The late poet Richard Hugo made Montana better for us, whether we’ve read one, none, or all of his poems. In exchange, Montana gave him a happiness he’d never felt before. I’m not the only one who believes this—Hugo believed it himself. But my search for fellow believers took a lot of wrong turns last month—near the twentieth anniversary of Hugo’s late-October 1982 death—before returning to a Friday night almost a year ago in the living room of a friend.
This friend, Jake Hartsoch, stood in front of a small audience of neighbors and read poems from a white binder of his own work. The two dozen poems in the binder, the weekend poet explained in advance, were full of stolen themes and pilfered lines from Hugo. And so it was with a nervous but eager voice that he read a poem including this sentence: “Essentially, I am a phony.”
The irony was superficial. A greater truth lay underneath. Hugo wrote “Essentially/a phony, I try my feelings now/and know I fail.” The fact that Hartsoch copied the line kept Hugo’s poetry alive.
Hartsoch went to high school in Polson. One summer, he lived in a trailer park in Pablo with his father while his parents negotiated a divorce. Hartsoch still uses the word “depressing” when he talks about growing up in small town Montana, and even now he’s afraid to revisit the trailer park alone. But he travels to Polson frequently and maintains childhood friendships, so it’s with nostalgia that he calls his home town depressing and the trailer park scary.
One friendship Hartsoch tries to maintain but cannot is with a man named Jim who is no longer alive. Jim introduced Hartsoch to Hugo’s “Selected Poems” during a night of teenage boozing. They read a poem about Philipsburg as if it were about Polson. From the hotrods and romances of their own small town they recognized “the tortured try/of local drivers to accelerate their lives” and understood “the hatred…of the best liked girls/who leave each year for Butte.”
“[Jim] was a wildman, a troublemaker, but he bought a book of poems for pleasure reading,” Hartsoch told me. “Everyone can relate to [Hugo].”
After high school, Hartsoch left behind the sadness of his home town and the fright of the trailer park. Jim, however, took his own life. He’s buried now in a cemetery in St. Ignatius. Hartsoch visited the grave recently and is, naturally, writing a poem about it. During the time they lived in Polson, both young men derived comfort from Hugo. I suppose they still do.
There is alternate proof of this reciprocity between poet and people in Hugo’s writing. After moving to Missoula in 1964, Hugo published a half dozen volumes of poetry, a collection of essays, and a mystery novel. He came as a visiting professor to the University of Montana and he died as the unofficial poet laureate for the state. Along the way he ceased to be the man who wrote these lines in his 1961 book “A Run of Jacks”: “Fish swim onto sand in error…and a child sells herring/crudely at your door.”
The universe makes blatant mistakes, Hugo seemed to be saying then, and as children of the universe we suffer the consequences. He wasn’t the same man in 1977 when he wrote “I want to say once to a world that feels/with reason it has little chance, well done.” The universe may still make mistakes, but Hugo had become a cheerleader for its children.
An only child raised by grandparents, Hugo spent much of his life before Montana alone, drinking too much, working for the Boeing Corporation, and teetering on the brink of emotional defeat. By the time he died of leukemia twenty years ago, he was sober, teaching poetry, and happy in his second marriage.
Beyond the books there is more evidence of the connection between poet and place. Hugo propelled UM’s then-new Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing program into maturity. He helped attract writers to the state who, like expatriates, needed to put some distance between themselves and America.
In early November, I called on Greg Pape, a poet at UM, and asked him if poems make the world a better place. I asked as a believer in the church of poetry. Pape said Hugo’s poems did, indeed, make Montana better. But to hear one poet praise the power of another was not convincing.
Next I called Lois Welch, former literature professor at UM. Welch and Hugo were neighbors and close friends; she coedited the collection of essays that serves as his autobiography. Didn’t Hugo help Montana as much as it helped him, I asked? Why did he travel around the state writing poems about Dixon, Havre, and Milltown? And how were the towns changed by being the subjects of his poems?
“Hugo felt alienated and like a stranger,” Welch said. “But he was really a populist and he just reached out to the people when he arrived here.”
Hugo gave public readings that filled lecture halls, Welch recalled, and he had a special ability to identify the most promising qualities of developing writers. One beneficiary of this talent was Welch’s husband, James. After Hugo recommended James write about Indians—he was from the Blackfeet Reservation—James completed a book of poems called “Riding the Earthboy 40” and embarked on a writing career that includes the award-winning novel “Fools Crow.”
Obviously, Hugo influenced people like Pape and the Welches. They were oriented toward each other. What I really wanted, I told Welch, was to find someone for whom writing was not a vocation but who believed in Hugo anyway. Those people exist, she said, and she suggested I call writer Brian Di Salvatore.
