‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg‘ is a 1973 dramatic monologue about how dreary Philipsburg has become, years after the 1907 boom. It talks about finding degrees of gray in an otherwise boring life. The speaker remembers how bubbly Philipsburg used to be; as he writes, it is a shadow of its old self. Richard Hugo was an American poet. He was seen as a regionalist—however, this masterpiece of his talks about a city in Montana.
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‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg‘ talks about how Philipsburg is now old and bereft of life or adventure.
It is a blank verse that places Philipsburg of the 1907 boom and Philipsburg of now. With a nostalgic voice, Philipsburg is described as once full of life. However, now it has a dearth of adventure; virtually every interesting thing is gone, and people who want more are leaving. The poem talks about how now, only churches, magnesium, and scorn are left in Philipsburg. What more? Even the church bells are ignored.
The first stanza introduces that feeling of nostalgia, and this is maintained until the last stanza. There, an old man, very much aware of reality, has someone try to convince him that he is only imagining things and that Philipsburg is still what it used to be.
Structure and Form
‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg‘ is a free verse poem divided into four stanzas. These stanzas do not have a simple rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem’s language is simple, and the tone is sad and evokes a feeling of nostalgia.
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 nostalgia in the speaker’s voice can be felt, and the past glory of Philipsburg is referred to here. Casually walking by on a Sunday, one might stop to take stock of the old town, what used to be hotels, bars that stood, the drivers trying all they can to move faster in time, but likely failing. Only churches remain, with the 70-year-old jail and one prisoner that has no idea what he did wrong.
The speaker is referring to what Philipsburg used to be and what it is now by placing them aside. We can see the stark difference. The city buzzed during the 1907 boom. The town has degenerated into a shadow of itself.
The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.
The speaker continues to lament that all Philipsburg has to give is rage and hate. That is the business they know. The hatred seems to be targeted at things that are not boring, injecting boredom and trying to kill them. There is hatred reserved for the adventurous ones who dare to want more and leave- for instance, the girls who leave for the butte every year.
Try what they may; it would take more than one or two interesting sites to give the dying town a facelift. Again, the speaker returns to remembering what the town was like during the boom in 1907. Now, virtually all the good things are figments of the speaker’s imagination.
Isn’t this your life? That ancient kisss
till burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?
Reality hits again, jarring the speaker’s audience. The questions keep coming- this is all real, right? The town is really a shadow of itself. They can’t keep living in the past, savoring what used to be. It is time to face things as they are—an environment where the church bell rings and no one answers, where they have to give magnesium and a generous level of scorn.
Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.
Even though the questions are rhetorical, the speaker urges his audience to say ‘no’, for the collective answer to the two questions in the last six lines of the stanza before this one is ‘no’. A man who used to be there when Philipsburg was a bubbly town, 70 now, lips collapsing when he laughs, was just 20 when the seventy-year-old jail was built. He has come to terms with the fact that his passing might be close.
The speaker says the one he is addressing would tell him he is mistaken; and try to paint the picture that the place is not as bad as they think it is, for he has money made of silver and mined from wherever, cars that run, and the girl that serves his food is slender with a red hair that lights the wall.
Hopefully, that should be enough to distract the old man from his realities until they hit again. But first, he would probably see his imagination as running wild. He would think he isn’t going anywhere any time soon until reality comes knocking, even harder this time.
The dullness that enveloped Philipsburg, making it different from what it was during the 1907 boom, inspired Richard Hugo’s ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.’ The speaker laments that Philipsburg has become a shadow of itself. He points out how people keep leaving because the place is now bereft of any source of adventure.
‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ is a dramatic monologue. It is written as a speech by an individual character addressing everyone and no one in particular. The speaker asks questions severally, questions whose answers are obvious. This is what makes it so dramatic.
The 1907 reference in ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg‘ refers to the 1907 mining boom in Philipsburg. Then, the mining business was booming, and Philipsburg was bubbling with activities. However, years later, the town has become a shadow of itself, and people are leaving it behind in search of adventure.
Readers intrigued by Richard Hugo’s ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ should consider reading:
- ‘Nostalgia’ by Carol Ann Duffy – This poem talks about how nostalgia was coined after a group of soldiers carrying out their assignments began to miss their homes.
- ‘Another Reluctance’ by Annie Finch – has the speaker remembering his or her childhood experiences.
- ‘Remembering Fireworks’ by Elizabeth Jennings – focuses on fireworks and elicits a feeling of nostalgia.