Recovering Richard Hugo: Confessionalism, the Authority of Experience, Trout Fishing, and Politics in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams
“Why not say what happened?” –Robert Lowell
I’ll admit it—I like confessional poetry. Unfortunately this is taboo these days, with popular poetry journals like Conduit and Jubilat publishing abstract, intuitive verse that can be seen in the vein of, or descendant to, the Language poets. Poet Stephen Burt describes in his 2004 article “Close Calls With Nonsense: How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry” as “sharing a surface difficulty, [they] tease or demand or frustrate; they’re hard or impossible to paraphrase; and they try not to tell stories” (Burt 17). Poets like Mark Levine and C.D. Wright and Karen Volkman; poets Burt defines as belonging to the Elliptical School, and who “seek the authority of the rebellious…[sound] desperately extravagant…or defiantly childish…break up syntax, but then reassemble it…and try to adapt Language Poets’ disruptions for traditional lyric goals (expressing a self and its feelings)” (Burt 20). In other words, poets for whom plot, meaning, and communication are not the point.
I have a theory as to why Elliptical poems are so popular in contemporary North American literature, and it goes a little something like this—Bill Clinton killed confessional poetry. Well, not Clinton directly, but the economic boom of the Roaring ’90s allowed people of my generation, for the first time, to have the economic stability, societal security, and bourgeoisie luxury to play with words. Who needs poems about human suffering when half the country is dropping Ecstasy and listening to Intelligent Dance Music every other night? Grunge was dead, Kurt Cobain’s suicide a memory we put in a box and hid under the bed, and for a few years life was amazing.
I’m no sociologist but it makes sense that the best art is born out of struggle, during times of despair (this, of course, suggests that the Aughts will produce an enormous amount of stunning art and literature). Granted this despair is most frequently of a personal, not communal nature, but often the two are symbiotic. Consider many of the greatest poets of the mid-to-late 20th Century, men and women who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and Vietnam as well as enduring painful private lives. Men and women like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Ann Sexton. The Confessional poets.
Few authors like to be placed in the genre box, and few academics seem to want to talk about texts in this fashion (can we blame the New Critics for that?). But how else do you talk about art? In his famous review of Robert Lowell’s 1959 book, Life Studies, M.L. Rosenthal coined the term “confessional” to describe the poems found within. “Because of the way Lowell brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems into the poems of Life Studies, the word ‘confessional’ seemed appropriate enough” (Rosenthal 26). Rosenthal goes on to explain that Lowell “removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal” (Rosenthal). After all Lowell himself, in his poem “Epilogue” from 1977’s Day by Day, not-so-quietly asked, “Why not say what happened?”
Let me back up for a moment and examine Rosenthal’s lexicon: “Private humiliations.” “Sufferings.” “Psychological problems.” “Personal confidences.” What do these phrases mean? Is the tone of his analyses pejorative or apt? If pejorative, has Confessional literature been frowned-upon since its inception, or did the Language poets, and their Elliptical descendants, bias us toward syntactical experimentation and against personal revelation? How is Confessional poetry defined today? Consider this description:
“A confessional poet traffics in intimate, and perhaps derogatory, information about him or herself…one point worth noting that is specific to confessional poetry is that the ‘I’ used in the poem directly represents the poet…confessional poetry explores personal details about the authors’ life without meekness, modesty, or discretion…[confessional poets] use writing as an outlet for their demons” (en.wikipedia.org).
More juicy terms to ponder. What I find fascinating about this quote is that, on one hand, the language is predictably stereotypical (i.e. one traffics in drugs not feelings; the “I” is always autobiographical and never persona?; and, excising personal demons is what toilets are for). Yet, on the other hand, isn’t there some value to art that is without “meekness, modesty, or discretion”? For as anyone who’s ever picked up a pen knows, it’s not easy “saying what happened.” In fact, it’s very difficult.
