P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.22 - March 2018
Poetry Aloud, Part 3: Richard Hugo
Continuing my loose survey of some memorable poetry readings I’ve attended, this month I’d like to remember the late Richard Hugo. He was an early and abiding influence on my own poetry—something I didn’t fully realize until I put together the manuscript for Magic Shows, my first book (1986), suddenly seeing how much I owed to him, both in theme and style.
But by 1977, the first and only time I heard Hugo read, he was already one of my favorites on the page. So many heroes are disappointing in person, though; I didn’t know quite what to expect. The occasion was a reading in Providence, Rhode Island. Along with a bunch of other younger poets I piled into a car in Worcester MA, and drove down to see what he was like. Turns out that his performance was about as different from Gwendolyn Brooks’s as you can imagine, but just as effective, in my view. I don’t want to belabor this point, but it is important. Poets in my experience have fiercely held and sometimes narrowly focused opinions about what constitutes a good reading, but it seems self-evident to me that there are as many styles of excellence in poetry aloud as there are in any other art form. And performing a poetry reading is an art, obviously related to but still distinct from writing itself. I’ve heard many different readers over the years manage to wow their audiences in very distinct ways.
Hugo was not what we would today term a spoken word performer. He wasn’t loud or extravagant. He didn’t intone and chant like Dylan Thomas. He didn’t use masks and costumes like Robert Bly, or sing like Sonia Sanchez. He didn’t emphasize words with odd and nonsyntactical pauses, like Robert Creeley. Though every reading is a performance, obviously, not all are highly theatrical. Rather, his style was low-key, conversational, and self-deprecating, laced with humor. As I recall, he began by telling a longish anecdote about an eccentric neighbor from his childhood, an old woman who would invite neighborhood kids over to her house, where she would regale them by playing piano and singing songs, which were her own “original compositions,” Hugo stressed, quoting her own words. After having some gentle fun at the lonely old lady’s expense for her pitiful pride in her awful music, and describing how cruel the kids could be in mocking her performances afterward, Hugo paused for effect. Then, with a mile-wide grin he said, “And here I am, about to perform my own original compositions!”
It was a very winning icebreaker, entirely in tune with his themes and approach. Of course we all laughed heartily and enjoyed his dismissal of the bardic pride that too often infects poets who read aloud. Then after some further pleasantries, he read "A Snapshot of the Auxiliary," the opening poem of his book What Thou Lovest Well Remains American, published two years previously. But he didn't announce the poem, either by title or subject; he just slipped inconspicuously from his conversational remarks into the body of the poem itself, reciting it in the same tones and without glancing at the page:
In this photo, circa 1934,
you see the women of the St. James Lutheran
Womens Auxiliary. It is easy
to see they are German, short, squat,
with big noses, the sadness of the Dakotas
in their sullen mouths. . . .
It was a memorable performance. Those who had not heard the poem before surely were at a loss momentarily to figure out what Hugo was getting at. Even on the page, his opening lines are deliberately flat, world-weary, factual, like the snapshot itself. Soon enough, however, Hugo’s poetic imagination kicks in, interpreting the photograph, as in the metaphor about "the sadness of the Dakotas," or a few lines down, with the blunt and funny declaration that "On gray days we reflected weather color. / Lutherans did that. It made us children of God.”
Those of us who did know the poem could savor his understated showmanship--and that, too, was no doubt part of his genial intention. Yet for all of us, it was soon "easy to see" what Hugo was getting at. His poem's mixture of documentary fidelity, qualified ambiguity (it was not "1934" but only "circa 1934"), and sudden flashes of deadpan humor—all were readily identifiable aspects not just of Hugo's work, but of much contemporary poetry using photography as subject matter. Like innumerable other contemporary poems, including others of his own, Hugo's "A Snapshot of the Auxiliary" is a bleakly elegiac meditation on a photographic image, one whose intense personal significance he proceeds to dramatize. As I only realized later, moreover, his imperceptible transition from talk to recitation itself had a point.
Photographs and photo-derived imagery have become a large part of the cultural sea we swim in, whether or not we consciously reflect on the matter. A poet may slip from talk to poetry in just the way that a snapshot--no matter how grainy, crookedly framed, or obscure-- will suddenly rise to poignancy before the remembering, interpreting eye. Not often do new themes enter literature, surely, but one indisputably novel sub-genre has come into being in the past century: the lyric poem meditating on the family photo album. Our ancestors did not have the access we do to images (usually plenty of them) of parents and grandparents, formally posed as well as candidly captured. These days our photo albums may be digital and online, but nearly everyone has one.
This sub-genre is, of course, only relatively new: poets have always reflected on the past, on the competing abilities of memory and art to preserve or revise what has occurred, to recall the people who are lost in the flux of time. At the simplest level, Hugo's poem conducts a very familiar sort of tour, identifying faces in the photograph, offering scattered anecdotes and interpretive remarks about the people preserved therein, and reflecting conventionally on the transience of life.
Hugo also takes a sardonic look at religion, noting the absence of any young or pretty face among the congregation, emphasizing the bitterness, cruelty, bad taste, and simple-mindedness of these rigorous churchgoing women of his past. The church pictured behind the women's auxiliary, we are informed, "is brick now," though many of the women have "gone the way the wind recommends / or, if you're religious, God.”
Yet look how the poem concludes:
. . . . Once I was alone
in there and the bells, the bells started to ring.
They terrified me home. This next one in the album
is our annual picnic. We are all having fun.
When Hugo read these lines, the audience laughed appreciatively. Why? I suggest that it was not simply due to the obvious comic juxtaposition of a naive boy being terrified out of faith while the women--those squat, gray-faced Lutherans-- continue their worshipping without a shred of joy or spontaneity. I propose that the last line would get a good laugh at the conclusion of most any snapshot poem. "We are all having fun" is amusing because we so seldom are doing so, at least in any posed photograph; yet part of the unwritten rules of posing is that we must pretend to enjoy the ordeal. Even when we are not posing, furthermore, when we are captured in some candid moment of revelry, the photograph itself will carry into the future a charge of sadness proportionate to the joy depicted. It will forever report not that "this is happening," but that "this is not happening anymore." If we once were having fun, we no longer are, at least in the same terms. One way or another, a snapshot conveys a particular sadness. Hugo's deadpan delivery of these ironies provided his audience with equal measures of poignant sadness and dark humor.
In fact, that last phrase seems as good as any to describe Hugo’s style, both on the page and on the stage. As performance, then, Hugo’s reading of this poem and others that night provided me as a young poet with a good lesson in aligning one’s reading style aptly to one’s material as well as one’s personality. I think that Hugo’s poems would not be as good if declaimed in Dylan Thomas fashion, or recited at the breakneck speed of many slam poets. Among other requirements, a good performer matches the style presenting poetry aloud both with the poems themselves, and with his or her own personality.
Since Richard Hugo’s death in 1982, we’ve certainly seen a proliferation of poetry readings of all kinds, many of them far more theatrical in nature. In these days of slams, open mics, spoken word poets touring the country, innumerable YouTube clips of boisterous performance poets, and more, we may be living in a golden age of poetry aloud. And unlike some of my academic colleagues, I love all the above styles of bravura performance. Still, I also want to speak up for poets of subtlety and quiet intensity, like Hugo. The world of poetry is big enough to accommodate all kinds, and we needn’t prefer one flavor to the exclusion of another.
© 2018 David Graham