Friday, December 20, 2013

Richard Hugo and the Mountain


Richard Hugo (adapted from cover art)

Note: The Richard Hugo House is involved in its end-of-year campaign to raise money to provide education to budding writers. As a gesture of support I'm posting part of an article I wrote that originally appeared in The Ember, newsletter of the Indianapolis Zen Center. It will become clear why Richard Hugo House is close to my heart. Please visit their website.


Richard Hugo was a poet who taught creative writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. He had an austere childhood in rural Washington followed by a full tour of duty as a bombardier in World War II. He worked with Boeing Aircraft before eventually taking up the teaching career that most successful American poets enter.

“Highfaluting” was not what you would call Hugo or his poetry, which often took small towns and other distant locales and lives as their subjects. To these subjects he brought a big, rhythmic voice, a style that infected many young poets who tried to write the way he did. I was one of them, a skinny, chain-smoking undergraduate at Indiana University who had attended one of his poetry readings, an event that was, for better or worse, a turning point in my life, determining my decision to take up a major in English and creating an indelible interest in literature. You never know when these turning points will happen.

Hugo made such a big impression on me that I chose his career as the subject of my undergraduate thesis, and I arranged to fly out to mountain-ringed Missoula to interview this man who had become my literary hero. Going there I knew he was not in the best of health. He had lost a lung to cancer a couple of years earlier, and he was sometimes fatigued, but I thought he was doing fairly well considering. At the end of the summer before my senior year I visited him.

He was tired but very friendly and considerate of my questions that afternoon. I stayed for a backyard cookout with him and his wife, talking as the sun went down. Looking back at myself that evening, I wasn’t that different from who I am now, just a little more nervous. I don’t remember the highfaluting things I was talking to him about. They don’t really matter now. What I do remember about that evening is more important.

In the middle of my literary chatter Hugo said, “Look. That mountain just changed color.” I stopped. I looked at the closest mountain. I checked its color. The sky was darker and paler. Nothing I had talked about mattered. There was a mountain in the twilight. It was what we might call a “just like this” moment in Zen. It was almost like he had delivered an answer to a koan, and the world, for a moment, opened up.

Two months later I learned that Hugo had died. Unknown to me he had developed leukemia, and complications from that disease proved fatal. I completed my thesis feeling an irrational sense of guilt. I wondered what his state of mind must have been during that interview, and I wondered if his serious illness had focused his attention on the present moment, single-pointedly, when the mountain changed color, or perhaps he was just sick of listening to me. In either case, he had his priorities straight.

I have hazy memories of the big ideas I wrote about in my thesis. But I remember the mountain.

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