Thursday, January 19, 2012

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.


At 1/19/2012 7:39 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

Yes. I am a mover, a shaker. I am part of the Richard Hugo Generation.

At 1/20/2012 12:04 AM, Blogger vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Other movers and shakers (there must be more out there) interested in an early Hugo interview published in "Madrona" in 1974 can go here.

At 1/20/2012 4:44 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Moi aussi, je suis un membre de la génération de Richard Hugo.

At 1/20/2012 5:45 AM, Blogger Anne Higgins said...

The poet Kate Daniels recommended The Triggering Towns to me back in 2000; I read it and agreed with it. I have benefitted from his suggestion ( or was it Roethke's suggestion?) that I try playing with words when I'm stuck. I love to play with words anyway, and that suggestion has helped "unstick" me many times, and has led to some good poems as well. I'm too old to be the Hugo generation; probably more the Roethke generation. Actually, the biggest influence on my poetry has been G.M. Hopkins.

At 1/20/2012 7:30 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

You may be right about Hugo's influence, John, but something that skitterified me before I read The TT was poetry readings in bars--punker-infested dives, some of them. 18 yrs old, nursing a Coke, I listened to nutty poetry by older guys who'd published in mags like Kayak and Hanging Loose. (I thought one of these guys was cooler than Jesus: Danny Rendleman. He's one of the best poets Michigan has produced--right up there with Roethke, Knott, and Harrison. I recommend Victrola, Ridgeway Press, '94.) Read aloud and only once, a poem could seem to me a chain of free associations forged before my very ears. Unable to analyze the poem on the page, I couldn't see how the apparently discrete parts cohered logically or intuitively or sonically or otherwise. I felt that these guys had given me permission to stray from an initiating subject. Soon I befriended them and learned about The TT. A very helpful book.

Do people still read in bars, or are coffee shops now the only extra-academe venues for the oral tradition? Recently I read at a Caribou Coffee in Royal Oak, MI, and I found the genteel atmosphere inhibiting. I was about to begin a poem when I realized it was besmirched with profanity, blasphemy, etc. The old dive crowds would've dug that, but I was in a coffee shop, and there were children. "Should I watch my language?" I said into the mike. "Yes," the emcee yelled, "this is a family place." I said, "I can't say 'higher' on the Ed Sullivan Show?" This coffee shop was a stone's throw from a bar where Meg White used to work. Why couldn't we have a poetry reading there? The bizarre things that used to happen at those bar readings! Ou sont les lunatics d'antan?

Thanks for reminding me, John, that "If you want to communicate, use the telephone" comes from Hugo. For a long time I've thought Raymond Carver wrote that in an essay in Fires.

Speaking of Carver, David Dodd Lee just posted a poem called "Raymond Carver." It looks like a cento of Carver quotations, but I'm not sure. Or is it a Carver erasure?

At 1/20/2012 7:52 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


I've never been to a reading in NYC that wasn't at a bar. I've been to a reading at a church (not St. Marks, but I've been there too, and they seem okay with people drinking), but Ugly Duckling Presse turned it into an open bar by bringing wine and kegs.

The scene in Boulder is mostly coffee shops, but they serve beer. I always hated it, partially because I find coffee unpalatable for the most part, but it does tend to attract a different crowd.

At 1/20/2012 8:25 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


In its purest state, it comes from O’Hara: “I realized that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.”

I think the venues and their orality, as well as the examples that dot the 20th century of writing that leaves its initiating subject, from Stein to Ashbery are absolutely, fundamentally important. But what I see in The Triggering Town is an easy to grasp and pass around, written from the perspective of a more conservative tradition, way into writing that can be taken much further than even Hugo imagined. The work and the examples were already there, he just brought it into more mainstream practice. Or at least that’s my thesis. He made it OK for people who were mainstream (like my early teachers) to talk about disjunctive text. I still use parts of it when talking with poets who are just starting out, and trying to conceptualize what they’re doing.


I shouldn’t have tagged ages in this post. I didn’t really mean it in a “how old one is” way, but more, poets who have come up into writing since The Triggering Town became common coin. So you still qualify!

At 1/20/2012 8:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Are you by any chance going to AWP this year? There's going to be a David Young tribute. He's a great person in the art.

Are there any scans of the Madrona interview with him available?

At 1/20/2012 8:31 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


My guess would be cento or erasure from the stories?

At 1/20/2012 8:32 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Great piece, John.

The Hugo poem reminds me of bad 1970s French cinema.

It's easy to document American poetry's decline in popularity, and this aesthetic---in which a poem has no subject---is a big reason.

Hugo belongs to the GI Bill generation, all those WW II soldiers who flooded colleges and "Understanding Poetry" Brooks/Warren was waiting for them. If you haven't read it, you should: this important textbook not only downplays Edgar Poe, it openly ridicules him.

Why is this so crucial? Because reading "The Philosophy of Composition" makes you see the shortcomings of Hugo's aesthetic.

Poe, too, pointed out the folly of writing a poem about "Autumn Rain," but his advice in "The Philosophy of Composition" is the opposite of Hugo's---who basically says 'make it up as you go.' Without Poe as a counter-balance, poetry descends into a Freudian talking-cure, and the whole discussion becomes frivolous and one-sided. Without an understanding of Poe's "subject," we miss a great deal.


At 1/20/2012 8:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yes, we do miss a great deal if we don't deal with Poe. But after this, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m fine with Poe, and don’t ridicule him, but I also see the value in the poetry that comes from out of what you call the “make it up as you go” school.

And I would want to redefine your definition here a bit. The poetry I’m talking about, from Stein to Hugo (big leap) isn’t a poetry “in which a poem has no subject.” Just because a poem leaves the initiating subject, doesn’t mean it therefore doesn’t have one. It’s just that the poem then becomes something more like an exploration that a thesis. Both are valid ways to make art.

We can have Poe and Ashbery without the world coming to an end. (Or, maybe more accurately, the world will come to an end despite our aesthetic affiliations.)

At 1/20/2012 10:56 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Thanks for the info, Fuzzz. Fuzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. New York's the place to be, eh? I envy you. I'd love to live there awhile--especially if I could move to the Five Points in 1850 and have a cleaver fight with Bill the Butcher. (I just applied for a teaching post in Boston. I'm keeping my eyes crossed.)


Zapruder echoing O'Hara: "I write my poems to communicate with other people...."

I think Carver does say a few things about telephones in Fires. At one point he describes how he wrote "Vitamins"--a great story. He was typing the story when he got a phone call from a black man who was looking for a Nelson. Wrong number. After hanging up, Carver started writing about a sinister black character named Nelson. How's that for "make it up as you go"?

No, Hugo doesn't drop the initiating subject in order to produce poetry with no subject. He drops it in order to find "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."

But Brooks and Warren are full of shit when they ridicule Poe and "Ulalume." Tom's right about that.

At 1/20/2012 10:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think we can pretty much all agree on Brooks and Warren. That was an unfortunate time.

At 1/20/2012 12:37 PM, Blogger David said...

Tom and John,

Perhaps we're confusing Subject and Object. The Object of the poem, its purpose or rationale, for Poe, is Beauty. Hugo doesn't appear to be addressing the Object of the poem, or the province of Poetry. He's addressing the Subject of the poem, what it is about, its theme, and how that comes about in the process of composition. Even so, we find that the evolution of the Subject, for Poe, is sorted out systematically in the pre-composition phase, before pen is put to paper. Most significantly, Poe and Hugo differ in how they approach the triggering subject itself. For Hugo, the triggering subject is "found" in experience, and he considers it crucial that the poem be thus rooted there. For Poe, the triggering subject is for all intents and purposes irrelevant to the composition of the poem:

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance -- or say the necessity -- which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.

The question that I find interesting, is whether and how one or the other of these very different approaches to composition are better suited to the Object of Poetry.

At 1/20/2012 12:44 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi David,

My answer is that neither approach (or any other possible approach that can be imagined) will always be the better suited to the Object of poetry. Universalist thinking in general, in my opinion, doesn’t do well in the production of art.

At 1/24/2012 10:56 AM, Blogger skholiast said...

Long before I had read TTT, I had encountered the idea, just current among the poets I knew, that one often had to write one's way to the "real poem," and that the beginning of what you wrote down would often get discarded, a useful thing for having gotten you "into" the poem but maybe not what you would want to include in the final product. I went for years not consciously attaching this idea to Hugo. So I can only guess that either he was himself articulating something "in the air," or else you are right and his notion named something that was ready to be named and attained influence well beyond any attribution.

