Richard Hugo was born on December 21, 1923, in White Center, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. His father, Richard Franklin Hogan, left the family shortly after Hugo’s birth. Hugo was raised by his maternal grandparents. He attended public school and, from a very early age, took an interest in books, fishing, and baseball. In 1942, he legally changed his name to Hugo, the name of his stepfather. Hugo volunteered for World War II, where he served as a bombardier in the Mediterranean. He flew thirty-five combat missions and reached the rank of first lieutenant before leaving the service in 1945. Like other World War II poets, such as James Dickey and Randall Jarrell, Hugo would later recount his experiences in his poetry.
After the War, Hugo entered the University of Washington where he majored in creative writing. He studied with Theodore Roethke and completed a BA in 1948 and an MA in 1952. In the same year in which Hugo completed his master’s, he began to work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he was employed for nearly thirteen years. A Run of Jacks (University of Minnesota Press), his first book of poems, appeared in 1961. Soon thereafter, he began to teach English and creative writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. Hugo taught at Montana for nearly eighteen years. Rather than becoming more academic, however, his poems often celebrate the abandoned towns, landscapes, and people of the Pacific Northwest. In one of his best-known and often-anthologized poems from this time, “Degrees of Gray at Philipsburg,” he opens with the lines “You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.”
In 1977, Hugo was named the editor of the Yale Younger Poets Series. Among his best-known books are The Right Madness on Skye (W. W. Norton, 1980); 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (W. W. Norton, 1977); What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (W. W. Norton, 1975); Good Luck in Cracked Italian (Meridian Books, 1969); and Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (Harcourt Brace & World, 1965). He also authored the small but influential book on creative writing, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (W. W. Norton, 1979). Among his advice, Hugo suggests that a poet should “[n]ever write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.”
Richard Hugo died on October 22, 1982, at the age of fifty-eight. Two years later, W. W. Norton posthumously released Making Certain it Goes On:
The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo.