Traditionally, the arts have acted as a cultural spearhead, a vector that indicates what a society is about and where it is heading. One of history's rules of thumb: to know how a people think, listen to their language; to know how their language is changing, listen to their poetry. But in America since World War II, poetry may well have stopped being the vision that presages change , and has instead begun to sound like the first casualty in a broad socio-psychological mutation: the extinction of that endangered species, the individual, and the rise of a new Orwellian collective personality.
Eugenio Montale, Italy's Nobel Prize-winning poet, offers this disconcerting assessment in his book ''Poet in Our Time'': ''For many years now the best artists in the field of painting, music, and poetry have been basing their art on the impossibility of speaking.'' In our ultra-complex technological society, Montale foresees mankind willingly surrendering the burden of individual sensibility for the precision and the safety of a group mechanical existence. He describes a broad corporate structure where the thinking is done by a very few and then filtered down to the masses who embrace the ideas as if they were their own. ''Mass-man'' is his term for this new pluralistic creature freed from all loneliness, and the poet envisions the sort of culture such a society would produce. ''Tomorrow, artistic production will be still freer, still less restrained, but at the same time it will be ever more conditioned by fashion, by trends, by the influence of critics and cliques and commercial demands.''
A decade or more has passed since the publication of his book, and unfortunately Montale's predictions appear more on target than ever. Illustrations of this new mass-art are close at hand: Examine a few of the rock music videos, the more adventurous television commercials, or even the recent films and novels that have begun to resemble both of them. Everything is sensation and speed, dazzling images and flawless surfaces - all without much depth of character, authorial presence, or trace of human sensitivity.
If you have doubt that our poets have begun this transformation, take a look at some of the computer-generated poems which have been cropping up recently in various periodicals. They are praised for their startling likeness to the workings of a human mind. But to me, the surprise is exactly the reverse: that our flesh-and-blood poets have begun to resemble so frighteningly this silicon sensibility with its precise toneless voices, jarring word-choices, and elliptical patterns of thought. Despite the stimulating accidents of arrangement you may uncover (something not unlike fantasizing on the cracks in a plaster ceiling), a simple question arises: Who would want to read the poems of a machine? This points dramatically to the elements we search out and value most highly in the work of a poet: the individual mind in contact with the natural and social environment, the intimacy of personal utterance, the struggle for understanding - what used to be broadly titled ''the human condition.''
If there is a countermovement to this high-tech acculturation, the poetry of Richard Hugo will form one of the central supports in its construction. In ''Making Certain It Goes On,'' Hugo's recently collected poems, we have the record of the poet's painstaking artistic and personal development. One of the first surprises the book has to offer is the consistency of the voice we find in these 450 pages. It is rare to find a poet whose style and concerns matured so early and remained so true throughout his career. They did not evolve in definable stages (as is so often lauded in literary analysis), but deepened and stripped away, layer by layer, the excess and affectation that obscured the essential in character. Though there are a handful of lyrics that shine above the rest, it is more satisfying to read this book as one long unfolding of both a man and his milieu, a sort of poetically concentrated novel. The America in this book is not metaphor but a real place, one that even its citizens will observe from a fresh perspective. And the people, too, are real and recognizable as friends and neighbors - a rarity in contemporary verse. The theme of Hugo's story might loosely be described as the struggle for individual and community identity in an age when neither is highly valued.
Hugo came of age as a writer when this ''post-modern'' dilemma had just begun to be a topic for discussion. But the shaky foundations of the poet's personality had less to do with any philosophical debate than with his own distressed childhood. Orphaned and raised by grandparents, he was burdened with an overbearing guilt after the death of his alcoholic grandfather; this was compounded by his solitary nature, surprisingly low self-esteem, and his firsthand glimpse of battle between technological societies as a bombardier in World War II.
Yet Hugo's trials were not unique cataclysmic events; rather, they are an integral part of the range of experiences most individuals must struggle with in order to survive in the 20th century and preserve any sense of self. The effort takes on heroic proportions only when viewed against the overwhelming wave of influences we must confont each day - from the electronic media and the arts to the ubiquitous fashions in clothes, recreation, and thought - that would make of each someone, anyone; that would compose from modern society a brave new world of sparkling sophistication and homogeneity. Hugo's most valuable achievements, in fact, might be thought merely appropriate for an artist in an earlier age: First, he remained tenaciously true to his task of understanding and affirming his own self in his work; and second, he produced a personal statement that incorporated the lives and the language of his people.
''Ideas have become a form of commodity,'' Montale has said about our peculiar age, explaining that ''one puts them on and takes them off at the first change of fashion.'' This sort of art market has given birth to a new literary character: a personless word-talent compelled toward novelty, as estranged from his individual self as any of his readers are, at home only in the invented world of words and fast-moving literary currents. Despite their dazzling array of techniques, what of any consequence can we ever hope to receive from writers like these? How foreign all this is to the work of a man like Richard Hugo. ''A man with a few clear ideas,'' Montale warns, ''a man with what are known as firm principles cannot escape ridicule.'' Hugo based his art on ''a few clear ideas, '' and he clung to them the way a drowning man grasps the few scraps of driftwood that might buoy him in the waves.
