Even if he hadn’t written some of the better American poetry of the 1960s and 70s, Richard Hugo would be remembered by literary history for a number of reasons. Maybe only as a footnote, but still, a long one. He was one of Theodore Roethke’s students at the University of Washington. He co-founded Poetry Northwest. He taught at the famed Iowa MFA program. He was a friend and fellow-traveler of poets like William Stafford, Carolyn Kizer, James Wright, James Welch, and A.R. Ammons. And, perhaps most importantly, he taught creative writing for nearly two decades at the University of Montana, helping turn that MFA program into one of the finest in the country.
But luckily for readers of English, he happened to write a number of wonderful books of poetry, plus a crime thriller, a fine collection of autobiographical essays called The Real West Marginal Way, and a justifiably still-famous rumination on the art of poetry, The Triggering Town. His collected poems (titled Making Certain It Goes On) and Selected Poems are both available from the usual places, as are the prose books.
A word of caution, I guess: Richard Hugo is a very good poet, but he isn’t a great poet. He’s not in Whitman’s or Bishop’s league. (It’s kind of like the difference between, say, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan.) Mainly this is because Hugo has one fundamental tone, from which he departs only very rarely, and which adjectives like “depressed,” “bitter,” “despairing,” “morose,” and “elegiac” (that’s probably the best and most charitable one) describe only half-adequately. You’ll see what I mean if you decide to read him; it comes across even if you only look at the half-dozen Norton Anthology pieces. It is most certainly NOT because he writes a lot about one loosely defined region of the United States, the Northwest (comprising both the Upper Plains and the Pacific region). You see, he still sometimes gets typecast as a “regionalist,” which in the lingo of American lit teachers tends to have lame, unfair connotations of “minor” or “fringe.”
Hugo’s major theme–as distinct from his emotional tone–is the impossibility of finding a stable, legitimately happy home in America. He was a white man from the improbably named White Center, at the time a gritty working-class suburb of Seattle; his father ran out on the family when Hugo was a kid; he had a terrible drinking problem; he suffered lifelong trauma (what would now be called PTSD) from his tour as a B-17 navigator in World War II; he constantly lamented his perceived failures with women*; he never really seemed to accept that by middle age he had become a respected American writer; in short, he always thought of himself as a schlemiel, and this fundamental theme gets articulated in a consistent pattern of settings. Wrecked or abandoned towns after the gold-mining industry failed. Cruddy villages in Italy. Failing small farms. Dive bars. Rivers near the Pacific. Fishing. More dive bars. Long car journeys from desolate hamlet to even worse (Hugo is the great American poet of the highway). The scenes of Indian massacres and humiliations, and the white liberal’s consequent, and justified, guilt. The austere natural environment of Montana and Washington.
*Regarding his sexual neurosis: this is where and why H. occasionally slips into adolescent self-pity, which in turn borders on misogyny and sometimes results in genuinely creepy passages about women who “wronged” him. You might want to steer clear of these poems, which are scattered throughout his corpus.
As for his style, Hugo is prosy, insofar as he mimes the voice of someone talking / confessing directly to you, but he also mixes in buried and half-rhymes, the occasional delicious stretch of iambic pentameter, and a lush profusion of image that most novelists don’t risk going after. His images are severe, though, and he rarely ventures into blowsy John Ashbery territory. It boils down to this: Hugo demonstrates the poetic utility of both free verse and metered verse–he reminds the reader that these things aren’t anathema to one another, that in fact they can be mixed in the same poem.
Hugo is essentially a confessional poet, writing with the same general attitude as Plath, Lowell, and Berryman. By this I mean he talks about himself and his small world a great deal. Personal memory is what fires him. He bares his heart, whether you want to hear it or not. But he is different from those poets in a crucial way, because unlike them he always connects the story of his existential despair (pardon that phrase) to wider and, from most people’s point of view, more important problems like environmental devastation, economic collapse, and the long, long history of Native American genocide. Hugo is a poet for American outcasts and underdogs; if you’re one, or were one, chances are you’ll empathize with him, and maybe even like his poetry, whether you came up in rural Nevada, the South, Harlem, East LA, or wherever.
What are you waiting for? Start Googling him. Read what comes up. And consider buying a Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. If you want to keep your library light, this is a book you need.