Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Montana Gothic

by lizard

Local poet Mark Gibbons turned me on to a little jagged piece of the Missoula literary scene that flashed from 1974-1977, called Montana Gothic. This short-lived publication of poetry, literature and graphics (edited by Peter Rutledge Koch) is now available in a complete edition. For more information, you can check out

Not knowing much about this project, I started reading some of the essays. If I was a poet during this time in Missoula, this is the kind of publication I would gravitate to. Though I love the poetry of Richard Hugo, I find the well-articulated opposition to what Hugo represents—a regional writer who built the foundation of a dominant western-aesthetic drunk on landscape that has become the darling of eastern literary elitists—to be compelling. Here is an excerpt from Peter Koch’s declaration, Deadstart:

We have here in Montana a sterling example of the repression of the imagination by what can fairly be judged an unconscious agent, the Writing Program at the University of Montana. The program, a state supported nursery under the direction of Richard Hugo, turns out writers by a licensing process that achieves a predictable degree of success as measured by standards previously established by other schools. Examining What Thou Lovest Well Remains American, a book of poems by Hugo, one can discern a distinct aversion to nearly all forms of the imagination, an unfortunate example largely accepted by his students. Hugo’s poetry elevates defeat, despair & self-pity to an aesthetic level—an aesthetic infestation wherein all that is base in teh “American” character finds an eloquent voice; eloquent as tabloid journalism which exploits paranoia by describing, in lurid fashion, just what you are afraid of. The impression that I get from Hugo and the school that he has created is that they have established a right-wing phalanx of anti-oeneric poetry to complement their inverted cowboy-realism. The state supports writers who express desire and dissatisfaction within a christian framework of good and evil that any Zane Grey novel will acquaint you with: GOOD (writ large) is found in traditional company (the Missoula Mercantile the Episcopal Church for instance) while EVIL is approached only with a bottle of whiskey in an obscure tavern. The season of the drunken poet whining about loneliness and persecution evolves predictable into a wedding and the “GOOD FAMILY at last” confession. We can also predict that institutionalized writers will eventually earn their measure of the good life if they can suppress their imaginations and obsessions and desire only what is either academically correct or tailored to the criteria of mass consumption.

Beyond the imagination of the academic poets we can envision ourselves, like the Grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park, sitting upon a veritable magma of faultily suppressed potential that once allowed to escape could radically re-organize consciousness and its material attributes. There are and have been in Montana unprecedented extrusions of the marvelous that deserve our attention.

Thank you, Mark, for putting this bug in my ear (and I will drop off a copy of my little book, I’ve got to re-tool it first and print new copies).

I wrote a poem this morning about Missoula, partly with Montana Gothic in mind. Also in mind is this recent story about the fact downtown parking meters apparently speed up time when cold, screwing parking motorists out of money. Will the Parking Commission do something about this? Eventually (there’s currently no money after building the giant new parking garage) but until that happens, nada. It’s the responsibility of each ripped-off Missoulian (or out-of-town visitor, who won’t know any better) to contest the fraudulent tickets.



the meters run fast
and the drunks move slow
on the sidewalks of downtown

a gentrified air
from lofts up above
possess particles of high-end

breathe deeply the scent
of designer boot leather
and you will know there is no

exquisite dry flies are flying!
beyond the windows of fine dining!

to protect glossy images
they turn laws into brooms
to sweep the dirt people

into jail cells, hospital rooms,
lean-tos and tents
because it takes deep pockets
to pay rent

and we wonder why the rivers
whisper suicide

—William Skink

  1. JC

    Good article in the Indy last year about The Complete Montana Gothic. Brought back some memories, that one did…

  2. I look forward to the collection. Hobbing the Nob should be in there. Good poem. We are lucky to live in a community of so many writers, readers, and publishers of poetry. Since November I’ve picked up collections by Pat Todd, Robert Lee, Henrietta Goodman, Gary Lundy, and Greg Pape. And I know I missed a few. Write on, you reptile.

  3. d.g.

    This post confuses: like a corral gate half open, are the cattle going to the yards or summer pasture?

    Certainly, read. Certainly consider buying “Montana Gothic” and pay good money, (hoping someone who cares about good words well-chosen and honestly-offered gets enough to buy hot coffee or cold beer…and gives the change to someone who can’t do either.)

    But the dismissive diminution of Hugo’s body of work and veracity of writing instruction to the shallow analysis contained in this post’s: “I find the well-articulated opposition to what Hugo represents—a regional writer who built the foundation of a dominant western-aesthetic drunk on landscape that has become the darling of eastern literary elitists—to be compelling” is lazy analysis. I aver even Peter Rudledge Koch would–circa 37 years post–agree.

