Richard Hugo was born in White Center, a community on the south side of Seattle, Washington, in 1923. He was a poet and writing professor from the mid-1960's to the time of his death in 1982. He was my writing professor in 1977.
In 1976, I was fed up with my hometown, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. As far as towns go, it's a pretty nice one. Even then, at seventeen, I knew that. I even knew that my school was a particularly good one and my teachers meant well. None of them, however, had anything more to teach me --at least, nothing I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn poetry, and I had a pretty good idea of who could teach me.
I had a copy of The American Poetry Review, a newspaper-like periodical, which had a picture of Dick Hugo on the cover. He had just received something called the Roethke Poetry Award, which was appropriate as Dick Hugo had been a student of Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington in 1948.
I also had the personal report of my friend, Jeff Kishel, who had quit high school and gone to the University of Montana to study with Hugo. Thanks to Dick Hugo, the University of Montana had a degree program in "Creative Writing" for undergraduates, which was a rare thing then. Oh sure, there were graduate schools, like the University of Iowa, but for a kid who didn't even have a high school diploma, that was a little beyond my reach. Plus, the University of Montana is in Missoula, which is the place to be if you like hiking and skiing in the mountains, which I did. So I hopped on a Greyhound bus with Kishel and endured a 60-hour, mid winter ride from the East Coast to Montana, and started taking classes with Richard Hugo.
The Creative Writing curriculum consisted entirely of taking the same poetry workshop class with Dick Hugo, over and over. Since it was open to non-majors, there was a certain amount of repetition and boredom to be endured. Hugo was big, burly, and could be rather gruff and abusive if you drank beer with him down at Eddie's Club in town. He came from Seattle, from a working class background. He had played semi-professional baseball and he was a decorated veteran of World War II, flying 35 missions as a bombardier. You did not want to piss him off.
In class, though, he was very gentle and kind to the casual poetry student with their sad little spiral-bound notebook diaries, and somehow avoided telling the young girls that their little rhyming pieces about stars and ponies and moonbeams were complete drivel. Of course, he liked the pretty young girls, but he wasn't creepy about it, and he was almost as patient with the clueless boys. Almost. And he was pretty tough on the wiseguys like myself. In retrospect, I think I probably learned more from Dick Hugo watching him deal with the less-promising students, than I learned about language and poetry. And I learned quite a bit about language and poetry from him.
Hugo advised me (and I presume other young people who showed some promise with words) that I needed to stop taking his class and get a life and/or an education. I took his advice, and went to a more serious college (which, I discovered after I had been there two years, was also the same college Hugo's stepson attended). A little later on, I learned that Dick Hugo had died in Seattle in 1982 of leukemia.
You can get a very accurate feeling for what it was like being in Dick Hugo's class by reading his essay, "The Triggering Town" (from the book of the same title). Here's an excerpt (the entire thing is on the web at the URL given below).
In the essay he speaks directly to you, just like he spoke to us in his classes:
In the news article the relation of the words to the subject (triggering subject since there is no
other unless you can provide it) is a strong one. The relation of the words to the writer is so weak that for our purposes it isn't worth consideration. Since the majority of your reading has been
newspapers, you are used to seeing language function this way. When you write a poem these
relations must reverse themselves. That is, the relation of the words to the subject must weaken
and the relation of the words to the writer (you) must take on strength. This is probably the hardest thing about writing poems. It may be a problem with every poem, at least for a long time. Somehow you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words.
For our purposes I'll use towns as examples. The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. The reason for that, I believe, is that the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you've just seen for the first time out home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn't always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer committed suicide, you have complicated emotional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town, you can assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally. However, not just any town will do. Though you've never seen it before, it must be a town you've lived in all your life. You must take emotional possession of the town and so the town must be one that, for personal reasons I can't understand, you feel is your town. In some mysterious way that you need not and probably won't understand, the relationship is based on fragments of information that are fixed and if you need knowns that the town does not provide, no trivial concerns such as loyalty to truth, a nagging consideration had you stayed home, stand in the way of your introducing them as needed by the poem. It is easy to turn the gas station attendant into a drunk. Back home it would have been difficult because he had a drinking problem.
Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg is an example of Dick's poetry involving a "triggering town". The town is in Montana, but the poem is presumably about Hugo's hometown of Seattle (since, according to Dick, they all are). You can read it and a lot more at Joan Daughtery's website, listed below.
Poems, Chronology, Biography, Bibilography and more: Joan Daugherty's Richard Hugo Web Site:
Essays from The Triggering Town:http://www.ualr.edu/~rmburns/RB/hugo1.html