Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

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“I don’t know why we do it. We must be crazy. Welcome, fellow poet.”

The Triggering Town (referring to how a poem is “triggered” into being) is a sparkling little book of insights and essays about writing, with one autobiographical piece, by Richard Hugo, a poet I should have known about far sooner.

I found this book, and a collection of his poems, at the small but mighty Cannon Beach Book Company, where there’s always at least one new book I can’t leave without. For the sake of full disclosure, I initially passed up on this one in favor of Life on Mars (Smith), a decision I do not regret. But I made a note to check out Hugo later.

And what I discovered was that Hugo led an interesting life. He was born in 1923 in Seattle and was clearly shaped by the landscape and people of the Pacific Northwest and, it seems, by poverty. He served in the military and, later, was educated, presumably courtesy of the GI Bill. He landed at Boeing as a technical writer. His first book of poetry was published in 1961 and soon after he began teaching creative writing at University of Montana. (Personal digression: I was a Bobcat/Montana State but probably should have been a Grizzly, given the legacy of great writing there. No offense to MSU’s Greg Keeler, who was an exceptional poet and teacher, and who helped sharpen my love of writing from interest to obsession).

Hugo died in 1982, giving about 20 years of his life to writing and to teaching writing, distilling the best parts of what he thought about writing into The Triggering Town. It’s a cranky, contrarian and lovely look at the process of writing, especially poetry, and an exposition on his view that you can’t really teach people to become writers. As he sees it, if you love putting words on paper and that feeling you get when you just know it’s coming out right, you’re going to write.

Hugo loves language and how, when properly deployed, it conveys emotions and provokes responses in readers, even as these emotions and responses are unique for each reader. 

“We creative writers are privileged because we can write declarative sentences, and we can write declarative sentences because we are less interested in being irrefutably right than we are in the dignity of language itself. I find words beautiful that ring with psychic truth and that sound meant.”

And he goes to great lengths to explain that we certainly can’t learn to write by reading other authors:

“Like many others, I once believed that by study one could discover and ingest some secret ingredient of literature that would later find its way into one’s own work. I’ve come to believe that one learns to write only by writing.”

While he does not believe one can be taught to write, he does conclude one can be helped to not to be a bad writer. It’s an important distinction, and premised on recognizing and enhancing the love of language, and the love of the process. I found it very reassuring, even in the “nuts and bolts” section:

“Don’t erase. Cross out rapidly and violently, never with slow consideration if you can help it.”

“When you’re young it’s normal to fear losing a good line or phrase and never finding anything comparable again. Carry a small pocket-size notebook and jot down lines and phrases as they occur. This may or may not help you write good poems, but it can help reduce your anxiety.”

“Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things. When the poem starts things should already have happened. (Note: white unlined paper gives you the feeling nothing has happened.) If Yeats had begun “Leda and the Swan” with Zeus spotting Leda and getting an erection, Yeats would have been writing a report.”

 “When rewriting, write the entire poem again. If something has gone wrong deep in the poem, you may have taken a wrong turn earlier. The next time through the poem you may spot the wrong path you took. If you take another, when you reach the source of your dissatisfaction, it may no longer be there. To change what’s there is difficult because it is boring. To find the right other is exciting.”

“Sometimes the wrong word isn’t the one you think it is but another close by. If annoyed with something in the poem, look to either side of it and see if that isn’t where the trouble is. You can seldom be certain of the source of your annoyance, only that you are annoyed. Sometimes you may feel dissatisfied without justification. The poem may be as good as it will get.”

“If you can answer the question, to ask it is to waste time.”

And my favorite: “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.”

I’m adding this book to my very short list of books about writing that have made a lasting difference in my life, along with Letters to a Young Poet (Rilke), and Writing Down the Bones (Goldberg). Yes, despite the great advice, The Triggering Town is not really about how to write, but more like how to live with being a writer, and how to take sustenance from the process and the inevitable psychosis. Because, as Hugo notes, “I’m inclined more and more to believe that writing, like sex, is psychogenic.” (I had to look that up: having a psychological origin or cause rather than a physical one.)