But why is it so difficult? For starters—New Critics be damned—an audience’s impulse to conflate the author with the poem’s speaker is difficult to overcome. Furthermore, Lowell, Plath, Berryman, and Sexton had terrible lives replete with addiction, anguish, depression, and suicide. Thus, despite Lowell’s instance on communicating one’s personal experience, being a Confessional poet can mean a lifetime of defending whether or not the plot of the poem really happened. John Berryman admitted as much response to questions about the protagonist of his 1964 collection 77 Dream Songs: “Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax; Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and they stall in my hair—and fuck them, I’m not Henry. Henry doesn’t have any bats” (Plotz 1).
Bats and taxes, the two universal signifiers of modern mortality. However, what’s crucial about Berryman’s quote is his admission that Henry does resemble him. What does this dichotomy create? The notion that the poem is not about the author but of him? The acknowledgment that truth and fiction are blurred—no, combined—to yield better poetry.
Aside from fearing speaker/author conflation, and feelings of inadequacy regarding our pedestrian personal experiences, writing with absolute candor is most difficult because it does place an author in a genre. And many writers, or perhaps many young writers, are worried about being dismissed as melodramatic or sentimental or crazy. This is balderdash. What is important is not what we write, or how we write, but why we write.
In her 1998 essay “That Story: The Changes of Anne Sexton,” Alicia Ostriker suggests that “Although Lowell and Berryman, Plath and Sexton have been misread as merely personal, merely self-indulgent, merely sick, what these poets in fact sing, orate, or shriek is the individual and society with choke-holds on each other” (Ostriker 1). It’s significant that Ostriker argues these poets are misread, but what I appreciate most about this quote is the thought that the individual and society are simultaneously in conflict—forget about innocuous terms like dovetail and symbiotic, they are constantly squeezing life from each other. In other words, surviving in this world can be a nasty business. That’s what art is for, isn’t it?
Poet Richard Hugo gets this. Perhaps best known for his poems about the Pacific Northwest, Hugo spent a career struggling to articulate his own experiences as a man not-quite-at-home in the world. In “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching” he writes:
“Quest for self is fundamental to poetry. What passes for experimentation is often an elaborate method of avoiding one’s feelings at all costs…The good poems say: ‘This is how I feel.’ With luck that’s true, but usually it’s not. More often the poem is the way the
poet says he feels when he can’t find out what his real feelings are” (Hugo 33-34).
It’s a tricky business, this writing of poetry. How do I feel? How do I explain it to a reader, to someone I’ve never met? I have a sneaking suspicion that many poets write as a means to figure out what they think about what they feel—is this what Hugo means? Literary theorist and philosopher Kenneth Burke might agree. In his 1941 essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Burke argues that texts function as proverbs, and that these “proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations” (Burke 297). So, do successful Confessional poems operate as strategies? Can Richard Hugo’s poems, particularly his work from 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, be viewed as strategies for living in this mucked up world?
I like genres. I think they help critics (and audiences) establish a lexicon that facilitates the analysis of an artist’s oeuvre, because while you can’t argue about taste, you can argue about labels and context and meaning. Thus, despite what you’ve heard, Richard Hugo was a Confessional poet. Yes, he crafted beautiful pieces about bass and buffalo throughout his prolific career, but he was also a complicated man who struggled and turned to words as a means to assuage this pain. 31 Letters and 13 Dreams is a chronicle of one of the hardest years of Hugo’s life. By using letters and dreams as a form of composition, Hugo was able to write about his private life for a public sphere, to take very personal thoughts and offer them up for our consumption. I can think of no more noble and honest approach to art.