Hugo started with a devout commitment to the purely subjective core of poetry. In his book of essays, ''The Triggering Town,'' he wrote: ''Your words used your way will generate meanings ... Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life.'' You can hear both the poet and the orphan speaking when Hugo says that his goal is ''words you can own ... ways of putting them into phrases and lines that are yours by right of the obsessive musical dead.''
If Hugo stressed the personal commitment that is at the heart of poetry, each of his books attests to a belief in an art that bridges the divisions in the world we inhabit together. I can think of few poets who felt so deeply and depicted so powerfully the sadness and loss of hope that is epidemic in American society. Poetry was his tool for searching honestly within his own life and then personifying that primal human desire for wholeness, for that satisfaction which accompanies every new level of understanding. The speaker of these poems is only in part the personality of the poet himself; he is also in part the persona for that communal longing to be healed. Hugo creates a voice akin to Walt Whitman's broad ''American self,'' and uses his own version of the bard's technique of direct address to the reader, a cunning device meant to establish an almost physical closeness to the poet and to bring the listener into participation with the substance of the poem.
Hugo writes in a compressed and electrified form of the American vernacular, using the rough iambic thrust of speech and the dull thuds of our battered idioms. He combines this with a subtle weave of alliterative flashes and musical phrasings. The result is a voice appropriate to the tavern as well as the lecture podium - a brute elegance, a grace achieved in spite of itself. All this forms a perfect counterpoint to the procession of small towns, daily struggles, and personal dreams in Hugo's American landscape. If the language was intended to plumb the poet's unconscious self, it also catches with uncanny precision the people and the times he was born to.
Possession and disposession are central in the communal themes throughout Hugo's work - not terribly surprising for a man literally and spiritually orphaned. In poems like ''The Squatter on Company Land,'' ''Death of the Kapowsin Tavern,'' and a dozen lyrics from both ''White Center'' and ''The Right Madness on Skye,'' he draws so clearly the bond of anguish that exists between a society that lauds possessions and its weakest members, who surrender what little they have. The result, he seems to say, is the despoilment of both their homes. In an almost shamanistic style, the speaker of these poems identifies with the anguished faces, embodies their suffering and thus, in the act of speaking, attempts to carry it away.
This attempt marks an undercurrent that counterbalances the more obvious fatalism of the collected poems. It is a quiet but persistent faith in the inexhaustible potential in human and natural creativity. He used this feeling to charge a personal iconography, most often represented in images of lonely but compassionate characters across small-town America, and the elements of nature. Hugo made a virtual religion out of wind and clouds, rivers and lakes, speckled trout and silver salmon. And the sacrament for this religion: fishing, the solitary life, waiting.
Turtle is a lake the odd can own. It spreads
murcurial around these pastoral knolls.
The water waits so still, we listen to grim planets
for advice. The beat of trout hearts amplifies
against the Mission range and when that throb returns
our faces glow the color of the lake.
For so much of his life, Hugo believed he was undeserving of either love or honor in the world's eyes; alcohol and self-destruction became almost overpowering drives. But in a superstitious way, he felt that only when he was able to translate some of that suffering into poetry was he somehow redeemed and no longer alone. In a bar, staring up at the animal trophies, he says: ''If you weep/deer heads weep. Sing and the orphanage/announces plans for your release.'' I would not be surprised if this same desperation were not a dominant motivation among many modern poets. It placed extraordinary pressure upon each poem to be more daring, to sing with more spirit than its predecessors. Many of Hugo's poems were crushed beneath this internal tension. Candor and sheer desire alone do not ensure poetic excellence, and the bulk of ''31 Letters and 13 Dreams'' showed how dangerous such emotional indulgence can be. But when, under the weight of this longing a true poem emerged, for both writer and reader it was an occasion worth celebrating.
To achieve that singing, Hugo was willing to risk almost anything. Book by book - from Washington to Italy to Montana to the Isle of Skye - we accompany the poet on his search for a place and an experience that would mean home to him. And when he had gained the security of a late marriage and a loving family - when the poet finally received applause from the literary world, perhaps the most seductive force that ever led a poet astray - he did not, as so many had before, go flat with complacency. When he died suddenly in 1982, not only was he at the height of his popularity, he was producing some of the finest work of his career.
Richard Hugo's true obsession was the need to make something clean and honest and lasting in what he saw as a sullied and cynical America. He battled against alcoholism, alienation, madness that had destroyed so many writers of his generation. He set out determinedly to preserve (as his titles declare) ''What Thou Lovest Well'' in the American landscape, and to ''Make Certain'' that what was essential to our survival ''Goes On.'' Even in Hugo's less successful attempts, there are always traces of the glory in the mind's reach and the strength of human rootedness in this world. And when in each section of the collected poems the writing reaches a crescendo of intensity, it is clear that there are few American voices in the literature of our time that sing with such daring, honesty, and compassion.