If you want to understand the significance of Richard Hugo's 1977 book of poems, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, you're going to need to check in with the Envelope Manufacturer's Association. Let me explain.
Although the slim Norton edition I've been reading features an envelope on the cover, the importance of communications technology—and the envelope is certainly a technology of communication—isn't the most immediately apparent thing about Hugo's book. Indeed, it comes across more as a book about solitude and loneliness than anything else, as I'm sure Hugo intended.
As the title indicates, the poems in the book come in two forms: letters and dreams. The letters are invariable given a title in the format "Letter to [name of recipient, usually another poet of the 1970s] from [name of town, usually someplace with a university Hugo was visiting, or a little western town where he'd gone to fish]." So: "Letter to Ammons from Maratea," for example, or "Letter to Simic from Boulder." The dream poems, too, have titles that follow a format of sorts: "In Your [descriptive word] Dream." Thus: "In Your War Dream," "In Your Hot Dream," and so forth.
One soon catches on that the letters and the dreams are really two different ways of addressing the same theme. The letters are the public, or semi-public, way of dealing with Hugo's sense of isolation as an aging, unattached man who spends a lot of time traveling around the country from one poetry reading or visiting writer gig to another. There's a lot of alienation, and a fair bit of non-specific frustration and detachment: "I'm awfully frightened/and I don't know why. I keep feeling revolutionary/but I have no cause," he writes in "Letter to Hanson from Miami"—"I feel I am going to dynamite/the swimming pool." It's a condition he attributes to being "as far from home/as I can get in the United States."
Letters sent to someone with whom he feels a connection, an old girlfriend, say, or to a fellow poet, becomes a way of trying to connect, to write his way out of isolation. It's also a way of converting pain and sometimes panic into anecdotage, reminiscence, and a presentation of himself as wistful, gently melancholy, a little stoic.
The dreams, by contrast, are private: not Hugo's way of trying to communicate to sympathetic people in the world, but his way of trying to communicate with himself. That is, they're where his unconscious feeds up images of his isolated condition, directing them to the waking mind for contemplation and interpretation. "You are riding a camel/in Athens. The citizens yell 'We are not Arab. This/is not sand" we read in "Your Wild Dream," before discovering that, through the metamorphic logic of dreams, "the camel is a yacht. You cruise/a weird purple river. Girls doze on the bank. One/stands up and waves. You yell, 'Where is your town?'/You are alone." The imagery is weird, but the condition from which the dream springs is clear enough: isolation, displacement, a yearning to connect.
This kind of confessional poetry, in which the poet takes stock, as best and as directly as he can, of his inner needs and fears, and tries to tell them to others, is pretty out of fashion now. Indeed, reading Hugo's book concurrently with Juliana Spahr's wonderful 2011 collection Well Then There Now, one really senses a change in style and attitude from the poetry prominent in the late 1970s to the well-received poetry of our own time. Spahr's work is all about Hawaii, which one would think would give her ample cause to write about isolation and distance. But instead we get a picture of Hawaii as a place deeply interconnected with every other place: we see it penetrated by, landed on, and changed by information and bodies and species from all over the world. Like Spahr's equally fine This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, it is a book about connection and community, and her preferred pronoun is not "me" but "us."
And if we want to understand this difference between Hugo's lonely confessionalism and Spahr's sense of interconnectivity and community, we'd do well to look at the Envelope Manufacturer's Association 2006 report "First Class Mail and the United States Postal Service: Future Strategies for This Time-Honored Medium." This, after all, throws into stark relief the very different communications regimes under which Hugo and Spahr have written.
The report, issued after a "summit meeting of former postal leaders and mailing industry leaders," is a bit panic-stricken. The envelope industry, it seems, is deeply worried about the fate of the personal letter, as the wrapping of such letters has been a major source of their revenue. But, they note, the share of United States Postal deliveries taken by first class mail (primarily letters and post-cards) has been in steep decline. Sometime around 2002 the volume of first class mail sank beneath that of pre-sorted mail (bills, large-scale business mailings, much junk mail) and the plunge has been precipitous since then. It's indicative, of course, of the rise of the internet, email, Facebook, iChat, Skype, and all the other means by which people keep in touch. Richard Hugo, back in the 1970s, wrote in a world where personal communication over great distances was either very slow, like the paper letter, or very expensive (a three minute Sunday off-peak phone call in 1970 would cost over four dollars in today's money, which was down from the equivalent of almost 23 dollars in the mid 1960s; and when 31 Letters and 13 Dreams was published air travel was about two and a half times more expensive per mile than it is today, though the in-flight meals were better). All of this matters at the experiential level: when my wife's work takes her to Paris, as it sometimes does lately, I can get on iChat and have a video chat with her for hours at, essentially, no charge. Back in the eighties, when I had an argument with my girlfriend during her family's vacation to England, the satellite phone bill ran to some 80 bucks (maybe $160 in today's money), and the short time-lag as one's voice bounced into space and back made for some very confusing moments. I think it might have led to the break-up.
Anyway. If we think about Hugo's moment, it wasn't just a time of relatively expensive communications: it was a time when American poets, novelists, and artists were more geographically scattered across the nation than ever before. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the tiny number of people privileged enough to be engaged in these kinds of creativity clustered in a few places—Greenwich Village, say, or the parts of Paris where expats hung out together in cheap cafes. The expansion of the universities in the decades after World War Two allowed many more people to make their way as artists and writers, but it also scattered them across the continent. And this scattering took place at a time when it was much, much more difficult to stay in touch with likeminded people than it is today.
This combination of the growing academic-cultural establishment, and the still-primitive nature of communications technology, accounts for much of Hugo's pervasive sense of loneliness. He travels from gig to gig, from college town to college town, accumulating acquaintances but not close friends. He's uprooted, and yearns to be in touch with the people he's met who care about the same things he does. He can't go and meet them at a left bank bistro, because they, like him, have been scattered to the four winds by the great academic hurricane of the mid-to-late twentieth century.
This, I think, connects to a powerful feeling I had, mid-way through reading 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, that this was a book my father would love. My dad (a ceramic artist of some renown in the field) comes, like Hugo, from a generation of artists scattered by academe, and linked only by slow or expensive communications. I remember how big a deal it was when other artists would come to visit us—the painter Toni Onley making a grand entrance landing his pontoon plane on the lake at our weekend place, John Cage making off with someone else's beaded Indian jacket, which he mistook for a gift for the Visiting Grandee, and so forth. And I remember the hand-written letters from artists all over the world. Sometimes the sense of isolation and alienation in them could be moving: I remember sneaking a peek at one left on the dining room table, in which the Florida-based artist wrote of "not feeling like part of America anymore, but more like one of a handful of eternal madmen." You get the idea: confessional, passionate, troubled stuff, born of a kind of isolation it is now difficult for us to imagine.
Nowadays, we live in a kind of dialectical synthesis of the low-tech world where artsy types had to cluster in a few bohemias, and the technological/academic world of mass culture and distance. We're scattered all over the world, as was Hugo's generation, but thanks to our iPhones and Facebook, we're always in touch, making minor small talk and nudging one another. There was no small talk in Hugo's letters—communication was too precious for that. And it would be very strange to find something like the passionate, lonely statement in that letter my father received in a Facebook update or a tweet. We're more like the gossiping left bank crowd, except, you know, without the affairs, the croissants, and the absinthe.
So: one significance of Hugo's 31 Letters and 13 Dreams comes to light when we think about the kind of statistics on letters given in the Envelope Manufacturers' Association report. That doesn't exhaust the significance, of course—but statistics on dreams are harder to come by.