–at least some of us should be so called.

And published by the U. of Washington Press just a few months ago: The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs: Revisiting the Northwest Towns of Richard Hugo, by Francis McCue (and terrific black & white photographs by Mary Randlett). No academic monograph, this, I’m glad to say–instead: a very human book by someone who really gets Hugo’s kind of songs.

I’m done rattling on for now. Right before I saw your piece this morning–not knowing it was in my electronic future–I’d read out loud “A Snapshot of the Auxiliary” to a student during a conference in an effort to show what Hugo gets right about considering a photo that you, the reader, hasn’t seen/can’t see (something this student had been reckoning with). Said student left my office with one of my 6 or seven copies of What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American…

Making certain and won’t evert stop trying–

David Clewell

1 10 2010
Robert M. Zoschke

Capitano Nazzzz….wonderful Hugo imprint you elevated today…and thanks for including your list of your Raving Fave Odd-Ball books…to that list I would personally add Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s What is Poetry? and Ferlinghetti’s Poetry as Insurgent Art. RMZ

1 10 2010
1 10 2010
Sandra McPherson

Thank you so much for featuring Dick Hugo. This should bring out dozens of memories from his friends and students. My late husband, Walter Pavlich, was one of those. For twenty years (yes!) he carried two frozen trout he caught with Hugo…from freezer to freezer in Montana, Oregon, and finally California. Walter wrote a marvelous poem called “The Final Trout” about them. When he passed away, the neighbors and I planted a tree in the schoolyard across the street, took out the frozen trout, and planted them too, at the roots. Turns out there were three trout. The tree has grown beautifully.

25 11 2013

Hey Sandra,
its me: Melissa, Richard Hugo’s daughter. Growing up I always had such a crush on Walter!! I think he knew it; but I was just a young teen. You lucky lady marrying him! I would very much like to befriend you on Facebook. I am also Dick’s Literary Executor and have started a legitimate Facebook page.

1 10 2010

Good to remember Hugo; I just re-read Triggering Town this summer–whenever I have a project, it’s one of the books I pick up–great things come in small packages (books).

1 10 2010

Thank you for bringing Dick Hugo to life Norb.

1 10 2010
Brian McGuigan

Thanks for writing about Richard Hugo. While I certainly don’t believe there are enough people who know him, his work is very well-regarded here in Seattle, where we have a literary center named after him, Richard Hugo House, which is where I work.

Hugo House’s founding director Frances McCue–with photographer Mary Randlett–also recently published a great collection of photos and stories about Hugo and the towns he was triggered by. it’s a great book, and hopefully, it’ll help spread the word about Hugo’s writing and life.

Keep fighting the good fight for poetry, Norbert.

1 10 2010
Anita Endrezze

Thank you for bringing people’s attention to Dick again. I was a grad student at EWU back in the early 70s and had the great honor of traveling around with him and Jim McAuley, Jim McCleod (Poetry Professors) and grad students Nance Van Winkel and Rich Ives. We went to small towns in Idaho and read to kids in the schools. I only had 4 or 5 poems at the time and read them over and over. Dick Hugo’s sensitivity of place impressed me enormously. He captured those small towns with his sparse and hard-bitten words. Years later, I wrote to him. I was feeling kind of isolated and not connecting with other writers. I told him I was all alone, and he responded: You’re in good company.
Praise and reassurance, all in 4 words. He was like that.

1 10 2010
Al Maginnes

Thank you for this. Richard Hugo died before I knew who he was, but he was and remains one of my essential poets.

2 10 2010
Janice Medin

I remember Hugo well. I was a student of his right before he died. In fact, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me for grad school. I love his poetry and especially his book White Center. Of course, Triggering Town is a classic and is used today by many teachers of poetry. I was honored to have been taught by someone who was taught by Roethke–like apostolic succession.

4 10 2010
Sandra McPherson

Speaking of “succession,” when my Asperger’s daughter was very young and undiagnosed, she sat on Dick’s lap at our house in Portland. He was happy, saying something like “I’m James Dickey, I’m James Dickey,” because some groupies had approached him after a reading. My little girl looked up at him and said, “I can’t kiss you: you have too many chins.” Fortunately he knew our, and everybody’s, great love for him….

7 10 2010
norbert blei

I thank you all for these wonderful, perceptive comments and memories concerning the
Richard Hugo piece I put up last week. It does my heart good, makes it all worthwhile
as I continue to struggle with my own long, drawn-out, energy-sapping recuperation process, which occasionally allows me some precious moments to scratch out a few words concerning the continuing saga of ‘the writing life.’

Here’s to you, to Hugo, and “making certain it [all] goes on.”


7 11 2010
Jennifer Mitchell

I am the daughter of John Duffy Mitchell, a dear friend of Richard Hugo’s. My nephew and I were talking tonight and he invoked a line from one of Hugo’s poems — quick and yet he moves like silt, I envy dreams that see his curving silver in the weeds (from “Trout”) — and it led me to your beautiful entry here.

Love to see your words and the replies from those who also knew Richard. Here is the ending to a poem he wrote for my dad, “Point No Point” …

I know a flat and friendless north.
A poem can end there, or a man, but never
in a storm. The southbound tanker
cruises by unbudged by slamming waves.
Great bulk often wins and you and I
are fat and sipping beer and waiting
for the storm to rearrange the light,
for birds to come back named, with jokes
and for the sea to weaken, just enough
to kick back home on, never weak
as cream or flat as a summer lake.

16 03 2011

It is rare to meet people who knows about Hugo, it’s even rarer to
find anyone who has read him let alone reading him. I have been lucky
enough to meet two in Korea who actually know about Hugo and read
read him. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Hugo by one of them.
However there are bound to be readers of Hugo out there since his books are
now available at Amazon. I think it was just a couple of years ago the only books
available were The Real West Marginal Way, The Triggering Town, and Making Certain It Goes On (collected poems), perhaps my memory fails me, it could have
much longer ago. I would like to write my dissertation on Hugo, but I have
no idea how to go about it as of yet.

29 04 2012
∂| Blog |uno Strano Attrattore » Blog Archive » Ci vediamo, in un italiano stentato

[…] dal terzo viaggio, e che io ho recuperato nella raccolta completa di tutte le poesie di Hugo Making Certain It Goes On, che prende il titolo proprio da un poema ambientato sulle rive del Big Blackfoot River – gira e […]

2 02 2013
Tatiana Retivov

Thanks for posting this, I too wonder why it is that he is not being read much, though it happened rather quickly after his death, perhaps his personality was so strong that his poetry needed to be viewed through the prism of his personality. I was a student of his in the 70’s in Montana, he was a great teacher, I continue thinking about him often and rereading him. What I think about often is how he is usually called a regional or landscape poet, but to me he was also a surrealist poet.

2 02 2013
Janice Krasselt Medin

Bruce Weigl mentions him frequently and I’m sure he teaches Hugo. Another friend of mine who attended his class with me also speaks of him. I love his poems but perhaps he might be remember mostly for The Triggering Town.

24 11 2013
making certain it goes on | out the backroom window

[…] title comes from a poem by the late Richard Hugo, the poem he chose as the title poem for his collected poems. It’s a dream of fishing, as so many of […]

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