Essay on Poetic Theory

The Triggering Town (1982)

by Richard Hugo
O.K. I’m just fooling around. (God, I’m even rhyming.) It looks like the news I got an hour ago was bad, but note the silo replaced itself and we might still fill it again. Note also that now the town has a river and that when I got fancy and put those girls on the moon I got back down to earth in a hurry and knocked on something real. Actually I’m doing all this because I like “l” sounds, “silo” “filled” “girls” “tall” “metal” “hollow,” and I like “n” sounds, “grain” “burned” “down” “ran” “moon,” “ring,” and I like “k” sounds, “back” “knock.” Some critic, I think Kenneth Burke, would say I like “k” sounds because my name is Dick.

In this case I imagined the town, but an imagined town is at least as real as an actual town. If it isn’t you may be in the wrong business. Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost. It can be hard. It can be worse forty years from now if you feel you could have done it and didn’t. It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emo­tional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.

This gets us to a somewhat tricky area. Please don’t take this too seriously, but for purposes of discussion we can con­sider two kinds of poets, public and private. Let’s use as ex­amples Auden and Hopkins. The distinction (not a valid one, I know, but good enough for us right now) doesn’t lie in the subject matter. That is, a public poet doesn’t necessarily write on public themes and the private poet on private or personal ones. The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so have been private poets, the words, at least cer­tain key words, mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader. A sensitive reader perceives this relation of poet to word and in a way that relation—the strange way the poet emotionally possesses his vocabulary—is one of the mysteries and preservative forces of the art. With Hopkins this is evi­dent in words like “dappled,” “stippled,” and “pied.” In Yeats, “gyre.” In Auden, no word is more his than yours.

The reason that distinction doesn’t hold, of course, is that the majority of words in any poem are public—that is, they mean the same to writer and reader. That some words are the special property of a poet implies how he feels about the world and about himself, and chances are he often fights impulses to sentimentality. A public poet must always be more intelligent than the reader, nimble, skillful enough to stay ahead, to be entertaining so his didacticism doesn’t set up resistances. Auden was that intelligent and skillful and he publicly regretted it. Here, in this room, I’m trying to teach you to be private poets because that’s what I am and I’m limited to teaching what I know. As a private poet, your job is to be honest and to try not to be too boring. However, if you must choose between being eclectic and various or being repetitious and boring, be repetitious and boring. Most good poets are, if read very long at one sitting.

If you are a private poet, then your vocabulary is limited by your obsessions. It doesn’t bother me that the word “stone” appears more than thirty times in my third book, or that “wind” and “gray” appear over and over in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over. Wallace Stevens was honest enough not to try to hide it. Frost’s state­ment that he tried to make every poem as different as possible from the last one is a way of saying that he knew it couldn’t be.

So you are after those words you can own and ways of put­ting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obses­sive musical deed. You are trying to find and develop a way of writing that will be yours and will, as Stafford puts it, gen­erate things to say. 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.

The imagination is a cynic. By that I mean that it can accommodate the most disparate elements with no regard for relative values. And it does this by assuming all things have equal value, which is a way of saying nothing has any value, which is cynicism.

When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your im­mediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed. My gold de­tector told me that the man had been right. Had Bosch con­cerned himself with the relative moral or aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less com­posure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting—he must have—and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded. If the relative values of his details crossed his mind at all while he was paint­ing, he must have been having one hell of a good time.

One way of getting into the world of the imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words—if you can manage it you might even ignore the meanings for as long as you can, though that won’t be very long. Once, picking up on something that happened when I visited an antique store in Ellettsville, Indiana, I wrote the lines

The owner leaves her beans to brag about the pewter.
Miss Liberty is steadfast in an oval frame.

Richard Hugo, "Triggering Town" from The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. Copyright © 1979 by Richard Hugo. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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Richard Hugo was a poet of the Pacific Northwest, yet his renown attests to a stature greater than that of most "regional" poets. He is noted for the tight, rhythmic control of his language and lines and for the sharp sense of place evoked in his poems. Hugo's images are urgent and compelling; he imbues the many minute or seemingly irrelevant details found in his poems with a subtle significance, thereby creating a tension . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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