The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing

BOOK: The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing
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Lectures and Essays


on Poetry and Writing

Also by Richard Hugo

A Run of Jacks

Death of the Kapowsin Tavern

Good Luck in Cracked Italian

The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir

What Thou Lovest Well Remains American

31 Letters and 13 Dreams

Selected Poems

White Center

The Right Madness on Skye

Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo

The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography

(edited by Ripley Hugo, Lois Welch, and James Welch)


Lectures and Essays


on Poetry and Writing

by Richard Hugo

New York • London

The author wishes to thank the University of Montana Foundation for its support while he was writing one of the chapters of this book

Copyright © 1979 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

All rights reserved
First published as a Norton 1982; reissued 1992, 2010

Some of these chapters have appeared as follows:

Northwest Review

“How Poets Make a Living”—
Iowa Review

“Ci Vediamo”—
Slackwater Review

“Statements of Faith”—

“Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching,” “The Triggering Town,” “Writing off the Subject,” “In Defense of Creative Writing Classes,” and “Nuts and Bolts”—
American Poetry Review

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hugo, Richard F / The triggering town.
1. Poetics—Addresses, essays, lectures.
2. Authorship—Addresses, essays, lectures. I. Title
PN1042.H8    808.1    78-26031

ISBN: 978-0-393-33872-0

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

For all students of creative writing

—and for their teachers


THIS BOOK contains lectures, essays, and a couple of sentimental reminiscences. I trust they all relate to problems of writing. This is not intended as a textbook, though it is true I teach creative writing to make my living, and I am trying to reproduce some of the things I do in the classroom. Most of the material here I teach to students in beginning poetry-writing classes, usually college freshmen and sophomores. Some of the material, however, I use in more advanced courses.

Many writers and many writing teachers believe reading and writing have a close and important relationship. Over the years I have come to doubt this. Like many others, I once believed that by study one could discover and ingest some secret ingredient of literature that later would find its way into one’s own work. I’ve come to believe that one learns to write only by writing. Years ago in the comic strip “Pogo,” a bear appeared, a creature who could write but couldn’t read. Granted the joke, I’m not sure anymore that the concept is that farfetched. I’m inclined more and more to believe that writing, like sex, is psychogenic, though I could probably be argued out of it.

I’m not trying to undermine the study and teaching of literature. Far from it. I think literature should be studied for the most serious of all reasons: it is fun. For a young writer it should be exciting as well.

I believe that a writer learns from reading possibilities of technique, ways of execution, phrasing, rhythm, tonality, pace. Otherwise, reading is important if it excites the imagination, but what excites the imagination may be found in any number of experiences (or in a lack of them). Reading may or may not be one. I can think of four current writers, three of them poets, whose work stimulates me to write. I’ve seen dozens of triggering towns.

If I had to sum up my way of helping others to write poems, and I hope you if you are just starting, I’d say that I try as seldom as I can to talk about a newly offered poem from the standpoint of the reader. Instead, if I can, I talk as if I’d written the poem myself and try to find out why and where I went wrong. Obviously this is a limited approach, because being a poet of process I’m really, alas unavoidably, offering my way of writing, hoping the student will be able to develop his or her own later on.

I have no quarrel with those who reject my way of writing, nor with those who reject the concept of a way of writing. This book is not for all and hardly is intended as the last word. Commenting on a work from the standpoint of the reader, unavoidable at times, can be of enormous benefit, though in my experience it seems to work better with fiction writers than with poets.

Such criticism, offered well, can help young writers develop a method of self-criticism, always a necessity. But at the base of such an approach is the notion that the writer’s problems are literary. In truth, the writer’s problems are usually psychological, like everyone else’s.

I hope this book will be of general interest, and, if you are starting to write poems, that it will help you with your writing. Above all, I hope you’ll not take the book more seriously than it is intended. Some of it, though obviously not all, is written in a sense of play. But it is play directed toward helping you with that silly, absurd, maddening, futile, enormously rewarding activity: writing poems. I don’t know why we do it. We must be crazy. Welcome, fellow poet.


