Say no to yourself.

Richard Hugo: Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

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.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

If you don’t know Richard Hugo, you have no idea how much you are missing out on. This poem, originally published in The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973), is reprinted in one of my favorite single volumes of poetry, Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, which I urge you to acquire. Richard Hugo is an amazing, important, great poet. Read him. Please.


32 thoughts on “Say no to yourself.

  1. For a start, I hate Sundays, I always have. (Except in Israel *lol* But the seven days rule pisses me off. Anyway and everywhere!)

    And what the heck is a whim?? There is no such thing except you are as decadent as can be – whim, the pronunciation. Blimey!! Too much information. Far too real for my taste.

    This part of the first line should be “one day, accidentally.” Not a f** ordinary blimmin’ Sunday. And not a stupid blasted whim. The syllable “whim” is only acceptable in a film, let’s say, hidden a word like “whimsical” in “Elizabethtown” while watching, no, experiencing (!) the long-lasting smile of a dead relative.

    Is that suitable as an explanation where my difficulties lie with this first line?

  2. The expression “on a whim” is far more common in Anglosaxon literature than you might think. I suppose there is a problem-
    and “Sunday” has great symbolic value. I’m not sure where liking Sundays or not enters the picture. Sundays exist and they resonate with literary meaning.

    So you don’t get it because you don’t like Sundays and the word “whim”?

  3. I did not say, I don’t know the expression “on a whim”. I did not say i don’t get it. I said, I don’t like the line. And, yes, because of these words. You, after all, told me about the importance of one word at a certain place a.s.o.

    But I won’t have the “you-must-like-it-because-it-is-such-great-a-literature” discussion again.

  4. Honey, this is not about great or not, but about meaningful or not.
    In your first post you said you didn’t understand the line, and the reason for this you offer in your second line are all due to your dislike of a word here and there.
    But ‘understanding’ and ‘meaning’ should be unaffected by personal likes and dislikes. You may not think it’s a good line (v. odd) but why that should impede your understanding beats (in turn) me.

  5. I said, it beats me. That goes beyond “not understanding”. And it does beat, meaning I cannot comprehend why the heck he would chose those plain words, and even limit the field of interpretation, narrow it down, whatever.

    As far as poetry is concerned, meaning – you told me that – is a personal thing. Therefore I have the right to understand the word Sunday the way I like to, the way I am used to.

    And don’t honey me, that is really a bit off.

  6. darling, the word “Sunday” has a culturally fixed meaning, additionally to the meaning you assign it personally. The second is up to you, the first isn’t. Limiting interpretations? Church and religion is an important aspect of the poem, even of you ignore the first line. The first line sublimely links the personal and the religious, in a way that the rest of the poem continues to explore (the very next line, “the last good kiss”, for example, also shimmers with this kind of ambiguity). This, minus the value judgment, is objectively true, because it refers to culturally shared knowledge. That’s the knowledge that tells you that a chair is something you sit on and that you should wear pants in public. You have “the right” not to sit on chairs, using them as tables, for example, as well, but you can’t deny that that’s not how people understand chairs to be used.

  7. Isn’t it interesting how you keep changing the rules? Quite a Roman touch you have there. Quod licet iovi.. I remember felt lined hats that had no meaning whatsoever than the one the readers should give it.. but I guess that’s peanuts..

    Of course, you’re right, like always (how damaging would it be if you weren’t ? I guess you’ve hardly ever experienced that threat) You can bend the rules and call ob jective what is objective from your point of view whenever you understand it to be objective. And you can minimize me by calling me darling and honey. Well done.

    I have never ever learned that you accept another person’s opinion, if it differs from your own. You just create a sort of knowledge stampede and deal with facts, and objective truths. As if..

    It’s pathetic.

  8. I think you misunderstood what I told you. I have never denied the existence of culturally shared knowledge, which is not the same as objective truth. I think you have mixed up different discussions and subjects. This is the point about culturally shared knowledge: we all know it. Images such as the felt lined hats are not part of any culturally shared knowledge, to my knowledge. You specifically inquired for the meaning of the image, I mean you asked ME. Did I ask Richard Hugo? No. As your own post (the second) points out, you are fully aware of the culturally shared meaning of “Sunday”. Hence, “shared”. The same, by the same evidence, is not true for the felt lined hats. Here the meaning is far more strongly subjective. Are you able to see this difference?

    PS Honey and Darling are terms of endearment. I use them habitually when talking to people I like, irregardless of gender or respect, unless I am formally forced to do otherwise.

  9. to make it very simple: you know what a Sunday is, and why it’s special among other days. You don’t know what felt lined hats are and why they are special among other hats. that’s the whole difference, but an important one.

