Essay on Poetic Theory

The Triggering Town (1982)

by Richard Hugo
They would have been far harder lines to write had I worried about what’s most important: beans, pewter, or liberty. Obvi­ously beans are, but why get hung up on those considerations? It is easier to write and far more rewarding when you can ig­nore relative values and go with the flow and thrust of the language. That’s why Auden said that poets don’t take things as seriously as other people. It was easy for me to find that line awhile back because I didn’t worry about the relative impor­tance of grain and chorus girls and that made it fun to find them together in that silo.

By now you may be thinking, doesn’t this lead finally to amoral and shallow writing? Yes it does, if you are amoral and shallow. I hope it will lead you to yourself and the way you feel. All poets I know, and I know plenty of them, have an unusually strong moral sense, and that is why they can go into the cynical world of the imagination and not feel so threatened that they become impotent. There’s fear sometimes involved but also joy, an exhilaration that can’t be explained to anyone who has not experienced it. Don’t worry about morality. Most people who worry about morality ought to.

Over the years then, if you are a poet, you will, perhaps without being conscious of it, find a way to write—I guess it would be better to say you will always be chasing a way to write. Actually, you never really find it, or writing would be much easier than it is. Since the method you are chasing in­volves words that have been chosen for you by your obsessions, it may help to use scenes (towns perhaps) that seem to vivify themselves as you remember them but in which you have no real emotional investment other than the one that grows out of the strange way the town appeals to you, the way it haunts you later when you should be thinking about paying your light bill. As a beginner you may only be able to ally your emotions to one thing, either triggering subject or word. I believe it will be easier right now if you stick to the word.

A man named Buzz Green worked with me years ago at the Boeing Company. He had once been a jazz musician and along with a man named Lu Waters had founded a jazz band well known in its day. Buzz once said of Lou McGarrity, a trombone player we both admired, “He can play trombone with any symphony orchestra in the country but when he stands up to take a jazz solo he forgets everything he knows.” So if I seem to talk technique now and then and urge you to learn more, it is not so you will remember it when you write but so you can forget it. Once you have a certain amount of accumulated technique, you can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally yours will stay with you and will come forth mysteriously when needed.

Once a spectator said, after Jack Nicklaus had chipped a shot in from a sand trap, “That’s pretty lucky.” Nicklaus is suppose to have replied, “Right. But I notice the more I prac­tice, the luckier I get.” If you write often, perhaps every day, you will stay in shape and will be better able to receive those good poems, which are finally a matter of luck, and get them down. Lucky accidents seldom happen to writers who don’t work. You will find that you may rewrite and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second. If you just sit around waiting for the easy ones, nothing will come. Get to work.

You found the town, now you must start the poem. If the poem turns out good, the town will have become your home­town no matter what name it carries. It will accommodate those intimate hunks of self that could live only in your hometown. But you may have found those hunks of self because the externals of the triggering town you used were free of personal association and were that much easier to use. That silo you never saw until today was yours the day you were born. Finally, after a long time and a lot of writing, you may be able to go back armed to places of real personal significance. Auden was wrong. Poets take some things far more seriously than other people, though he was right to the extent that they are not the same things others would take seriously or often even notice. Those chorus girls and that grain really matter, and it’s not the worst thing you can do with your life to live for that day when you can go back home the sure way and find they were there all the time.

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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Biography

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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