The Authority of Experience
Richard Hugo was born on December 21, 1923 in Seattle, Washington. His father shortly thereafter abandoned his (teenage) mother, and his mother shortly thereafter abandoned him, resulting in his grandparents’ assuming custody before he was two years old. In Three Pacific Northwest Poets: William Stafford, Richard Hugo, and David Wagoner, Sanford Pinsker explains that as a sibling-less boy living in the Far West during the Great Depression, Hugo later traced “his abiding sense of isolation, of alienation, to childhood feelings that the Pacific Northwest was ‘near the edge of civilization, almost out of it’”(Pinsker 55). Furthermore, Hugo’s grandparents worked untraditional shifts that left him forced to be quiet much of the day, and in an age when computers, videogames, and other solitary forms of entertainment did not exist, he turned to words and images to occupy his time:
“My grandfather’s job at the Seattle Gas Plant was a menial one and his hours fit the schedule he and grandmother had out of necessity assumed for themselves over a lifetime. And there I’d be, alone, not daring to play the radio for fear it would keep them awake in the small house, nothing to do to amuse myself but to either draw pictures, which I did, or put words on paper, which is, if your definitions are fairly fluid, called writing. My art work showed no promise, so I kept on with the words. It was a good world in many ways, about as good as a writer could hope for” (Pinsker 58).
In many ways Hugo’s upbringing prepared him for the life of a writer, but it can also be argued that growing up blue-collar and parentless during the worst decade, economically, of U.S. history prepared him to be a Confessional poet. After all, as he once declared, “If a poet is supposed to suffer for his art, I felt I deserved at least the Nobel Prize” (Hugo 146).
At the age of 19, Hugo volunteered for the U.S. Army and served as a bombardier in the Mediterranean theater. His accounts of these experiences “suggest that he was a reluctant warrior and an inept bombardier, but his Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross suggest otherwise” (Pinsker 55). Hugo would occasionally write poems and prose about this experience, one of his most famous pieces being “Mission to Linz” from his 1965 collection Death of the Kapowsin Tavern. Most certainly a war poem, the strength of the piece exists in how it also functions as a pilot(’s) poem, placing the reader not only in the cockpit but in the ether, out of this world:
And the moment
when the sky split open, allowed
the lazy tons of yellow-banded children
to fall in forty-second wonder, converge
in a giant funnel. Now you
who, so high, can only see
the puff like a penny dropped in dust
at your toe on a country road…
Of all this, this, and only it:
you can forget, and will, the degrading prayer
and when the sound is gone, only this:
you feel good to your own touch,
you remain. (Hugo 83)
I’ve never been in war, never shot at anyone or been shot at by anyone. Still, by reading these few lines I can get a glimpse of Hugo’s experience—the utter terror implicit in the opening two lines (“And the moment / when the sky split open…”); the condemnation of the second-person pronoun, Hugo directly addressing the reader but mostly himself (“so high” being both figurative and literal, connoting superiority as well as safety); and the final confession of what’s most important, having survived (“you feel good to your own touch” eliciting onanistic imagery).
There’s a phrase that I’ve been tossing around, playing with, for a few months now, a way to describe art that’s predicated upon, and received, as legitimate, real, true. I call it the authority of experience. Perhaps this impulse, this need, has led me to the Confessional poets. Perhaps it stems from examining my role as a writer during a time of great political and national turmoil. See, authority of experience means that—while every pilot flying over Linz that day may have a different recollection or perspective of the events—Hugo’s recollection, his poem, is valuable, undeniable, and important because he was really there.
I realize this line of thinking is problematic when it comes to art, particularly writing, because great authors are so because they create worlds, lives, and experiences out of their imaginations. In other words, whether it’s through intelligence or empathy, there are more people who can envision bombing a village than have actually done so. Yet, the $64,000 question always lingers—while such a fictive poem may succeed in terms of voice and craft, what is lost when we find out the author never served in the military? What is gained if we find out he did? Or, as Hugo relates:
“A young recent Ph.D. asked me to attend his class to discuss some of my poems with his students…one student asked how I’d come to write ‘The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir,’ one of the poems they were studying. My answer was straightforward. I’d had a love affair. The woman dumped me for someone else. I was brokenhearted and vengeful, but cowardly. So in real life I suffered but in the poem I had my revenge—at least early in the poem.