Lectures and Essays


on Poetry and Writing

Writing off the Subject

I OFTEN make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go. Don’t start arguments. They are futile and take us away from our purpose. As Yeats noted, your important arguments are with yourself. If you don’t agree with me, don’t listen. Think about something else.

When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult, and you are not only limiting the writing of poems to something done only by the very witty and clever, such as Auden, you are weakening the justification for creative-writing programs. So you can take that attitude if you want, but you are jeopardizing my livelihood as well as your chances of writing a good poem.

If the second attitude is right, then I still have a job. Let’s pretend it is right because I need the money. Besides, if you feel truth must conform to music, those of us who find life bewildering and who don’t know what things mean, but love the sounds of words enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing—try to stop us.

One mark of a beginner is his impulse to push language around to make it accommodate what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases, what he has already conceived to be the form. Even Auden, clever enough at times to make music conform to truth, was fond of quoting the woman in the Forster novel who said something like, “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve said.”

A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.

Don’t be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become more interesting the longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are like me, I find. The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.

Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing, glance over your shoulder, and you’ll find there is no reader. Just you and the page. Feel lonely? Good. Assuming you can write clear English sentences, give up all worry about communication. If you want to communicate, use the telephone.

To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance—not in real life I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write. By arrogance I mean that when you are writing you must assume that the next thing you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there. You, the same person who said that, also said this. The adhesive force is your way of writing, not sensible connection.

The question is: how to get off the subject, I mean the triggering subject. One way is to use words for the sake of their sounds. Later, I’ll demonstrate this idea.

The initiating subject should trigger the imagination as well as the poem. If it doesn’t, it may not be a valid subject but only something you feel you should write a poem about. Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it, a wise man once told me. Not bad advice but not quite right. The point is, the triggering subject should not carry with it moral or social obligations to feel or claim you feel certain ways. 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. But the advice is still well taken. Subjects that ought to have poems have a bad habit of wanting lots of other things at the same time. And you provide those things at the expense of your imagination.

I suspect that the true or valid triggering subject is one in which physical characteristics or details correspond to attitudes the poet has toward the world and himself. For me, a small town that has seen better days often works. Contrary to what reviewers and critics say about my work, I know almost nothing of substance about the places that trigger my poems. Knowing can be a limiting thing. If the population of a town is nineteen but the poem needs the sound seventeen, seventeen is easier to say if you don’t know the population. Guessing leaves you more options. Often, a place that starts a poem for me is one I have only glimpsed while passing through. It should make impression enough that I can see things in the town—the water tower, the bank, the last movie announced on the marquee before the theater shut down for good, the closed hotel—long after I’ve left. Sometimes these are imagined things I find if I go back, but real or imagined, they act as a set of stable knowns that sit outside the poem. They and the town serve as a base of operations for the poem. Sometimes they serve as a stage setting. I would never try to locate a serious poem in a place where physical evidence suggests that the people there find it relatively easy to accept themselves—say the new Hilton.

The poet’s relation to the triggering subject should never be as strong as (must be weaker than) his relation to his words. The words should not serve the subject. The subject should serve the words. This may mean violating the facts. For example, if the poem needs the word “black” at some point and the grain elevator is yellow, the grain elevator may have to be black in the poem. You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.

Let’s take what I think is a lovely little poem, written in 1929 by a fine poet who has been unjustly ignored.



I found him sleepy in the heat

And dust of a gopher burrow,

Coiled in loose folds upon silence

In a pit of the noonday hillside.

I saw the wedged bulge

Of the head hard as a fist.

I remembered his delicate ways:

The mouth a cat’s mouth yawning.

I crushed him deep in dust,

And heard the loud seethe of life

In the dead beads of the tail

Fade, as wind fades

From the wild grain of the hill.


I find there’s much to be learned about writing from this excellent poem. First I think it demonstrates certain truths that hold for much art. The poem grows from an experience, either real or imagined—I only recently found out that this particular experience was real. The starting point is fixed to give the mind an operating base, and the mind expands from there. Often, if the triggering subject is big (love, death, faith) rather than localized and finite, the mind tends to shrink. Sir Alexander Fleming observed some mold, and a few years later we had a cure for gonorrhea. But what if the British government had told him to find a cure for gonorrhea? He might have worried so much he would not have noticed the mold. Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself. If you can’t think small, try philosophy or social criticism.

