Richard Hugo was a poet of the Pacific Northwest, yet his renown attests to a stature greater than that of most "regional" poets. He is noted for the tight, rhythmic control of his language and lines and for the sharp sense of place evoked in his poems. Hugo's images are urgent and compelling; he imbues the many minute or seemingly irrelevant details found in his poems with a subtle significance, thereby creating a tension between the particular and the universal. This tension is considered central to Hugo's most powerful poems.
In his poems Hugo reflected as much upon the internal region of the individual as on the external region of the natural world, and he considered these two deeply interconnected. According to Frederick Garber, "the landscape where things happen to Hugo goes as far into his mind as it goes outside of it"; Hugo's poetry "is about the meeting of these landscapes." The role of the past as a shaping force on the individual predominates. While "failed towns, isolated people and communities imprisoned in walls of boredom and rage," as Michael Allen notes, are often the subjects of Hugo's poems, there is also a pervading sense of optimism, of an uplifting hope, as Hugo puts it, "that humanity will always survive civilization."
Critics have praised Hugo's technical skills, the emotional impact of his compressed images, and the casual, sometimes humorous tone of his poems. In addition to his major poetry collections—including A Run of Jacks (1961), Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965), Good Luck in Cracked Italian (1969), The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973), What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (1975), 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977), and Selected Poems (1979)—Hugo also published a collection of essays, The Triggering Town (1979) and the mystery novel Death and the Good Life (1981); his autobiography was posthumously published as The Real West Marginal Way (1987). His forte, however, was poetry, and his characteristic stance as a self-analytic writer, a perceptive observer, and a Westerner is evident in Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo (1984).