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)