    Writing schools, dance schools, environmental studies schools….a serious student considers “with whom will I be studying?” It’s a damned good guess young Peter R.K. now looks back and reads his words as those of a frustrated artist who felt unheard.

    As a student in that era, I will challenge anyone to substantively support an assertion that “the school” (for what, really, constitutes that terminology?) was exclusive or anti-oneiric.

    Hugo demanded two things: honesty and a love of language. Nothing else. Fifty percent sensibility. Fifty percent sound. And always honesty. To apply some semi-sophistic argument that “eastern literary” elitists’ enthusiasm for Hugo’s work retroactively diminished the quality of said work is equivalent to claiming that Oprah’s “Ah-ha” moment upon tasting deep-well water taints that very water and lends suspicion to the experience, if not the depth of the well.

    Mark Gibbons should be writing this response, not I. Hugo was no saint and he’d be the first and the first and the first to find his faults and flay and flaunt them if he felt them to be in the service of dishonesty. All I can do is try to teach you to write like I do……to paraphrase his book on creative writing schools. I bet Peter Rutledge Koch feels that clearly now.

    As re: anti-oneiric? Hugo didn’t purport to offer metaphysical expertise. But I’ll give Mark 50 dollars American if he will asset with context that Hugo would have dismissed a substantive effort of any genre.

    Enough. Liz’s shallow “drunk on landscape” is shallow and actually warrants retraction. Read. Simply read.

    Letter to Simic from Boulder

    Dear Charles: And so we meet once in San Francisco and I learn
    I bombed you long ago in Belgrade when you were five.
    I remember. We were after a bridge on the Danube
    hoping to cut the German armies off as they fled north
    from Greece. We missed. Not unusual, considering I
    was one of the bombardiers. I couldn’t hit my ass if
    I sat on the Norden or rode a bomb down singing
    The Star Spangled Banner. I remember Belgrade opened
    like a rose when we came in. Not much flak. I didn’t know
    about the daily hangings, the 80,000 Slavs who dangled
    from German ropes in the city, lessons to the rest.
    I was interested mainly in staying alive, that moment
    the plane jumped free from the weight of bombs and we went home.
    What did you speak then? Serb, I suppose. And what did your mind
    do with the terrible howl of bombs? What is Serb for “fear”?
    It must be the same as in English, one long primitive wail
    of dying children, one child fixed forever in dead stare.
    I don’t apologize for the war, or what I was. I was
    willingly confused by the times. I think I even believed
    in heroics (for others, not for me). I believed the necessity
    of that suffering world, hoping it would learn not to do
    it again. But I was young. The world never learns. History
    has a way of making the past palatable, the dead
    a dream. Dear Charles, I’m glad you avoided the bombs, that you
    live with us now and write poems. I must tell you though,
    I felt funny that day in San Francisco. I kept saying
    to myself, he was on the ground that day, the sky
    eerie mustard and our engines roaring everything
    out of the way. And the world comes clean in moments
    like that for survivors. The world comes clean as clouds
    in summer, the pure puffed white, soft birds careening
    in and out, our lives with a chance to drift on slow
    over the world, our bomb bays empty, the target forgotten,
    the enemy ignored. Nice to meet you finally after
    all the mindless hate. Next time, if you want to be sure
    you survive, sit on the bridge I’m trying to hit and wave.
    I’m coming in on course but nervous and my cross hairs flutter.
    Wherever you are on earth, you are safe. I’m aiming but
    my bombs are candy and I’ve lost the lead plane. Your friend, Dick.

  4. d.g.

    I regret the cut-and-paste redundancy of my response preceding the Hugo Letter/poem. I’m old. The computer is new.

  5. lizard19

    d.g., I’m glad I struck a nerve. these poetry posts are usually pretty tame in the comment threads. but here you are calling for a retraction! bold move, sir ;)

    I do think I owe a few more words to elaborate on the “drunk on landscape” quote you highlight, because I can see how—despite acknowledging my appreciation of his work—my brief comments on what Hugo represents could seem dismissive.

    I’ll say it again, I love Hugo’s poetry, but I also think there is good reason to be weary of how art becomes institutionalized, no matter how talented the mentor figure is.

    part of what I would expect from an MFA program is preparing me for earning a living as a writer. what sells matters, therefore market forces shape the product of writing, which is different than the art of writing.

    what an outsider stab like Montana Gothic seems to be saying is that there is a wider range of expression possible outside the institutional licensing process. Hugo, maybe a bit unfairly, becomes Koch’s target for what I suspect are broader frustrations, to which you make good points, d.g.

  1. 1 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

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