Hugo, Richard (1923-1982)

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 1/20/2003
  • Essay 5082

Richard Hugo rose from an insecure childhood in White Center, a poor area just south of Seattle, to become one of the foremost American poets of his generation. His collected poems in Making Certain It Goes On, published posthumously in 1984, paint haunting visions, imagery, and narrative. These range from his memories of the Duwamish Valley near White Center to a sojourn in Italy, to towns, bars, and people across the Northwest. One of his most famous poems is entitled, "What Thou Lovest Well Remains American."

A Childhood of Gratuitous Beatings

Hugo was born Richard Franklin Hogan on December 21, 1923. His father abandoned him and his teenage mother, Esther Monk Hogan, brought him to live with his maternal grandparents, Fred and Ora Monk, whom he described later as "ignorant, sentimental and innocent." He was "subjected to gratuitous beatings and distorted, intense, but, by any conventional standards, undemonstrated affection" by his grandmother, who, he became convinced, "had not been right in the head" (The Real West Marginal Way, 5). His mother married Herbert F. Hugo in 1927. Although the couple did not take Richard to live with them, Richard changed his last name to Hugo on November 30, 1942.

He served as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps, flying missions over the Mediterranean during World War II. After leaving the service in 1948, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Washington in Seattle. That summer he took his first poetry courses from the famous poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) at the UW. In June 1950 he finished his graduate degree but forgot to pay his graduate fee. He finally received his Master of Arts degree from the UW in 1952.

"Some Far Empty Town"

Hugo married Barbara Williams in 1952, a marriage that ended unhappily when she left him in 1964; they were divorced in 1966. He tersely memorialized her departure in "What Thou Lovest Well Remains American:" 

Lawns well trimmed remind you of the train
your wife took one day forever, some far empty town,
the odd name you never recall. The time: 6:23
The day: October 9. The year remains a blur.

Hugo's Day Job

During their marriage, Hugo took a job as a technical writer with Boeing, which he held from 1951 to 1963. He looked up to the poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who, while serving as vice president of a large insurance firm, continued to produce vivid, highly regarded poetry.

Hugo wondered if he too could "be that tough, that resolved to go on alone when all around me were people who didn't know or care" (The Real West Marginal Way, 148). But he did go on, and in 1961 the University of Minnesota Press released his first book, A Run of Jacks.

"A Sign Erased by Rain"

In that book he pioneered the imagery of the semi-wild, semi-industrial areas around White Center and the Duwamish River, with its scruffy reeds and weather-beaten buildings. "The crackpot chapel, with a sign erased by rain, returned / before to calm and a mossed roof" ("West Marginal Way" in A Run of Jacks).

He also demonstrated his insight into human character and portrayed them with telling detail, as in the poem, "Neighbor:" 

The drunk who lives across the street from us
fell in our garden, on the beet patch
yesterday. So polite. Pardon me,
he said. He had to be helped up and held,
steered home and put to bed, declaring
we got to have another drink and smile.

If Hugo displays unusual empathy here, it may stem from his lifelong affair with alcohol, which he drank copiously and often. This also helps explain another frequent setting of his poems: bars and taverns.

"You Could Love Here"

In 1963, Hugo and his wife Barbara traveled to Italy. This trip would provide inspiration for his 1969 book, Good Luck in Cracked Italian. Upon returning, he took a position as visiting lecturer at the University of Montana in Missoula. After his wife left him, Hugo endured a very tumultuous and emotionally unstable period. He had never taught before and feared that he couldn't do it. Frequently, he took refuge in the country at the Milltown Union Bar, of which he wrote:


You could love here, not the lovely goat
in plexiglass nor the elk shot
in the middle of a joke, but honest drunks ...

"Milltown Union Bar" in Making Certain It Goes On).

Despite additional emotional turmoil, especially after the breakup of a torrid, two-year affair with a graduate student, Hugo managed to become a good teacher and to inspire his students. He went on to be an associate professor at Montana (1969-1970), visiting poet at the University of Iowa (1970-1971), holder of the Roethke Chair at the University of Washington (summer, 1971) and professor and director of creative writing at Montana (1971-1982).

In 1973, he met Ripley Schemm Hansen, with whom he finally found domestic happiness. They were married on July 12, 1974, and he moved in with her, her two children, and various pets at her house near Rattlesnake Creek. Over the coming years he published more books of poetry, an influential book of essays on writing entitled Triggering Town, and a novel, Death and the Good Life. On October 22, 1982, Hugo died of leukemia at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle.

Making Certain It Goes On

Hugo's friendship with a circle of writers created a unique Northwest literary culture during the 1960s and 1970s. In early 1998, a number of Hugo colleagues and friends gathered for a symposium at the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) convention in Portland to reminisce about Hugo.

Writers such as Carolyn Kizer, Madeline DeFrees, and Stanley Plumley recalled how they and Hugo, along with writers such as Jim Welch and William Stafford, formed their community. Although there was never a Northwest "school," these writers encouraged and confided in each other as a way "making sure it goes on."

"Seize the Day"

At the conference, Plumley told of an event that captures Hugo's wry humor. It seems that one night in Iowa City, Hugo and Welch had been out drinking, copiously. This was when Hugo had his temporary teaching position at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He was staying in a trailer court. The two writers arrived back in the trailer in the wee hours. It was a small trailer with one bedroom and a combined kitchen/living room, where Welch fell asleep on the couch. When he awoke an hour or so later, he stared bleary-eyed to see Hugo sitting at the kitchen table in the early light. Hugo tilted a can of beer in a toast to Welch and said, "Seize the day, Jim. Seize the day."

The late poet, William Stafford, wrote a fitting tribute to Hugo: 

Richard Hugo, as writer and friend, embraced people and places wherever he went. He humanized vast landscapes -- [The Isle of] Skye, Montana, the Northwest coast. The more austere or remote or forsaken the land or the person, the more certain was Hugo to reach out with love and understanding. His poems have already made legends of places on the map that before his coming were lost in empty space. The places he lived, or even the places he just visited, became scenes and characters in his poems. With care and skill he teased stories and lasting allegiances into being. He couldn't let a place or person feel alone. In the area of his strength he is unsurpassed -- sympathy, human perception, glimpses of the epic dimensions of the individual life.


Richard Hugo, Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984); Richard Hugo, The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet's Autobiography (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), edited by Ripley S. Hugo, Lois M. Welch, and James Welch; Patrick McRoberts, "Hugo, DeFrees and a Circle of Friends: Triggering the Northwest Literary Scene," Point No Point, No. 8 (Spring/Summer, 1998).

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