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PN Review 276
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This article is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

on Richard Hugo & James Wright
‘Make it scotch and dirty river water’
Tony Roberts
They were old friends, driven by insecurities to depression and drink. They had grown up, in Hugo’s phrase, in ‘poor, often degrading circumstances’ during the Depression, with ‘loyalty to defeated people’ they loved and did not want to be like. They shared ‘a feeling of having violated’ their lives ‘by wanting to be different’. War and education enabled them to escape from home – Hugo’s in White Center, Washington State, Wright’s in Martins Ferry, Ohio – but memory always brought them back. Their work is marked by a loneliness which seeks identification and acceptance, by a fascination with the rejected (Wright) and the derelict (Hugo). And yet they wrote with a liveliness of style and a candour that is magnetic.

Wright has the greater reputation. He is the more startling, the more varied, the more technically gifted: The Branch Will Not Break (1963); Shall We Gather at the River (1967); his Collected Poems (1971) which won a Pulitzer Prize. Hugo’s best work is to be found in Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965) and The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973). His posthumously collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On, appeared in 1984.

The two met in Theodore Roethke’s class at the University of Montana in the mid-1950s. Roethke, another poet beset by personal difficulties, proved a powerful teacher. In his essay ‘Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching’ Hugo reckoned Roethke’s great strength was that he ‘gave students a love of the sound of language’: ‘He was also playful in class, arrogant, hostile, tender, aggressive, ...


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