The need for the poem to have been written is evident in the poem. This is a strong example of the notion that all good serious poems are born in obsession. Without this poem the experience would have been neither validated nor completed.

The poem has elements of melodrama. All art that has endured has a quality we call schmaltz or corn. Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake. As Bill Kittredge, my colleague who teaches fiction writing, has pointed out: if you are not
sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.

The poem is located in a specific place. You don’t know where, but you know the poet knows where. Knowing where you are can be a source of creative stability. If you are in Chicago you can go to Rome. If you ain’t no place you can’t go nowhere.

The snake is killed gratuitously. The study of modern psychology may have helped some of us become better people. We may treat our children better because we have gained some rudimentary notion of cause and effect in behavior. But in art, as seemingly in life, things happen without cause. They just happen. A poem seldom finds room for explanations, motivations, or reason. What if the poem read

Because I knew his poison

Was dangerous to children

I crushed him deep in dust…?


The poet would be making excuses for himself, and the fierce honesty with which he faces his raw act of murder would be compromised. Nothing in the drama
King Lear
can possibly serve as explanation of the shattering cruelty of Regan and Cornwall when they blind Gloucester. From a writer’s standpoint, a good explanation is that Shakespeare knew a lot of creeps walk this earth.

But there’s more to be learned from this poem than just artistic principles. They are always suspect anyway, including those I think I find here. Let’s move on to the language of the poem.

Generally, in English multisyllabic words have a way of softening the impact of language. With multisyllabic words we can show compassion, tenderness, and tranquillity. With multisyllabic words we become more civilized. In the first four lines of the poem, seven of the twenty-six words, slightly better than one out of four, are two-syllable words. This is a fairly high count unless you are in politics. The snake is sleepy. He presents no threat to the speaker. His dwelling is that of a harmless creature, a gopher. It’s almost as if the snake were a derelict, an orphan, a vagabond who sleeps wherever he can. The words “noonday hillside” suggest that the world does not have rigid topography but optional configurations. At 4
it might not be a hillside at all. We take our identities from our relationships, just as the earth takes its configurations from the time of day, the position of the source of light. This is a warm, fluid world.

With single-syllable words we can show rigidity, honesty, toughness, relentlessness, the world of harm unvarnished. In lines five and six, the snake is seen as a threat, the lines slam home heavy as the fist the poet sees as simile for the head of the snake. But of course, men, not snakes, have fists, and so we might ask: where does the danger really lie here?

The speaker then has a tender memory of the snake in lines seven and eight, and we get two three-syllable words and a long two-syllable word, “yawning.” You might note that the poet is receptive to physical similarities of snakes and domestic cats—they look much alike when yawning—just as later he sees and hears the similarity of rattlesnakes to wheat (grain), the way the tail looks like the tassle, the way the rattle sounds like wind in the grain.

In the final five lines the poet kills the snake, faces himself and the moral implications of his act without a flinch or excuse, and we get no multisyllabic words in the entire passage. All single-syllable words, and the gaze is level, the whole being of the speaker honestly laid out, vulnerable on his private moral block. If one acts on the rigid prejudicial attitudes expressed in lines five and six (which the speaker did), and not on the fluid, tender, humane attitudes expressed in the first four lines and lines seven and eight, then in return one is faced with the fully developed, uncompromising picture of what one has done. Forever.

In this poem the triggering subject remains fully in view until late in the poem, whereas the generated object, what the poem is saying, just begins to show at the end but is nonetheless evident. The snake as such is being left behind, and attitudes about life are starting to form. The single-syllable words in the last five lines relentlessly drive home the conviction that all life is related, and that even if life isn’t sacred, we might be better off if we acted as if it were. In this case the poet got off the initiating subject late.

I mentioned that one way of getting off the subject, of freeing yourself from memory if you will, is to use words for the sake of sound. Now I must use four lines from an early poem of mine, simply because I can’t verify any other poet’s process. I know what mine was at the time. These are the first four lines of the fourth stanza of an early poem called “At the Stilli’s Mouth.”

BOOK: The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing
10.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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