A few days after the class, the teacher told me he had been very surprised at my answer, that he didn’t know poets used life that way. I was surprised at his surprise and asked him where he’d assumed poems came from. He replied that he’d believed that a writer sits alone in a room and makes things up” (Pinsker 79).
Address to Sender
1971 was a rough year for Richard Hugo. An accomplished poet and successful professor, he was invited to teach at the University of Iowa’s prestigious graduate writing program. Unfortunately this experience did not bode well for his state of mind. In We Are Called Human: The Poetry of Richard Hugo, Michael Allen explains:
“[Hugo] found himself drunk more often than not, alienated by his own actions from colleagues and from the women he dated, and haunted by images of western toughness and long-standing personal wounds…the lingering aftershock of the collapse of his 14-year marriage 6 years before [led to a] ‘crack-up’ as he put it” (Allen 113-114).
A lot of pain squeezed into such a quick summation. What’s significant about this tale, about Hugo’s suffering, isn’t the fact that it further aligns him with the prototypical Confessional poets; it’s that this period yielded the poems of 31 Dreams and 13 Songs, one of his most harrowing collections, full of self-loathing, self-examination, and treatises on the poet’s—on mankind’s—relationship with the world.
31 Letters and 13 Dreams was “at once a ‘reaching out’ to old friends (mostly fellow poets)…[and] a sustained attempt to break free from the isolation that, in fact, had imprisoned him” (Pinsker 86). “Goodbye, Iowa” from 1975’s What Thou Lovest Well Remains American hinted at the material to come:
The waitress mocked you and you paid your bill
sweating in her glare. You tried to tell her
how many lovers you’ve had. Only a croak came out.
Your hand shook when she put hot coins in it.
Your face was hot and you ran face down to the car.
Miles you hated her. Then you remembered what
the doctor said: really a hatred of self.
And now you are alone.
Your car is cruising. You cross with ease
at 80 the state line and the state you are entering
always treated you well. (Hugo 237)
Note the plainspoken, straight-forward language of the speaker, diction William Wordsworth describes in the “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” as working to “choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men” (Wordsworth). Note the specific words—“sweating,” “tried,” “croak,” and “shook” (all connoting inferiority and failure); the anaphora of the “your” (there’s that indicting, reader/author pronoun ambiguity again); the repetition of “hot” and “face” (why not use the best words, even if they are the same word?); and the double meaning of “state” (physical and psychological) . This so-called simple speech is voluminous via its imagery. We see the shame, the red flush of his cheeks, maybe even the tears that lead the speaker (lead Hugo?) to mouth what we all fear most: I hate myself.
Is that the point of poetry? To look into the mirror and report what we see? Richard Hugo seems to have thought so:
“Hugo—especially in his later years—became a decidedly public poet, unafraid of speaking out with candor about the messier, less attractive aspects of his life. Again, honesty was the keystone of his aesthetic. ‘How you feel about yourself,’ he once wrote, ‘is probably the most important feeling you have.’ To ‘let go’—of bitterness, of hatred, of blame—is as important, perhaps more important, as cataloging the indignities of
childhood” (Pinsker 86).
It’s interesting how he dances around the content of the Confessional poets—bitterness, hatred, blame—without joining their legion. Yet, how is “Goodbye, Iowa” not a Confessional poem? If we return to Wikipedia’s definition of the genre, Hugo is indeed trafficking in intimate information about himself. And as we learn from biography and autobiography, the “I” of the poem is most certainly (at least partially) the author. Hugo admits as much when speaking about his time at Iowa: “I started dating women I liked very much, getting drunk and having some conversations that would insure their hatred…I’m the last person to deliberately alienate others, least of all women I admire and respect, yet that’s what I was doing’”( Allen 100). This distancing is, of course, what the speaker in the poem is doing, has done. What does it get him? Only the comfort of an empty road leading home, a chance to sort things out. Not to mention the poems of 31 Letters and 13 Dreams.
