Are we the Richard Hugo generation?
That’s a question I’ve never heard anyone ask, but I feel it could well be asked. The generation of poets who grew up with The Triggering Town as an early influence, who are now in their early 50s or so and younger, who constitute most of the poets often referred to as “skittery” or what-have-you might well have Richard Hugo to thank as much or more than Lyn Hejinian or John Ashbery. Here’s a snippet of what I mean:
A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or "causes" the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That's not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.
Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: "Autumn Rain." He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn't the subject. You don't know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it's a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.
Don't be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become more interesting the longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are like me, I find. The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.
Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing, glance over your shoulder, and you'll find there is no reader. Just you and the page. Feel lonely? Good. Assuming you can write clear English sentences, give up all worry about communication. If you want to communicate, use the telephone.
To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance, not in real life I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write. By arrogance I mean that when you are writing you must assume that the next thing you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there. You, the same person who said that, also said this. The adhesive force is your way of writing, not sensible connection.
The question is: how to get off the subject, I mean the triggering subject. One way is to use words for the sake of their sounds. Later, I'll demonstrate this idea. The initiating subject should trigger the imagination as well as the poem. If it doesn't, it may not be a valid subject but only something you feel you should write a poem about. Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it, a wise man once told me. Not bad advice but not quite right. The point is, the triggering subject should not carry with it moral or social obligations to feel or claim you feel certain ways. If you feel pressure to say what you know others want to hear and don't have enough devil in you to surprise them, shut up. But the advice is still well taken. Subjects that ought to have poems have a bad habit of wanting lots of other things at the same time. And you provide those things at the expense of your imagination.
A lot of people have been thinking about poetic “hybridity” or third way or whatever phrase is current for the poetry written over the last decade or so, and when talking about it, they usually talk about it as something like the melding of language writing with the more conservative poetry of post-confessional, pseudo-autobiographical, mainstream poetry (again, or whatever terms you want for these general tendencies). But I think that Hugo’s general thesis in The Triggering Town, that poets should allow themselves to “get off the subject,” to leave the “triggering” image for the more allusive ground of emotional and irrational sympathy has had at least as much impact as language writing, or any other single force, in causing the “post-avant” tendency to occur. Even for those poets who didn't have the direct influence of reading The Triggering Town, the idea, the idea of the trigger and jump (which was around already a long time, yes), Hugo's version, helped set the stage for acceptance of wilder associations. The Triggering Town was a way in and a way out.
I say this because it is The Triggering Town that became the book that otherwise “conservative” creative writing teachers assigned to their creative writing classes, and, because it quickly became popular, it was also the book that people not in creative writing classes might pick up. This book was the foot in the door that allowed the examples of poets like Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, and others to suddenly “make sense” as examples.
To tell the truth, I’m not sure if I’m right about this or not, but back in the mid-1980s this book performed that function for me. After reading it, the poetry of John Ashbery and others didn’t seem so daunting, it was no longer foreign. True, his poetry was (and remains) elusive, but that elusiveness became part of how to read it as a form of moving away from a triggering idea, phrase, or image.
I’m certain, from the examples in the book, that Richard Hugo didn’t foresee how far his point could be taken. This is probably why it’s not talked about as much as I feel it should. It’s not cool. Certainly it’s not as cool as rediscovering Gertrude Stein, but what it was (and still is in many ways) is an important part of the shift in contemporary poetry away from the way metaphor and scene and subject were conceived by a majority of poets in the 60s and 70s to what a lot of poets are doing today. We talk a lot about the move of innovative poetry (everyone wants to claim that) into their work, but the move from mainstream poetry through The Triggering Town, I believe, was (and is) just as strong.
[You can read the full text of two of the essays from The Triggering Town here:
Here's a poem of Hugo's, to close, that hopefully also illustrates a bit of what I mean.
In Your Bad Dream
Morning at nine, seven ultra-masculine men
explain the bars of your cage are silver
in honor of our emperor. They finger the bars
and hum. Two animals, too far to name,
are fighting. One, you are certain, is destined
to win, the yellow one, the one who from here
seems shaped like a man. Your breakfast
is snake but the guard insists eel. You say hell
I've done nothing. Surely that's not a crime.
You say it and say it. When men leave, their him
hangs thick in the air as scorn. Your car's
locked in reverse and running. The ignition
is frozen, accelerator stuck, brake shot.
You go faster and faster back. You wait for the crash.
On a bleak beach you find a piano the tide
has stranded. You hit it with a hatchet.
You crack it. You hit it again and music
rolls dissonant over the sand. You hit it
and hit it driving the weird music from it.
A dolphin is romping. He doesn't approve.
On a clean street you join the parade. Women
line the streets and applaud, but only the band.
You ask to borrow a horn and join in.
The bandmaster says we know you can't play.
You are embarrassed. You pound your chest
and yell meat. The women weave into the dark
that is forming, each to her home. You know
they don't hear your sobbing crawling the street
of this medieval town. You promise money
if they'll fire the king. You scream a last promise—
Anything. Anything. Ridicule my arm.