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The Real West Marginal Way: A POET'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, edited by Ripley S. Hugo, Lois M. Welch and James Welch, with an introduction by William Matthews (Norton: $16.95; 224 pp.)

September 21, 1986|Gerald Locklin | Locklin teaches and writes at Cal State Long Beach. and

Richard Hugo discovered that he didn't like the genre of autobiography but did like writing essays. Upon his death from leukemia in 1982 (nearing 59), his second wife, his protege James Welch, and Welch's wife began the editing into an autobiography of these essays from his final 15 years.

Youthful poets as diverse as Robert Lowell and Dylan Thomas have sought refuge from criticism in the obscurity of private references. It was in his maturity that Hugo transcended the insularity that he and James Wright had rebeled against in the generation of Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. Early on, however, Hugo was already demonstrating his capacity for closures that explode with epigrammatic paradox: ". . . delirious eagles breed to tease the river." Hugo admits, "I don't even understand that one any more." This honesty and humility--bolstered by a poking of fun at his own pretensions--produce a not merely likable but indeed noble figure.

Aided by years of psychoanalysis, Hugo came to understand that an upbringing of beatings and boredom in the house of grandparents had left him crippled by sexual timidity well into his 20s and, until his later sobriety and happy marriage, vulnerable to breakdown upon the loss of a woman or even in guilty reaction against too much career success.

His sublimations were softball, bars, movies, friendships, watery nature, and more specifically, places. He and his first wife found images of their frail personalities in the abandoned houses that they "haunted." He came to wed character, event, and utterance to settings in Seattle, Montana, and the Italy to which he returned after Yossarian-like experiences as a bombardier--he was decorated for ridding the plane of jammed explosives over what he always suspected to have been Switzerland.

His predilection for poems of place coincided with a fondness for the work of a little-known English poet, Bernard Spencer, and with characteristic modesty, Hugo seems to be suggesting a parallel inconspicuous niche for himself.

Yet at his best ("Northwest Retrospective: Mark Tobey"), he sounds no sentimental trill but the unstoppered intelligence of Yeats' Tower period:

. . . cryogenic fuels, free radicals,

plasma jets, coordinated fusion.

Only the last, in all this void, applies.

A universe is fusing in our eyes.

Hugo decided after meeting Allen Ginsberg that "whether his poems are good or not is unimportant. He is a great human being. . . ." The same could be said of Hugo except that (as with Ginsberg) many of the poems are in fact quite good. His posthumously collected poems, also from Norton, are titled "Making Certain It Goes On." It does.

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