Hugo’s Letter to Life

Usually I hate “prose poems”; you know those kinds of poems poets write to fill out a book when they can’t write real poetry anymore. Have to admit, a goodly amount of the time I don’t even bother to read them. Just skip right over them looking for something I might enjoy. And, if the truth be known, I didn’t like any other one of these in Hugo’s Selected Poems.

But this “Letter to Levertov from Butte” summarizes the essence of Richard Hugo’ss poetry so beautifully that I would be a fool to try to write anything better. In fact, it’s so clearly written that I won’t insult your intelligence by trying to interpret it.

When I started reading Hugo’s Selected Poems, I was mainly hoping that Hugo would help me remember places like the Skykomish and the Duwamish in a new light, which he certainly has done


What I ended up discovering, though, is that we shared a lot more than similar experiences. We ended up seeing the world through our experiences. White Center apparently left indelible memories, memories that, in turn, affected the way we both saw the rest of our lives. Like Hugo I “remain a common laborer, stained by the perpetual/dust from loading flour or coal,”; though in my case it is more likely the dust from the janitorial work I did to put myself through college.

A major difference, though, is that Hugo stayed in White Center much longer than I did. He was left to grow up with grandparents. My parents, on the other hand, were gradually fighting their way out of White Center. We moved constantly as my dad worked his way up in his company, but I never lost the memory of White Center and the people I knew there. Like Hugo, I’ve always identified more with the poor and the working class than I have with the wealthy. I think if I had stayed in White Center I would have ended up with a viewpoint even more similar to the one Hugo expressed in this letter to Denise Levertov. As it is, though, having escaped that world early one, I am slightly more optimistic than Hugo is in most of his poetry


After the Army I became a caseworker in order to help the poor, but I was unable to endure the sheer misery that I came into contact with daily. I knew that if I stayed in that job very long I would end up killing an abusive father or, worst of all, I would become indifferent to the pain I saw every day. I quit that job and became a teacher because I felt I would be more able to help them as a teacher.

As a teacher, I tried to identify with all of my students, but the ones I often cared for the most, and went out of my way to help the most, were the ones who had to struggle the hardest to succeed, the ones who were in the most danger if they did fail, because they would fail life not merely another English class. That’s not to say that many of them didn’t fail, because they did fail in much higher numbers than their classmates. Perhaps I knew that would happen, too, because I saw my share of failures and deaths in my childhood.

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