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Richard Hugo, revisited

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University of Montana | Feb 21, 2012 06:00 AM

Editor's note: These stories were produced for High Country News by students in the University of Montana's online news class. They will be running over a period of two weeks in the Range blog. See a list of all the stories here.

By Annela Rova

The celebrated American poet Richard Hugo chose to focus on three basic elements: the Northwest landscape, the humans who inhabit it, and the point at which the two converge. His work is known for its connection to the land and the sorrows and triumphs of the human experience.

In that way, he was no stranger to Montana.

It became a place of particular inspiration for him in the 1960s, after he accepted a position teaching creative writing at the University of Montana. During his 18 years of teaching, Hugo took time to travel and write about the landscape and towns around him, publishing two somewhat notorious poems, “The Only Bar in Dixon” and “St. Ignatius Where the Salish Wail.”

Dixon, a small reservation town in western Montana, has a population of about 50 people and, yes, still just the one bar. It’s long been an enticing place to write about. Poets James Welch and J.D. Reed visited the bar in 1970, after reading Hugo’s piece, and sent their own poems about the bar to The New Yorker. The magazine dedicated a spread to their work and re-published the pieces two subsequent times. Missoula musician Shane Clouse released a song in 2008 about this same bar.

But don’t ask bar owner Bud Schmauch to be impressed. He feels that Hugo’s “The Only Bar in Dixon” was an insult to his mother, the bar’s owner at the time, as it dwelled on the place’s desolation. Hugo responded that he wasn’t just writing about Dixon itself, but rather reflecting on his own personal loneliness.

Still, Hugo does continue to drum up business for the bar. Schmauch said his establishment is visited regularly by patrons who come in because of the poem.

In this audio slide show, I revisit Hugo's poetry and couple it with images of Montana. The poems are read by people who live in the towns Hugo wrote about.

Stewart Schall, who read “The Only Bar in Dixon,” is a local rancher. He said he understands why the land his family cultivated and lived off for centuries attracts writers and painters. It’s a place left unspoiled, changed very little since Hugo’s days and long before him.

The second poem, “St. Ignatius Where the Salish Wail,” is read by Melinda Smith, a member of the Salish Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes. She grew up just below the Mission Mountains, where Catholicism has had a huge impact.

Richard Hugo Poetry in Sound and Images from Annela Rova on Vimeo.

“My Aunt Virgy was one of the last elders to translate the Catholic hymns into the Salish dialect,” Smith said.

The poem she reads concerns the St. Ignatius Mission, a prominent historical site where Christianity challenged the culture and traditions of the Northwestern American Indians.

Led by Jesuit priests and, later, the St. Ursuline nuns, the Mission, founded in the 1800s, left many of the people here psychologically scarred. Former boarding school students are part of a $166 million class-action settlement resulting from decades of abuse.

Hugo wrote the poem after attending a friend’s wake at the Mission. In it, he describes the setting, ceremony and unmarked graves as death and beauty collide in the Mission Mountains and Flathead Valley. Hugo himself died of leukemia in 1982 and is buried in Missoula, Mont. He was 58 years old.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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