  10. you’re wrong; their ARE references to felt lined hats in different societies. and the same goes for sundays. of course, a vast majority might understand a sunday reference similar, while germans relate felt lined hats to “sunday drivers” *lol*, and brits to soldiers. whatever. but as long as their are people who have a different reception of sundays, you cannot talk about some common knowledge as if it was a law.

    and I tell you what, if the rest of the poem refers to religion liek you state it, and if this is the onl possible – or make it “objective” – way to read it, i find it very much disappointing. since i had read it with a completely different understanding. are you trying to tell me, I understood it “wrongly”?? go on then.

    what happened to: understand it the way you do? and if their is a large variety of interpretations possible, it’s good poetry?

    there was a time when you argued as such.

    and btw. i’ve never seen you use pet names with boys.

  11. and btw if i had a chance talk to hugo, i’d tell him that his first line sucks, ’cause it narrows it all down to that stupid ever-lasting discussion about (christian) religion. i hate that, too.

    they did this in “contact” as well. the idiots. as if this book was reduced to “science against belief”. pathetic.
    and not to mention the german title of “the cider house rules”, those bigoted swiss morons.. reducing a brilliant story to a “abortion is murder” pamphlet

    i can’t stand it anymore. if that is the case that we have to interpret this poem “following the law” which you’re selling me as “common knowledge” and as “objective”, then leave me out of this, i’ll declare lack of interest.

  12. on forums I use pet names with boys all the time. wanna link?

    yes, the interpretation of a poem is up to you, but it’s not a free-for-all. you can give different elements different weight in a poem, but the elements are there. a US poem that contains Sundays references, references football, Christianity and other subjects. full stop. how you read the poem as a whole is up to you, but if we want to take literature seriously, you should accord all parts of the poem equal attention and not focus solely upon the words that catch your fancy. Personally, I think that a non.Christian reading of the poem will neglect salient parts of the poem. But, it’s up to you.

    As to the other thing: I said shared knowledge. Sundays: shared. Again, your OWN second posts explicitly mentioned the salient context. Felt lined hats: eh, not so much. I have no idea who would wear them. Neither, according to your question, would you. It’s as easy as that.

    And don’t use quote marks to say things I have not said, which are your own odd inventions.

  13. but if he’d got there on a wednesday instead of a sunday we would not be having this discussion. he allusively hinted on that him being accidentally there that day.

    so and if he only used that sunday to begin with because he got there on a sunday i’d really love to talk to him about that. maybe he wouldn’t want you to interpret it they way you do, and he would even change the first line.

    i know i would.

  14. ah, but the poem is as it is, whether by accident or not. He cannot change the poem, he can only write a second version, which would not be “truer” than the present one. Is the second version of Der Grüne Heinrich better or more correct than the first one? It’s not. Actually, it’s worse.

  15. You’re right. Most second versions are worse. But you’re also wrong.

    Because the determination of a “second version” is arbitrary. What if the first version was an empty state, sort of inbetween versions, one of those work versions you told me about? (How ever they are managed.)

    This could justify a correction of line one any time, if the author agreed, and there would not be a first and – a fortiori – no last version ever.

    And on the other hand, even if there were last, first or otherwise fixed versions, you could never prove that, had you read the second version as a first, you’d not liked it better. ‘Cause what we get used to is just about carved in stone, and as for the order of versions, a circle has no beginning.

  16. you are missing the whole point.

    this version exists. yes? I took it from a book on my shelf. Yes? This version exists. Fact. Now, were the author still alive he could write A DIFFERENT version, yes, but it would not supplant the existing one, it would be A DIFFERENT version, a different poem, even. You cannot ‘undo’ this poem. It’s there.
    With Lowell’s work, sometimes I have three, four versions of the same poem, depending on when and where he has printed it. Especially the notebook poems, which appeared in three different books, often went through multiple changes, some small, some large. Generally, I like the first and last versions most, I think he was not up to his game when he wrote the middle versions.
    These are different poems, none more ‘true’ or ‘correct’ than the other. Some I like more, some I like less. But they all exist.

    This poem exists as it is. Full stop.

  17. *lol* I guess, if I was you I’d go for a critical edition with all readings and commentaries in íts critical apparatus. Let there be verse! Go(o)d luck! 😉

  18. again, you’re missing the point. One poem is enough. This poem, above, is the one I have. i’m happy with it. Why would I need more versions?

  19. It is only ‘shit’ to you because you misread the poem as a whole. You misread it not because you read it ‘wongöy’ but because you ignored part of the text. The text is the only thing that counts, and a misreading is one that ignores significant parts of it. By subtracting the religious subtext from the poem, you robbed it of an essential aspect, an aspect that the first line introduces perfectly, with all its ambiguities and personal facets.

  20. to break it down in simpler terms: this text is one coherent whole. with a different first line, it would be a different text. the trajectory of images and references would be utterly different with a “Wednesday” instead of “Sunday”. If your reading of the poem would work with a different first line, you are misreading the poem. Simple as.

  21. OK. I wish there was a “Wednesday version” somewhere, But I’m afraid there isn’t.

    So I will have to step back from this text hole, I mean, whole text, and turn to other Hugos.

    Until I find you, I mean, it, I will cheer myself up with a variety of poems that do exist in versions I can agree to. The others – for me – are nothing. Meaning “nothing” as in “Being and Nothingness” – too much facticity for my taste. 😉

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