As to how to change subjects, the first (then) living poet I really admired, Larry Levis, stunned me with his ability to turn on a dime. Not Language Poetry, to be sure, but still it seemed to me the whole poem would veer in a new direction with the slightest provocation, somehow getting away with it and holding together. I hadn't thought about that in connection with Hugo, but it makes sense.

At 1/24/2012 11:51 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Yeah, the first Levis I read was The Afterlife. Levis's ability to veer and cohere was dumbfounding.

At 1/24/2012 11:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Several young "innovative" poet friends of mine go back to Levis as one of their first loves. He has a position like Dean Young's in that way.

At 1/25/2012 8:46 AM, Blogger Johannes said...

I like this poem. I've never read anything by Hugo, but I'll look into it.


At 1/25/2012 9:09 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

31 Letters and 13 Dreams would be the book you'd probably find the most interesting. It's my favorite of his books, though I wish it had been 31 Dreams and 13 Letters.

At 1/26/2012 8:02 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


To characterize Poe's method as merely "Universalist" is to completely misread him. The Richard Hugo poem has specific items contained within it and 'finding the poem' by riffing off those specific things is all well and good, but Poe's method is, in fact, more open to specificity as well as being more 'universal...'

Poe starts with the division of Truth, Taste, and Passion, with Taste the middle ground connecting the other two, then Beauty as the proper expression of Taste, then the tone melancholy as the best way to express Beauty. 'Too narrow,' we cry. But every popular poem of the 20th century has a sad or melancholy tone, from Prufrock to The Waste Land to Stopping By Woods. The alternative is either light verse or a flat e expressiveness, with very few exceptions. Poe is narrow---but factual. (and universal.)


At 1/26/2012 8:23 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You are misreading my comment. Apologies if I wasn’t being as specific as I might have been.

I wrote this:

“My answer is that neither approach (or any other possible approach that can be imagined) will always be the better suited to the Object of poetry. Universalist thinking in general, in my opinion, doesn’t do well in the production of art.”

When I wrote “universalist” I wasn’t thinking at all of Poe’s method. Far from it! I’ll try the comment again:

“My answer is that neither approach (or any other possible approach that can be imagined) will always be the better suited to the Object of poetry. When we’re thinking about poetic approaches, universalizing an idea—saying that one approach to writing is always going to be a better way—in my opinion, isn’t as helpful as keeping one’s options open.”

I would never call Poe “universalist.” Goodness. I’m not even sure what that would mean.

At 1/26/2012 8:53 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

aIf I remember right, John was replying to a question from David, who'd asked which of two ways of writing poetry was the better. John dismissed the idea that there're right and wrong approaches to poetry as "universalist thinking." Evidently Poe, too, was flexible, no universalist: he called Eureka a poem, though it's neither short nor about the death of a beautiful woman.

"[E]very popular poem of the 20th century has a sad or melancholy tone, from Prufrock to The Waste Land to Stopping By Woods. The alternative is either light verse or a flat e expressiveness, with very few exceptions." Hmm. I doubt that.

By the way, you guys prompted me to dredge up The Afterlife from the depths of an old book box. What a good read. That was when Levis relied heavily on surreal images, before he started writing longer lines with a lot of autobiography in them. "In Captivity": delightfully skittery.

At 1/26/2012 10:30 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Poe called "Eureka" a "poem" soley because of its subject matter: the universe. The absolute extension of the subject matter created the exception to Poe's ideas in "The Philosophy of Composition," which came out prior to "Eureka." Ironically, 'Eureka-as-poem' was a scientific boast.

There's no need to fear the universal.

"Keeping options open." Sure. But we can still have opinions on which theory is better at the present time. We would be silly if we didn't.


Popular poems (which are not light verse) that do not have a sad or melancholy tone...can you think of any?


At 1/26/2012 10:41 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Off the top of my head--there may be better examples:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

At 1/26/2012 4:12 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1/26/2012 4:13 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Thanks for that example, David.

"very beautifully" yea, not really a beautiful poem, and true, not exactly sad, though it does celebrate the small and fragile in a way that *hints* at sadness.

It misses Poe's beauty/melancholy formula precisely because it's closer to the 'passionate' (the natural imagery = sex) than to 'taste' but it's not far off from what Poe was talking about, really.
There is a tinge of melancholy beauty.



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