• Claire Summa

Richard Hugo and Montana: It's Complicated.

The grave of Richard Hugo.

It’s safe to say Richard Hugo had a complicated relationship with his final resting place. And the feeling is mutual. On the one hand, Hugo is referred to as the “Montana poet” and was one of the first directors of the University of Montana’s esteemed creative writing program. Hugo also wrote many poems about various literal and figurative landscapes of the state, including Missoula, where he once lived and is buried. Cali Kopczick, our Team Demo Hugo Production Manager, has already analyzed one of the most famous Hugo poems about Montana, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” on this blog. She also summarized Hugo’s “Triggering Town” method for writing poetry with place as the backbone for the thematic build.

1) romp into unfamiliar town;

2) describe said town - don’t worry too much about accuracy;

3) let own feelings bubble up as real focus of poem;

4) publish feelings with town name still in title and poem.

Naturally, this leads to Hugo projecting his own emotional landscape onto the seemingly equally barren physical landscape of small Montana towns. In his poems, Hugo details the unremarkable nature of these places and implies their inhabitants fall into a molasses-like cycle of living by distraction. In the poem, “Missoula Softball Tournament,” Hugo describes the players and observers of a softball game in order to capture how they satiate their hunger for preoccupation. He writes that by going to this softball field he has “gone back to the old ways of defeat . . . familiar dust and thud” because “Life is better run from.” Hugo describes the “beautiful wives in the stands” as “basic, used” with their only future “years of helping husbands feel important just begun.” Everyone is “high on beer” yet “Their laughter falls just short of the wall.” Their joy is just short of extending beyond this routine distraction into the rest of their lives. The softball game is a “Routine, like mornings, like the week,” a little short-lived excitement of losing oneself for a while that became instinctive habit in a place like Missoula.

I personally am from a small town where there isn’t much to do, so growing up I directed all that run-of-the-mill teen angst to complaining about that fact. But if someone else, an outsider, trash-talked my town, I would defend it to the -- well not the death, but you get the idea. Which explains why many native Montanans took offense to how Hugo (a non-native Montanan, from White Center, Washington) pushed his own personal problems and viewpoint onto their town and by extension, themselves. Hugo was a big personality, however so often it’s the people that make others laugh the loudest and seem to live the fullest lives that feel the most lonely and isolated. In describing the triggering towns as boring, empty, and desolate, Hugo may have been projecting how he felt his own life wasn’t extraordinary, interesting, or full enough. Hugo struggled with alcoholism, and frequently attended the Missoula bar, Harold’s Dine Drink and Dance. He immortalizes the blue-collar tavern in his work, “The Milltown Union Bar.” Hugo begins by describing the establishment as a beautiful distraction full of “honest drunks . . . you could love . . . you need never leave” because “Money or a story brings you booze.” Yet he ends with detailing the heart-wrenching reality beyond the bottom of the countless glasses. The home he created there, like every home, is not quite what it seems in brief.

In “The Milltown Union Bar” in particular, Hugo acknowledges that the people he writes of are a reflection of himself. While we cannot blame these townspeople for defending their home, we also cannot blame Hugo for projecting his own feelings in his own writing. He never pretended to write for the subject of his poems, or for the people who lived in these triggering towns. Joanne Schmauch, the owner of the Dixon Bar, another subject of a Hugo poem, wrote a fiery letter to the Missoulian criticizing his work in her bar (and her own) defense. In response, Hugo wrote his own letter to the editor, stating that “Joanne Schmauch finds my poems unflattering to Dixon but my poems are not about Dixon. For Schmauch's edification, poems are works of imagination and are not intended to be factual accounts. ... If I wanted to write about Dixon, I'd write an article.” This is brought up in the 2010 article “Poetry of Place: Following Richard Hugo reveals truths, real and imagined” in the Missoulian (link below), in which our very own Frances Mccue is interviewed! The article later quotes her in regard to readers’ reactions to Hugo’s work, “In a Hugo poem, you are walking into the poorest part of town and, having a look, fearing that you might belong there.”

That, I believe, is the key to understanding some reactions to Hugo’s work. Hugo writes from a physical place about his own emotional standing while in that place. His work strikes a chord with so many readers because they empathize with the emotional undercurrent of his poems. It does not matter if they are actually at a softball tournament in Missoula or in some nameless bar thousands of miles away from Montana. What pulls in readers to a Hugo poem is the idea of their own place, their own home, as a triggering town. That is why his work is relevant today. Personal connection to place is universal, even if the places are not.

Luckily for us, our team is in the Montana towns that triggered Richard Hugo so they can learn more of the people and places that he called home until the end. Cali Kopczick is updating this blog as well as our social media to give you all updates on the trip!

Check out our last blog post for the trip itinerary:

Team Demo Hugo Does Montana

Check out Cali's interpretation of Hugo’s method:

On Projection: A Visit to the Triggering Town

Links to Hugo poems referenced in this post:

Missoula Softball Tournament

The Milltown Union Bar


Bolin, Alice. “At the Grave of Richard Hugo.” The Paris Review. The Paris Review, 14 May, 2012. Web.

“The Milltown Union Bar Revisited.” NewWest. August Publications, 7 Jan. 2011. Web.

Moore, Michael. “Poetry of Place: Following Richard Hugo reveals truths, real and imagined.” Missoulian. Missoulian, 3 May. 2010.