I was trapped in a closed loop of writer-dom.
Di Salvatore knew what I was talking about and what Welch meant by “ordinary people.” He called them “poets without fame.” As we talked, Di Salvatore told me about a story he wrote for the New Yorker about a small town in Washington. In it, he mimicked the first line of Hugo’s most famous poem, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” in its rhythm, tentative sense of arrival, and second-person voice.
“My first line was ‘You might come here Thursday in the rain,” Di Salvatore said. Hugo had written “You might come here Sunday on a whim.” Di Salvatore and I talked a while longer but as we said goodbye to each other, I realized I already knew plenty of ordinary people and poets without fame. That’s because I am surrounded by them. And so the search for fellow believers led back to my friend Hartsoch and that Friday night in his living room. Hartsoch, like Di Salvatore, repaid his debt to Hugo with theft, an ordinary act unrelated to fame. After I spoke with Pape, Welch, and Di Salvatore, I called Hugo’s widow, Ripley, who still lives in the house they shared and we made arrangements to meet sev-eral days later. I would rake the leaves in her backyard, she said, and she would make me a sandwich. Then we could talk. That was perfectly acceptable to me, but when I arrived for our appointment she had forgotten I was coming and was embarrassed that I took her leaf-raking stipulation seriously.
Ripley Hugo has short white hair and an aging face flecked with color. She didn’t want to talk to me until she had her glasses on. I went to the backyard and started raking while she changed clothes and tidied the kitchen. Then she came out and smoked a cigarette while we looked over the fence next to Rattlesnake Creek. She pointed toward the spot where she and he courted. There was still frost in the grass and we went back inside the house to stay warm.
We talked about the most popular Hugo poems. I remarked that people don’t appreciate the late poems enough, when Ripley and Richard were married and raising her two children. She asked me what my favorite poem was and why. It is “Letter to Mantsch from Havre” because it wishes good things for the world. I didn’t ask what her favorite poem was but she pulled a copy of “Making Certain It Goes On,” his collected works, from a bookshelf and handed it to me.
She told me to read “High Grass Prairie.” That made me nervous. Hugo had a manly voice, which I don’t, and I didn’t have time then to pre-read the poem to work out its manner. Tripping up in confusion during a poem embarrasses the reader and undermines the whole activity. The premise of one person reading to another is that if poetry is worth anything on paper it’s worth more out loud, yet no one wants to sound stupid.
But I reminded myself that Hugo wrote for “ordinary people” and “poets without fame” and that his wife would be as charitable with her listening as he was generous with his writing. Also, you could call Hugo a plainsong poet. I don’t know what plainsong means exactly—it’s a semi-technical term—but I take it to mean he doesn’t employ intimidating syntax when discussing important things. Hugo made ordinary language musical.
So I trusted the line breaks and mentally inserted supporting words as necessary to make sense of the difficult spots. In the sentence that begins “The grass flows,” I silently changed “that war” into World War II, in which Hugo served as a bombardier. And I used “here” to locate “this land” on the Rocky Mountain Front. I knew from other poems that “placated grass” and “undulating light” probably referred to a wartime experience of Hugo’s that was equal parts epiphany and nervous breakdown.
When I was done I looked at Ripley. She was looking east beyond the kitchen table, beyond Mount Jumbo outside her living room window. She told me how Hugo came to write that poem during a trip to her family cabin on the South Fork of the Teton River near Choteau.
“He was fishing and I was lying in the grass,” Ripley said. “And he said ‘Won’t you get cold?’”
Ripley didn’t get cold lying in the high grass prairie that day and Hugo learned from her that there are places on this earth that can keep a person warm. Montana is one of those places. Hugo’s way of reminding us is a poem that, read aloud, forces us to say “Hello.”
Say something warm. Hello. The world
was full of harm until this wind
placated grass and put the fish to rest.
And wave hello. Someone may be out there
riding undulating light our way.
Wherever we live, we sleep here
where cattle sleep beside the full canal.
We slept here young in poems.
The canal runs on without us east
a long flow into Fairfield. The grass flows
ever to us, ever away, the way it did
that war we dreamed this land alive.
The man we hoped was out there saw our signal and is on the way.
Say something warm. Hello. You can sleep
forever in this grass and not be cold.
Filmmakers Annick Smith and Beth Ferris will screen their 1976 documentary about Hugo, Kicking the Loose Gravel Home, on Friday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. in the Crystal Theatre. Writer Rick DeMarinis, a former student of Hugo’s, will read selected poems before the screening. Tickets are $5.