So why letter poems? Why at this point in his career? What did Hugo hope to accomplish with this form, these addresses, this methodology?
“Hugo’s ‘letter poems’ were enormously popular when the first ones appeared in American Poetry Review. They seemed so off handedly casual, so effortless, so entirely convincing in voice, in tone, that a wide variety of poets began to imitate them…[they] were a way of getting to the heart of psychological matter in ways that the confessional poets of the 1960s could only dream about…Art is, above all else, an illusion and Hugo’s letter poems made it ‘look easy.’ What could be easier, after all, than dashing off a letter to a good friend and then breaking the lines until they had the look, the feel, of a poem?” (Pinsker 86-87).
Voyeuristic in nature, as if the reader has clandestinely gained access to the private musings of one famous poet to another famous poet, Hugo’s letter poems lack artifice, at least on first reading: “[They] were a way of ‘having it out,’ of saying plainly…what needed to be said. A lyric poem, Hugo tells us, would not have done the trick” (Pinsker 88). Why wouldn’t a lyric poem have sufficed? Perhaps lyric poems are limited by the same elite, bourgeois stance as the Language and Elliptical poems, better served to articulate modernist, meditative states of mind via innovative syntax? Not necessarily, for Berryman’s The Dream Songs are very lyrical in nature. Then what does “having it out” mean?:
“Perhaps no American poet since Whitman has created a work in which the psychological quest for self-integration has been achieved in such a thoroughly social dimension…Hugo has discovered a similar strength of self in a bipolar outreach of letters to friends and of dreams from his haunted psyche” (Allen 113).
Again, I love the terms—“haunted psyche” sounds like a great gothic band name. But I digress. What’s important about these poems is, once again, the self v. social binary—after all, aren’t letters predicated upon a recipient, predicated upon communication, predicated upon social interaction? Think of how (e)mail functions today in the workplace, among former college roommates, and long-distance lovers. Letters are intrinsically social—neither rain nor sleet nor snow can stop them.
Still, “in letters as in life, to expose a personal fragility is to invite attack” (Ostriker 59).
There’s something uncomfortable about reading, in “Letter to Bell from Missoula,” Hugo write:
Dear Marvin: Months since I left broke down and sobbing
in the parking lot, grateful for the depth
of your understanding and since then I’ve been treated
in Seattle and I’m in control like Genghis Khan. (Hugo 5).
We know the facts: Marvin is Marvin Bell, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, with whom Hugo had a “short, desperate talk…[then] got into his car, left Iowa in midsemester, and drove nonstop back to Missoula, his home, and then to Seattle, where his history began, to seek therapeutic treatment for his alcoholism” (Allen 114). Suddenly this poem is not a poem at all, but a postcard from the edge, a gesture from one friend to another saying it’s all right—now. Once more, though, we must remember not to conflate the author and speaker, for “to read [Hugo’s poems] as pure biography (if such an animal exists) would be a mistake…as Hugo once put it, ‘In a poem you’ll fictionalize something just to see where the possibilities of language take you’” (Pinsker 86).
The first poem of 31/13 is “Letter to Kizer from Seattle.” Heartbreakingly explicit, it is a communiqué between Hugo and his good friend, poet Carolyn Kizer. The poem begins:
Dear Condor: Much thanks for that telephonic support
from North Carolina when I suddenly went ape
in the Iowa tulips. Lord, but I'm ashamed.
I was afraid, it seemed, according to the doctor
of impending success, winning some poetry prizes
or getting a wet kiss. The more popular I got,
the softer the soft cry in my head: Don't believe them.
You were never good. Then I broke and proved it.
Ten successive days I alienated women
I liked best. I told a coed why her poems were bad
(they weren’t) and didn't understand a word I said.
