On the Western

Bannack, Montana (photo  m.a.h. hinton)
Bannack, Montana (photo m.a.h. hinton)

As a literary and film art form, the western’s time has passed. And yet… there remains a small number of dedicated western fans who remain loyal to this most American of all art forms. I count myself as a proud member of this anachronistic remnant.

One of the many peculiarities of the western is that the greatest practitioners of the western as art form came after the form’s apparent demise: Elmer Kelton, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy. (Elmore Leonard is still alive and writing, but he has not written a western in decades.)

Even though McCarthy and McMurtry have been critically and commercially successful,  any true western fan is painfully aware that good, new westerns are difficult to find. Those that are published for the most part seem to fall into one of four ultimately dissatisfying categories: reprints of old classic westerns that are in the public domain anyway, historical fiction novels that happen to take place in a “western” context, romance fiction that takes place in a “western” context, and male-adventure fiction (soft-core action stories featuring hot, beautiful women and virile, superhuman protagonists) that takes place in a “western” context.

While it is certainly nice to have reprints available of classic works by Max Brand, Zane Grey, Owen Wister and other pioneers in the western form, these writers are not the best example of the art form. Some, like Grey, are unreadable by modern standards. And since all of these writers are available for free from places like Gutenberg, what is the point of re-publishing them anyway. There are a great many writers whose works are out of print but not in the public domain that could be published. But these are not the ones generally reprinted.

What western fans really want… what the publishing and movie industry needs…. what America needs is more new western writers and new western books, and more western movies. The myths and symbols that we embrace, share, and love define and shape us. Fans of the western know that as a country, a people, and individuals, America was at its best when the dominant American myth was the western.

What fans of the western intuitively understand is that by turning our back on that most American of myths, by replacing it with smaller and smaller “post-modern” myths, we have left a large hole in the American soul and psyche. A hole as large as…well, the West itself.

Poetry Review: “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg” by Richard Hugo

Richard_Hugo_Collected-PoemsRichard Hugo is one of a number of Montana poets and writers who came from somewhere else and settled in Montana as an adult. Unlike Thomas McGuane, for example, who is from Michigan and so is a Midwesterner ultimately in outlook and perspective, Hugo came from Washington State. Hence Hugo is a quintessential Westerner. His is always a Western ear and a Western eye.

Many of Hugo’s best poems are rooted in nature as you would expect.  Today’s poem, “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg,” though, is a much different kind of poem altogether… darker and nearer to the heart and bone.

In “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg” we see the descriptive power that Hugo uses so well in his best nature poems turned in a different direction. It is a direction that is simultaneously inward toward the depression and loneliness that marked his life, and outward toward a “passionately dispassionate” look at a small broken-down town.

Hugo was no Romanticist. Being from the West he could see from the inside a broken down Western town for what it really was. He felt as well as saw the pain, the brokenness, the loneliness and the beauty that was small town Montana.

Tired of Midwestern winter, I find  Richard Hugo a door home… a familiarity that mitigates, for awhile anyway, the uneasiness of exile… the overwhelming sense of restlessness. Hugo is a Montana Poet through and through.


Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg

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.