Richard Hugo

The Triggering Town

“Assumptions lie behind the work of all writers. The writer is unaware of most of them, and many of them are weird. Often the weirder the better.”

“My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.” George Orwell clarified in Why I Write. Orwell unwittingly addresses Virginia Woolf’s query of all artists: “What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”

Every genuine writer seems to flex this ability reflect on their writing as if they are both inside and outside the work.1 What is necessary to write? What is that single point of beginning? Orwell wrote from empowered feeling, Woolf argued for physical and mental space, Annie Dillard called for a small room where consciousness met boundary.

In his 1979 collection, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing American poet Richard Hugo (December 21, 1923 – October 22, 1982) holds up a mirror to his writer self and addresses creative impulse.2

Richard Hugo. Photo from Hugo House, Seattle.
Richard Hugo. Photo courtesy of Hugo House in Seattle. Named for the poet, this organization is a remarkable group that holds classes, events, and all sorts of inspirational prompts for writers of all ages. Learn more.

Cultivating and understanding the impulsive moments of writing, argues Hugo, is critical to all writers, especially poets. But it cannot be scripted or studied too deliberately.

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 writer 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.3

The balance between knowing self and world, the internal fixtures and the outside aggressions is central to Hugo’s writing. Look how fast this poem flows, how much it considers both internally and externally almost at the same time. It is as if someone took the emotional enormity of Hemingway’s memoirs and set it to blank verse.

In Your Blue Dream

You are fishing a lake but fish.
The other men fishing are old. They nod approval
of your rod, limber and green. One yells advice
over the lake: develop the eyes of an osprey.
The sun goes down. You row to the shore.
A warden is there. He arrests you. He says
your bait is illegal, live meat. The old men
pay your bail. You sweat when the girl counts the money.
The sky fills with fish hawks each with a trout
in his beak. The streets fill with men enroute home.
You lose your sense of time. You ask the men,
all young, is this afternoon? They don’t answer.
You run from man to man asking the time.
You forget your address. You knock on a door.
A luscious blonde tells you you have the wrong town.
You run through the swamp. The town ahead
glitters warm in the dark. You yell at the town,
where is my home? A mob of men with bloodhounds
is back of you somewhere. You hear them. You rush
for the lights. You are in the streets dirty in rags.
The people are elegant, dressed for the clubs.
You show them your key. They answer firmly,
you have the wrong country. Go north. You sob
in the streets. You say, this, this is my land.
The streetlamps dim. A cop says, go home.
When the posse of women find you in the desert
you are terribly ashamed. You babble on and on.
They point at you and laugh. One says, you look good
bleaching, good for a weathered skeleton.

Read full poem here.

In addition to smart word play, phonetic revelry, and pure joy at the pulse of words, Hugo advises we journey into oneself, not as a sort of mental salvation from life like Rilke promised, but to understand our rich and natural contradictions.

Antony Gormley sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
One of Antony Gormley’s 14 Slabworks sculptures in which industrially-cut steel formed pieces of a human figure. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Assumptions lie behind the work of all writers. The writer is unaware of most of them, and many of them are weird. Often the weirder the better. Words love the ridiculous areas of our minds. But silly or solid, assumptions are necessary elements in a successful base of writing operations. It is important that a poet not question his or her assumptions, at least not in the middle of composition. Finish the poem first, then worry, if you have to, about being right or sane.

Whenever I see a town that triggers whatever it is inside me that wants to write a poem, I assume at least one of the following:
The name of the town is significant and must appear in the title.
The inhabitants are natives and have lived there forever.
I am the only stranger.
I have lived there all my life and should have left long ago but couldn’t.
Although I am playing roles, on the surface I appear normal to the townspeople.
I am an outcast returned. Years ago the police told me to never come back but after all this time I assume that either
I’ll be forgiven or I will not be recognized. […]

That triggering subject, Hugo uses an example of a town, is the anchoring of impulse in a metaphysical space. It sits as a physical space in your mind and develops naturally, visually, like memory.

Brunswick, Australia, 2018 Photograph by Australian landscape photographer Andrew Wurster.

“Somehow you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words.” writes Hugo.

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.

When I read Hugo’s easy text and bang-on-the-head advice for that trigging subject and stepping out of our “emotional responses”, I can’t help recall the philosophical problem-solving of Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher who studied the psychological sites of our intimate lives. Areas like the attic, the cellar, places like a corner or a nest, and the overall construct of a home function as primary locales of memory and sources of emotion.

The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams. The house we were born in is more than the embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting place for daydreaming. And often the resting place particularized the daydream.

From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

While Hugo lets his creative impulse be triggered by place, he then rejects that place in favor of a more conceptual space like Bachelard. Not the town, but a town.

"Cityscape" by ceramic artist Isobel Egan featured in "The Space and Shape of Memory."
“Cityscape” by ceramic artist Isobel Egan. Photograph by Rory Moore.

The phrase “anchored freedom” comes to mind (did I imagine it or steal it?). We are anchored to things that we feel and yet must expand beyond those things to reach something universal.

It is in this line of thought that Hugo addresses the irrelevant question about which all newish writers seem obsess.

Then there’s that banal, tiresome question: can writing be taught? Yes it can and no it can’t. Ultimately the most important things a poet will learn about writing are from himself in the process. A good teacher can save a young poet years by simply telling him things he need not waste time on, like trying to will originality or trying to share an experience in language or trying to remain true to the facts.

Hugo ran the creative writing program at the University of Montana, Missoula for years and most of the lectures and essays in The Triggering Town were written as a means of teaching (which explains their sharp advice.)

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.

Hugo enables this same sort of anchored freedom in his students and his readers. Teaching them how to write like themselves most of all. Accompany his gin-clear words with Stephen Fry’s poetry-writing guide for those who believe poetry cannot be taught; Mark Strand’s ruminations on the poem and the poet, and my own study of our pressing need to empty our self in order to welcome in new.

Lest we nod too eagerly at Hugo’s advice, he again dismisses our attention and affection: “This book is not for all and hardly is intended as the last word.”