Really warped. The phrase “I'll be all right”
came out too many unsolicited times. I'm o.k. now. (Hugo 3)
Look closely at the first two words of the poem, the first two words of the book: Dear Condor. Note the tenderness of the salutation and the sobriquet. This is not the “To Whom It May Concern” of narrative poetry; it is not the interior monologue of lyrical poetry. It is a direct address. By doing so, it positions the reader as both outsider and insider, privy to found art yet guilt-ridden about reading further.
Aside from address what appeals most to me about this piece, what is in fact the genesis of my desire to recover Richard Hugo, is the absolute brutal honesty of his writing. Lines like, “The more popular I got / the softer the soft cry in my head: Don’t believe them” speak right through me—perhaps only people with poetic temperaments are this paranoid, but I doubt it. Thus, in 16 quick words Hugo articulates what it’s like to exist as a member of a society, as well as explains that no amount of social success can silence self-doubt.
Hugo again alludes to an act of misogyny and/or sexism (“Ten successive days I alienated women / I liked best. I told a coed why her poems were bad / (they weren’t)…”), making almost comical—via parenthetical admission—his inability to understand women, to understand how he interacts with women. Finally, he pokes fun at the classic, empty gesture of the terminally desperate—“I’ll be all right”—by evoking it (“I’m o.k. now”). Sure you are, pal. Sure you are. The poem then (still without stanza breaks) shifts gears away from the Just Checking In tone to larger, sociopolitical issues:
I'm back at the primal source of poems: wind, sea
and rain, the market and the salmon. Speaking
of the market, they’re having a vital election here.
Save the market? Tear it down? The forces of evil
maintain they’re trying to save it too, obscuring,
of course, the issue. The forces of righteousness,
me and my friends, are praying for a storm, one
of those grim dark rolling southwest downpours
that will leave the electorate sane. (Hugo 3)
Here Hugo alludes, most likely facetiously, to his reputation as a Regionalist poet, using this reputation—from salmon poet to salmon protestor—to act as an ombudsman for his home. Yet Hugo treads lightly, deftly switching without stanza breaks to English department politics and then back to matters of his birth place:
……………………………….....I’m the last poet
to teach the Roethke chair under Heilman.
He's retiring after 23 years. Most of the old gang
is gone. Sol Katz is aging. Who isn’t? It's close now
to the end of summer and would you believe it
I've ignored the Blue Moon. I did go to White Center,
you know, my home town, and the people there,
many are the same, but also aging, balking, remarkably
polite and calm. A man whose name escapes me
said he thinks he had known me, the boy who went alone
to Longfellow Creek and who laughed and cried
for no reason. (Hugo 3-4)
So subtle it’s easy to miss, Hugo slips in this striking image of himself as a boy, sitting alone along the side of a creek, weeping. While he tempers the pathos with the word “laughed,” it’s hard not to take from this moment the scene of a sad, lonely boy in Nowhere, WA.
The final lines of the poem take us to modern day Seattle, a sprawling metropolis with big city problems:
…………......The city is huge, maybe three quarters
of a million and lots of crime. They are indicting
the former chief of police. Sorry to be so rambling.
I eat lunch with J. Hillis Miller, brilliant and nice
as they come, in the faculty club, overlooking the lake,
much of it now filled in. And I tour old haunts,
been twice to Kapowsin. One trout. One perch. One poem.
Take care, oh wisest of condors. Love. Dick. Thanks again.
However, despite the changes in the city of his youth, Hugo seems to have found a sense of…shall we call it happiness?...in the Emerald City. A sense of happiness so absolute he just has to tell someone, tell everyone about it.
