Richard Hugo, 'Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg', and the Fitzgerald Rule
Richard Hugo's poem Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg was published in 1973, when Hugo was 50, and is regularly anthologised. It is the poem that brings him a broadest audience. Hugo thought it was his best poem, and a reading of his Selected Poems confirms that.
Part of what makes this poem astonishing is that it is in many ways unlike anything he had written before. He was working on a movie in an old mining town and he told the movie maker he didn't know anything about mining. He was 'a poet of rivers and trout and things like that.'
And he said, well maybe it's an oversight on your part. We went up there to film and I went up there for the first time, it was on a Sunday, and when it was all over I came back home. The next morning I got up at five and I started to write and by nine o'clock I had finished that poem.1
But how is it possible that a poet who knows nothing of mining towns can produce in four-hours one of the most anthologised poems of his generation about a depressed American mining town?
This is an example of the Fitzgerald Rule. You spot talent by looking at what people persist at, not what persistently happens to them. That is how we mark out people who have not yet succeeded but maybe will, over some time period.
He may not have know mining towns, or mining, but he knew place. Look at this from Argo, published in 1960.
In the dark a boxcar grinds To a free stop. Locomotive smoke And a dove flock fan and lift To where the white kite hangs, String slanted to the willow clump Where hobo fires burn. Sound and light On schedule leak into the yard.
Or what about this from La Push (1961) to qualify him as a poet of sleepy, remote, forgotten American towns:
Who but an officed lawyer Far away has read the treaty His sense of rightness rounded In a bar?
And this from Duwamish to show his apprenticeship in noticing and noting the way decline affects the aesthetics of place:
Water knocks At mills and concrete plants, crud Compounds the grey.
It is quite clear how this eye for the local could produce this:
The principal supporting business now is rage. Hatred of the various grays the mountain sends, hatred of the mill, The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls who leave each year for Butte. One good restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out. The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines, a dance floor built on springs— all memory resolves itself in gaze, in panoramic green you know the cattle eat or two stacks high above the town, two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.
As Hugo said, it was the poem he had been trying to write for 20 years.
Like Philip Larkin, he has the ability to turn an observation or a description into a metaphor through sheer context and rhythm and pacing. Compare 'a dance floor built on springs' here to 'someone running up to bowl' in The Whitsun Weddings.
Hugo said this poem made him realise, 'I don't really know very much about these subjects that start the poems... I internalise the town, convert it to the town the poem needs and then simply appropriate it to the poem.'
Hugo loved to visit the small towns and odd places all through this part of the world, from West Marginal Way to La Push to the Union Bar Grill in rural Montana. He would sit in a café or bar for hours before he returned home to write.
He demonstrates the rule because it was when he was put into the new context of a mining town that he wrote his big work. He was not really a poet of trout and rivers (those were the things that happened to him), he was persistently a poet of places, of a part of the world that was full of small, meaningful locations.
Because he made himself an expert poet of the small place, he was well positioned to be a poet of a diminished place. A place that needed someone to find optimism in its depression. This is how Hugo saw the role of poetry:
“Years ago fathers would read poetry aloud to their children in the evening to entertain them. That tradition has gone. Years ago poetry was also used as a means of entrusting facts to memory. That is no longer necessary. So today poetry has to fulfill a different function altogether. And I think it is doing so by meeting a spiritual need, like religion, binding certain kinds of people together.”