Richard Hugo, revisited

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....