The Greatest Generation
Can you write about war without serving in a war? Can you write about alcoholism and loneliness without having experienced them? Is Hugo’s 31/13 merely a series of well-crafted poems, or is a strategy for living? Should we view Hugo as more than a Regionalist-Confessional poet, given his authority of experience, when it comes to war and politics? What is political poetry? Work that takes into account ethical, spiritual, social, and cultural considerations? What makes a poet political? Can I characterize Hugo as a political poet? If so, how? Perhaps the most political act is to write about your own experiences, warts and all? (Well, maybe that’s more punk rock than it is political, but we’re splitting hairs.) What does it mean to be a Regionalist poet? In Richard Hugo, Gerstenberger writes:
“When Hugo says, ‘I am a regionalist and don’t care for writers who are not,’ he is talking about a kind of poetry and not about regionalism per se, as the rest of his comment makes clear. ‘I find it hard to write unless I have sense of where the speaker is, and I have a hard time appreciating writing if I sense the author has no clear idea of
where the things in his work are happening’” (Gerstenberger 41).
Here Hugo seems to be speaking about his position as a Northwest poet and his position as a political/outsider poet. In doing so he explains why his letter poems need to be located (and titled from) somewhere specific.
The fact that Hugo was at Iowa in the early 70s when he suffered his breakdown is significant in that Iowa City can be likened to Washington D.C.—the locus of the poetry world. Thus, Hugo’s need to leave that universe and retreat back to his home of Seattle, yet write to the very poets that define/pass through Iowa City, is an interesting political act. Sure, it may simply be coincidence, a series of actions. But, this backstory can be read as significant in light of the form—letters—of the poems written shortly after his crack up. It’s as if Hugo is in the heat of battle (once again), and needs help from his fellow (poetry) soldiers to make sense of who he was, who he has become.
William Stafford, who taught for many years in Oregon and was also considered a Northwest poet, was one person Hugo identified with as a poetry soldier. In 31 Dreams and 13 Letters, Hugo pens a poem to Stafford, entitled “Letter to Stafford from Polson” in which he creates a metaphor via a wolf character:
“………………………..…I personally think
the wolf wants to be one of us, to give up killing
and hiding, the blue cold of the mountains, the cave
where he must live alone. I think he wants to come down
and be a citizen…”(Hugo 27).
Given Stafford’s well-documented pacifism, and Hugo’s experience as a soldier, it’s easy to read this poem as a commentary on the barbaric nature of man and society. The idea that the violent, the predatory, are so because of their alienation.
Another important addressee in 31/13 is Charles Simic. One of Hugo’s WWII missions consisted of bombing a town in Yugoslavia, the home of then-three-year-old Charles Simic.
Years later, during a conversation at a party, Hugo and Simic learned of each other’s role in this incident. As Simic relates it:
“In 1972, I met one of the men who bombed me in 1944. I had just made my first trip back to Belgrade after almost twenty years. Upon my return to the States, I went to a literary gathering in San Francisco, where I ran into the poet Richard Hugo in a restaurant. We chatted, he asked me how I spent my summer, and I told him that I had just returned from Belgrade…Without knowing my background, he proceeded to draw on the tablecloth, among the breadcrumbs and wine stains, the location of the main post office, the bridges over the Danube and Sava, and a few other important landmarks. Without a clue as to what all this meant, supposing that he had visited the city as a tourist at one time, I inquired how much time he had spent in Belgrade….“I was never there,” he replied. “I only bombed it a few times”… When, absolutely astonished, I blurted out that I was there at the time and that it was me he was bombing, Hugo became very upset. In fact, he was deeply shaken” (Simic 12-13).
Confessional poetry often gets tagged as being narcissistic and solipsistic, work that functions
for the author first, and society never. “Letter to Simic from Boulder,” Hugo’s correspondence to Simic about their introduction and the bombing, is not that kind of poem. Part apology, part justification, part reaching out, “Letter to Simic” is an important historical document, putting faces on the good guys, the bad guys, and those caught in-between during a brutal, though necessary, war:
Letter to Simic from Boulder
Dear Charles: And so we meet once in San Francisco and I
learn I bombed you
long ago in Belgrade when you were five.
