Saturday, January 5, 2008

Required Reading: Richard Hugo's 'The Triggering Town'

In a timely side-reading, I have found a book that answers many of the questions I have about writing (and which may have prevented my previous posts, had I read it a week ago). The book addresses the importance of language for language's sake, how much you should think about whether the audience understands, and the relationship between the "triggering subject" you write on, and the words you write. (More about this in a moment.)

This little gem is Richard Hugo's slim volume The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. I happened to buy it used to save money; I can already tell that in a few months it will be dog-eared with copious notes scribbled in the margins. (Yes, a terrible habit for a librarian to have, but a useful one for a writer.) There are far too many pearls in the book for me to detail them all here, so let me bring just one or two into the blogosphere to discuss. The primary focus of the book, and what I found most interesting, most useful for my future writing, and most liberating was this:

"Somehow you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words." (p.12)

I have lately been working with poems that have very specific triggers, dealing with people, places and feelings, and have struggled with when to let go of that solid-ness, that comfortable space, and that damned same-ness that weighs me like an anchor after the first few lines. Have you ever been there? You are writing about your mother, and while the first few lines please your eye and ear, after line four if you write another thing that is actually related to your mother, you feel suffocated, robbed of your colorful vocabulary and a traitor to the shine on the water tower you want to include but don't, because though you feel it needs to be there, you are concerned. It belongs, you know it in your gut. But what would the reader think about this random throw-in? Will they understand why it needs to be there? Are you a traitor to your original subject if you drop it and keep writing?

Note: I will admit that I suffer from this because I dislike poetry that intentionally sets out to mystify and confuse the reader, leaving them in the dark as to the subject and emotion of a poem. When this is deliberate, I find this to be the utmost insult: snobbery wielded as a weapon against the very people you purport to 'communicate' with through your language. Snobby poetry makes me stabby. Then again, I tend to be bourgeois like that...

Hugo's wisdom, which may be obvious to some, is that the thing that triggered you to write may not be what you wanted to write about at all. It called to something deeper, that delicious author-part of you that you barely understand, and not following it is traitorous to your well-being as a writer. Will the reader understand? Perhaps (and probably) not. But if it belongs, they will understand the feel of the poem and your need to place it there, which is enough. And if they don't, what of it? Hugo admits later in the book that occasionally he goes back to an old poem he wrote years ago and doesn't understand it himself, but that he felt that overwhelming need and rightness at the time. It is this 'rightness' that counts and enlivens the poem.

This actually comes back to the subject that begins the book: should truth conform to music, or music to truth? Hugo argues for the former, both to justify creative writing, and because he notes that if truth conforms to music, "those of us who find life bewildering and who don't know what things mean, but love the sound of words enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing..." (p.4)

The importance of this for my own writing? It gives me the permission I needed to bend my truth to the music of my words, rather than forcing my words to conform to some set, preconceived notion of Truth. I feel a bit freer, as though my shackles have been loosened (though admittedly I placed them on myself). As a writer, we impose limits on ourselves - it is inevitable. What we want to do is often too large, and overwhelming, and so we assign ourselves small bites to survive that need to write. It would be a good idea for us all to make a note of what restraints we use, though. Since they are often unconscious, we will only find them when we find ourselves dissatisfied with a piece of writing, or staring at a blank page and demanding something specific of ourselves.

The entire book is worth reading, is full of dos and don'ts (along with Hugo's admission that everything he purports to teach is likely wrong for anyone but himself). But having these recommendations is quite the gift: we can shed light on how we've already been doing it, which is our unconscious construct. Constructs, by definition, are limiting, and his defining what HE uses allows us to say, "Ah, yes! I actually do X instead of Y, though..." The value? You learn your process, and there may be things you can change about it that will improve your writing.

Strive for improvement, though never perfection. Perfection is boring. Learn what your 'triggering towns' are...use them as a touchstone of comfort and to ground you. And then leave them.


Christina said...

I vaguely recall sailing through this book a few years back, but sadly, I haven't touched it since. Funny that you made this post about it, I recently found it on my shelf.

You have inspired me, m'lady!

I think I'll have to re-read it now.

And in a similiar, yet tangential vein, have you ever read through Robert Bly's "Leaping Poetry"? If not, it might be something else to buy and scribble all over. :)

PinkAndChocolateBrown said...

Oh no, you used the word bourgeois! *Grad school spiraling flashbacks!*

Colleen said...

@christina - I haven't read Bly's book, but it is now on my list - thanks!