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Richard Hugo at the Paris Review blog

By Harriet Staff

At the Paris Review Daily, Alice Bolin has a fabulous profile of Richard Hugo and… graves. And it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Bolin begins by describing Hugo’s remarkable ability to write about and memorialize landmarks in Montana:

It is an indisputable fact that the memory of poet Richard Hugo haunts Missoula, Montana. This notion might first strike us as innocuous, obvious, falling within the simple domain of legacy. Thirty years after his death, he leaves equal endowments in Missoula, as the most important “Montana poet” and as a teacher of poetry: he was one of the first directors of the University of Montana’s renowned creative writing program and the author of a classic handbook on creative writing, The Triggering Town, that is filled with excellent, weird, and practical advice.

Further related to the activity of haunting: Hugo’s poems famously concern places. He is known primarily as a regional poet, and many of his most famous poems are named for Montana towns or landmarks, like “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” “The Milltown Union Bar,” and “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir.” One can use his book of collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On, as a guidebook to Montana’s bleakest and loveliest destinations; titles of his poems will lead you to Garnet ghost town, St. Ignatius, Turtle Lake, Wisdom, and Fort Benton, finally winding back to what was once Hugo’s actual address in Missoula, 2433 Agnes Street. When Hugo wrote a poem about a place, he made the place a part of himself, and now that he’s gone, a part of him remains in those places.

Bolin goes on to point out that graves remained one of the landmarks Hugo continued to returned to in his poetry. “We may note that Making Certain It Goes On contains fourteen poems with either the word grave or cemetery in their titles. Graveyards always seem a point of contemplation for Hugo, being as they are both repositories of loss and attempts at quarantining that loss from the routines of everyday life.” And further:

So what I’m saying really is simple—that Hugo’s preoccupation with graves is a powerful and disturbing theme because it prefigured his own death. He left such an impact on poetry and on Montana that it can be hard to remember that he was young when he died, only fifty-nine, of leukemia. Reading the shortness of his life into his work, it rings louder with irony and grief: “I’ll not die of course. My health / is perfect,” he wrote in “Graves in Queens,” only seven years before he died. “If you die first,” he wrote to his wife in “With Ripley at the Grave of Albert Parenteau,” “I’ll die slow as Big Bear / my pale days thin with age, / night after night, the stars callow as children.” It is sad, sad.

Make the jump to read it all here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, May 15th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.