I was interested
mainly in staying alive, that moment
I don’t apologize
for the war, or what I was. I was
…………. ……….Nice to
meet you finally after
Once more, Hugo’s humble tone creates a sense of intimacy and understatement. The small phrases of the first stanza (“I remember” and “We missed”), with their truncated syntax, operate as editorials, thereby establishing the content as recollection not creation.
Hugo’s self-effacing point of view (“I couldn’t hit my ass”; the final couplet of the piece) is both humorous and clearly born out of the need to communicate to Simic that not only did Hugo not want to hurt him, he couldn’t have if he tried. However, we know this is not true, understand that it is a means of coping with the fact that he did hit others, that he did kill innocent men, women, and children.
What I appreciate most about this poem is the tenderness, the humanity, of the last six lines. Talk about well-crafted verse. We have another strong image, that of a young, Yugoslavian boy sitting in the sun, perhaps on a short, brick wall, waving at a young, American pilot. But the pilot is scared. Sweating profusely, hands shaking, determined to do is job, he hopes his bombs are not bombs but a child’s greatest wish—chocolate fragments that bring pleasure instead of pain.
Making Certain It Goes On
Richard Hugo died of leukemia on October 22, 1982. He was 58 years old. Despite over a decade of sobriety after years of flagrant alcohol abuse, his body failed him. Nevertheless, his words remain: “Of what generally passes for ‘accomplishments,’ there were many: his books had twice been nominated for National Book Awards; he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller grant;…Hugo was, in short, a major American poet” (Pinsker 96).
Considered a strategy for writing (and reading) within the genre of confessionalism, Lowell’s suggestion to write what really happened can be applied to the Confessional poetry of Richard Hugo. However, in The Triggering Town Richard Hugo cautions beginning writers against worrying about audience. He likens a reader to someone watching your every move, and we all know how distracting that can be:
Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing, glance over your shoulder, and you’ll find there is no reader. Just you and the page. Feel lonely? Good. Assuming you can write clear English sentences, give up all worry about
communication. If you want to communicate, use the telephone” (Hugo 5).
I have to assume Hugo is being a little facetious with the last sentence, especially considering
how communicative his work can be. However, point well taken. If writers are too concerned about reception, then they might edit/censor/obfuscate what they are really trying to articulate.
Unfortunately, in my work, I find it impossible to completely ignore some sense of readership. Allen Ginsberg once said (I’m paraphrasing), “You can write anything you want, just don’t show it to anybody” and that can be liberating at times. Ultimately, though, with my writing I’m trying to produce something, to document my life—those poems not necessarily about me but of me.
A few months ago I was speaking with my friend about why people—why we—write, and we came up with two possibilities. The first, which is the one I posited, is to be remembered or special or noticed or famous or some other ego-based reward. While this need is rarely, if ever, publicly expressed, I find it hard to believe that most artists aren’t working from some sort of desire to be immortalized. It’s why I started writing, when I was teenage and maudlin and angry and didn’t want to spend my life working in some factory making widgets. I wanted to create art, to add to the world, to matter. Sounds kind of preposterous now or, more accurately, megalomaniacal. Though I still believe it.
My friend, on the other hand, writes out of a need to express himself. Not necessarily because he has important and/or painful things to communicate but because he has things to say. This makes sense, too, especially since most writers I know are quite observant and slightly shy. Another favorite quote of mine, I believe by Flannery O’Connor, reads, “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve said?” For me, and for my friend, and maybe for poets like Richard Hugo, writing poetry is just that—it’s the best way we know to communicate what we think about how we feel:
“When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult, and you are not only limiting the writing of poems to something done only by the very witty and clever, such as Auden, you are weakening the justification for creative writing programs. So you can take that attitude if you want, but you are jeopardizing my livelihood as well as your chances of writing a good poem. If the second attitude is right, then I still have a job. Let’s pretend it is right because I need the money. Besides, if you feel truth must conform to music, those of us who find life bewildering and who don't know what things mean, but love the sounds of words enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing—try to stop us” (Hugo 3-4).
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