Richard Hugo was a Pacific Northwest poet whose work often used frayed landscapes—real and imagined, external and internal—as a base from which to explore themes of memory, loss, and obsession.
His book of poetics, The Triggering Town (1979), contains a series of essays arguing against the idea that a poet should “write what you know,” advocating instead an approach to poetry based on triggering subjects and words. In this title essay to the collection, Hugo explains triggering subjects, using the example of towns, as points of entry into the realm of the imagination. Hugo suggests that new poets take emotional ownership of an imagined, or barely-known, town, rather than trying to convey the actual hometown in which “the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns.”
Once a triggering subject is located as a base from which to write, Hugo argues that a poet should turn his attention to the play and music of the language, allowing a private language—a personal connection, and perhaps frequent return, to certain words, and the richness of the poet’s complex associations with those words—to drive the poem forward. Notes Hugo, “Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”
You hear me make extreme statements like “don’t communicate” and “there is no reader.” While these statements are meant as said, I presume when I make them that you can communicate and can write clear English sentences. I caution against communication because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.
Let’s take language that exists to communicate—the news story. In a news story the words are there to give you information about the event. Even if the reporter has a byline, anyone might have written the story, and quite often more than one person has by the time it is printed. Once you have the information, the words seem unimportant. Valéry said they dissolve, but that’s not quite right. Anyway, he was making a finer distinction, one between poetry and prose that in the reading of English probably no longer applies. That’s why I limited our example to news articles. By understanding the words of a news article you seem to deaden them.
In the news article the relation of the words to the subject (triggering subject since there is no other unless you can provide it) is a strong one. The relation of the words to the writer is so weak that for our purposes it isn’t worth consideration. Since the majority of your reading has been newspapers, you are used to seeing language function this way. When you write a poem these relations must reverse themselves. That is, the relation of the words to the subject must weaken and the relation of the words to the writer (you) must take on strength.
This is probably the hardest thing about writing poems. It may be a problem with every poem, at least for a long time. Somehow you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words. For our purposes I’ll use towns as examples. The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. The reason for that, I believe, is that the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you’ve just seen for the first time. At home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn’t always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer committed suicide, you have complicated emotional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town, you can assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally. However, not just any town will do. Though you’ve never seen it before, it must be a town you’ve lived in all your life. You must take emotional possession of the town and so the town must be one that, for personal reasons I can’t understand, you feel is your town. In some mysterious way that you need not and probably won’t understand, the relationship is based on fragments of information that are fixed—and if you need knowns that the town does not provide, no trivial concerns such as loyalty to truth, a nagging consideration had you stayed home, stand in the way of your introducing them as needed by the poem. It is easy to turn the gas station attendant into a drunk. Back home it would have been difficult because he had a drinking problem.
Once these knowns sit outside the poem, the imagination can take off from them and if necessary can return. You are operating from a base.
That silo, filled with chorus girls and grain
Your hometown often provides so many knowns (grains) that the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns (chorus girls). I just said that line (Reader: don’t get smart. I actually did just write it down in the first draft of this) because I come from a town that has no silos, no grain, and for that matter precious few chorus girls.
If you have no emotional investment in the town, though you have taken immediate emotional possession of it for the duration of the poem, it may be easier to invest the feeling in the words. Try this for an exercise: take someone you emotionally trust, a friend or a lover, to a town you like the looks of but know little about, and show your companion around the town in the poem. In the line of poetry above, notice the word “that.” You are on the scene and you are pointing. You know where you are and that is a source of stability. “The silo” would not tell you where you were or where the silo is. Also, you know you can trust the person you are talking to—he or she will indulge your flights—another source of stability and confidence. If you need more you can even imagine that an hour before the poem begins you received some very good news—you have just won a sweepstakes and will get $50,000 a year for the rest of your life—or some very bad, even shattering news—your mother was in charge of a Nazi concentration camp. But do not mention this news in the poem. That will give you a body of emotion behind the poem and will probably cause you to select only certain details to show to your friend. A good friend doesn’t mind that you keep chorus girls in a silo. The more stable the base the freer you are to fly from it in the poem.
That silo, filled with chorus girls and grain
burned down last night and grew back tall.
The grain escaped to the river. The girls ran
crying to the moon. When we knock, the metal
gives a hollow ring—