The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing
By Richard Hugo
W. W. Norton, 8 October 2010
There is an absence of vague waffle in Hugo’s classic book.
Instead, it contains a series of specific insights – case studies, almost – and what the author gives you is a process or method. By seeing how Hugo arrives at his conclusions, this method (or way of thinking) can be extrapolated and applied to innumerable other instances. Hugo presents his thoughts (the fruits of years of teaching) in a relaxed, affable and honest manner. But be in no doubt: this is a profoundly serious book full of concentrated wisdom. It will take quite a while to unpack it fully.
In the first chapter, ‘Writing off the Subject’, Hugo makes the point that the relation of the poet to the language that he uses is strong, whereas what his poems are actually about is not as crucial. A poet is not a reporter. There’s lots of worthwhile advice here, such as:
If you feel pressure to say what you know others want to hear and don’t have enough devil in you to surprise them, shut up. (5)
The second chapter, ‘The Triggering Town’, is about what makes you want to write, what generates or triggers a poem. It may be a particular locale or it may be a perceived injustice or childhood trauma; whatever. ‘The Triggering Town’ is a metaphor for your obsessions, the subjects that cause you to write, that generate the impulse to put pen to paper. This can be any complex of obsessions but it is useful, of course, to know what they are. Again, there are many insights from Hugo. He makes the point, for example, that what provokes or triggers a poem is one thing: a bundle of stuff. But what the poem means after it has been written, well, that may be something quite different entirely.
Next, a chapter entitled ‘Assumptions’. These are the back-story to whatever you’re writing. It is useful to make these explicit but you shouldn’t question them, at least not while you’re writing, according to Hugo. He gives some of his own, the majority about an imaginary town. Naturally some of these assumptions contradict others. Here are a few of Hugo’s:
I am an eleven-year-old-orphan. (21)
Two whores are kind to everyone but each other. (23)
Young men are filled with hate and often fight. (24)
‘Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching’ is an affectionate, appreciative and an often moving memoir of the poet who taught Hugo in ‘47 and ‘48. Hugo credits Roethke with introducing him to the music of language. He discusses Roethke’s approach to poetry and gives a couple of exam questions from his class. Overall, a very fine and generous appreciation.
The fifth chapter, ‘Nuts and Bolts’, sets out certain rules of writing that work for Hugo; these are like Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules, though there are in excess of that number here. Hugo writes that ‘by obeying one “silly” rule, I found myself forced to cut the fat from the statement that followed.’ Such rules are arbitrary, proto-Oulipian. Actually, one could argue that all poets are Oulipian creatures: they obey the constraints of rhyme and meter. Hugo confesses that he often places his feeling for sound above sense or meaning, in terms of words chosen. Plenty of good, generic advice along the lines of: write often, work hard.
‘In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes’ has lots of telling anecdotes and killer insights. It is about teaching mainly, its value and worth. One question discussed is how to objectively assess a piece of writing.
In chapter seven, ‘Statements of Faith’, we get a slue of insights into writing, being a poet and simply managing life. My suspicion is that when Hugo uses the phrase ‘a poet’ (which he does quite a lot here) he actually means ‘I’ or ‘me’. Make this substitution and you have a revealing portrait of the author.
‘Ci Vediamo’ is another memoir, written on returning to Italy after fighting there in World War Two. It delivers the goods.
The final chapter, ‘How Poets Make a Living’, is also a memoir, this time about working in a factory. There is an affecting story of how a squatter was thrown off company land, which became the subject of one of Hugo’s poems.
All in all, this is a terrific book about writing poetry. In his introduction, Hugo writes: ‘I don’t know why we do it. We must be crazy. Welcome, fellow poet.’ And that is the benevolent spirit in which the book is written. Wonderful stuff.