When I read Richard Hugo’s “The Triggering Town” essay some years ago, I understood it intuitively and from my own experience of writing.
In the book of the same name, an expanded series of lectures about writing and craft, Hugo smartly takes the position that, whatever scene or event inspires the writer to begin a poem, letting images sift onto the page while sounds assemble in cadences of new meaning will transform the act of writing into an act of yawning, or exhaling what started as a moment into a wholly new shape. The inspirational scene or event is merely a trigger. The transformation that follows the trigger can, in the right hands, become poetry.
It is refreshing to have Hugo, who is both professor and poet comment that reading does not lead to writing, though it does inform the way a writer edits and finishes a piece. He is adamant that writing is what leads to writing. He debates the veracity of the notion that truth equals music, and posits the notion that music can equal truth.
The trigger, born of the writer’s obsessions, is in foundational relationship to the poet. What flows from the trigger—words, sounds and reconstruction from imagination—are cornerstones of the poem in progress. I am interested in the notion that the poet (not the poem) is at the top of the hierarchy, a consequence of Hugo’s notion that “words must be in relation to the writer not the subject” in order for the poem to be “the truth about your feelings.”
Hugo walks his own talk about writing programs that “can save the writer a lot of time,” not by teaching what to do but rather by telling the writer what not to do. (That was my experience during my own MFA residency week, where unlike the sort of feel-good, open-ended workshopping that takes place in continuing education classes, MFA faculty is surefooted about simply telling the students what works and doesn’t). Hugo offers a list of some things that poets typically do wrong, and follows each with a remedy. For example, the problem of sticking to a single established subject is solved by locating the poem—in so doing opening new language possibilities. To the problem of a dominant form that makes for excess words and multi-syllabic words that diminish impact, he offers: think small, a big mind will show itself. With obvious disdain for repetition, he observes that once language exists for information only, it is dying. His is a good list, and quickly encapsulates why writing poetry is hard. I have read and written poems that succeed with one aspect, failing miserably at others. To fire on all cylinders takes talent, time, patience and an uncanny sense of balance.
If the trigger is the obsessive burst that gets the writer to the page, I am equally fond of some advice (not Hugo’s) that I once heard about the process. The writer must learn how to “stay in the cave.” I do believe that is where the imagination, lyricism and cadence of the poem (or any form for that matter) is explored and worked out. We must be disciplined enough not to leave the writing too soon.
We get to know Hugo a bit in the second half of The Triggering Town through his commentary on other poets, as well as through the memoir-style war stories in which he situates examples from his own poetry that illustrate a particular point. (Although there’s probably good reason, one cannot read without noting that he has dramatically shifted his own narrative “stance”—a favorite word of his—from the earlier, professorial voice in the beginning of the book).
I particularly loved the ambivalence with which he regarded Theodore Roethke, since I marvel at Roethke’s language and passion, but always come away feeling like there’s so much I just don’t get. I also resonated with the notion of writing as a way of accepting ones life as valuable (W.C. Williams), and Hugo’s conclusion that T.S. Elliot and Roethke could be happy late in their careers because the poet writes to be a better person, and “poem after poem the self grows more worthy.”
So what about the narrative diversion that begins with the next to the last chapter titled “Ce Vediamo”? It is at this point that the book lapses into memoir with an instructive purpose. It is helpful to get the story behind the poem, and more than the story, the package of sights, sounds, smells, fears, longing and frustration that were Hugo’s World War II experience. It is helpful to tap into the obsession that triggered the poems excerpted in this section, and it is helpful to consider the way his linear narrative is shaken and disordered in the poems.
By far the most baffling of his poems is “Index,” and Hugo admits that he doesn’t even remember what that poem is about (a great relief to this reader who didn’t get it either). It had inherent stance, juxtaposed the saint vs. the idol (both protagonist), and served up tough imagery. Though not a pantoum, “Index” seemed to have the quality of rearranging the same images from stanza to stanza in a sort of Robbe-Grillet style fuck with reality.
By contrast, the remaining four WWII poems have an organic relationship to the stories Hugo tells, from the places named in the title and defined by images within. Wartime realities strike hard against personal sadness and bewilderment. Obsession with poverty and empty surroundings are Hugo’s transport to posing the futility and tragedy of war.
With his poems as examples, Hugo’s The Triggering Town sticks in the gut as beacon of insight on how inspiration (the trigger) fuels art.