Richard Hugo was born on December 21, 1923, in White Center, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. His father, Richard Franklin Hogan, left the family shortly after Hugo's birth; Hugo was raised by his mother's parents. He attended public school and from a very early age took an interest in books, fishing, and baseball. In 1942, he legally changed his name to Hugo, the name of his stepfather. He volunteered for World War II, where he served as a bombardier in the Mediterranean. Hugo flew thirty-five combat missions and reached the rank of first lieutenant before leaving the service in 1945. Like other World War II poets such as James Dickey and Randall Jarrell, he would later recount his experiences in his poetry.
After the War, Hugo entered the University of Washington where he majored in Creative Writing. He studied with Theodore Roethke and completed a B.A. in 1948 and an M.A. in 1952. In 1952, he married Barbara Williams and began to work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he was employed for nearly thirteen years. A Run of Jacks, his first book of poems, appeared in 1961. Hugo was thirty-seven years old at that time. Soon thereafter, he began to teach English and Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. His wife returned to Seattle in 1964, and they soon divorced.
Hugo taught at Montana for nearly eighteen years. Rather than becoming more academic, however, his poems often celebrate the abandoned towns, landscapes, and people of the Pacific Northwest. In one of his best-known and often-anthologized poems from this time, "Degrees of Gray at Philipsburg," he opens with the lines "You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago."
In 1974, Hugo married Ripley Schemm Hansen and helped to raise her children, Matthew and Melissa. In 1977 he was named the editor of the Yale Younger Poets Series. Among his most well-known books are Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965), Good Luck in Cracked Italian (1969), What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (1975), 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977), and The Right Madness on Skye (1980). He also authored the small but influential book on creative writing, The Triggering Town. Among other advice, he suggests that a poet should "Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it." Richard Hugo died on October 22, 1982, at the age of fifty-eight.