The poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by Richard Hugo utilizes many effective poetic techniques. Of these, color seems to play a dominant role. Hugo tells us the story of a man, who on a whim, decides to go back to his hometown to visit. When he gets there it isn’t as he remembered. The town is now run down and poor because the need for silver isn’t what it once was. As he drives down the streets he remembers what a wonderful place it once was when the economy there was good. Now all he sees are the remains of a nearly forgotten town.
Before we get to the body of the poem we must focus on the title, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg. ” Color is already playing a role. What is gray? It varies, it can be a bright shiny color like silver, or the light wispy color of gray found in fog. It can also be a dark, dirty color, nearly black like charcoal. At initial glance we get the feeling this is going to be a dark and depressed poem, which for the most part it is. Color isn’t really mentioned in the first stanza but in the second Hugo writes, “Hatred of the various grays/ the mountain sends, hatred of the mill, / The Silver Bill repeal”.
Color is so powerful here as the narrator tells us of the hatred people have developed towards that which once made them so happy. All of the rock that was mined from the mountains was assumedly many different colors of gray. Heaps of it had to be mined just to get small amounts of the precious silver out of it. There is hatred toward the old mill. Although no color is mentioned as you read the poem you can picture an old, dark, abandoned mill, probably brown, weathered wood with little or no paint on it, and inside, no lights on for sure.
Later in the second stanza Hugo mentions a new color. The once black and white movie picture we had going in our heads now has a splash of green in it. Hugo writes “in panoramic green you know the cattle eat”. Life goes on for the cattle. They aren’t fazed by the changes that have gone on in the town. As long as she sun shines and the grass grows there is hope for them. Those cows could care less about the sadness and despair that narrator is faced with. In the third stanza Hugo writes, “Of towering blondes, good jazz and booze/ the world will never let you have”.
If the old saying “blondes have more fun” is true they certainly go well with the parties in the bars where you could enjoy the “good jazz and booze”. Long blonde hair shimmering in the sunlight or reflecting colored lights in a bar would be certainly considered beautiful by many. Unfortunately as we read in the poem this is no longer a feature of this town. Finally in the last stanza of the poem we read Hugo’s words, “Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty/ when the jail was built, still laughs”. A little farther down it says, “You tell him no. You are talking to yourself. The car that brought you here still runs. The money that you buy lunch with,/ no matter where it is mined, is silver/ and the girl who serves your food/ is slender and her red hair lights the wall. ” The narrator takes a step back from things and is talking to himself. He laughs as he realizes that it really isn’t all that bad. There is a bright “light at the end of the tunnel” as they say. Things may be different that they once were but there is still some good in it. The silver in his pocket is still shiny and valuable even if it didn’t come from his home town.
The girl serving his lunch, although she isn’t blonde is still beautiful and her red hair is lighting up the dead end wall he thought he was facing. Most important is that his car still runs and he can leave this place if he wants to. He left this place long ago and he can leave again when he has seen enough. The overall message that I got from the use of color in this poem is that things aren’t always as they seem. Sometimes when life gets you down and you are feeling dark and gray, you have to look for the little bits of color to cheer you up and bring new light to the picture.