808: The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

by Gerard

808.1: Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992, [1979]. 109 pp. ISBN 0-393-30933-9.

The literature (800s) and history (900s) classes of the DDC are perhaps the most Euro-centric. In the 800s, each division (set of ten) is allocated to a region of the world that produces literature. 800 is general books on literature, 810 is American, 820 is British, and–you guessed it–the 890s are reserved for “literature of other parts of the world”, basically anything that isn’t Europe or the US. Today’s book is a general book on poetry and miscellaneous other writing subjects, so it gets 808. This miscellaneous area comes in handy when you have a book with both poems and plays, or essays and letters, or any other combination of writing forms–838 is miscellaneous German writing, 848 is French, and so on.

It occurs to me that I need to make these posts a little bit longer. After ten books, you would think I would have this down by now. But, unfortunately, my thoughts are getting skimpier and skimpier.

I first read Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town when I took a class on advanced poetry writing at Hiram College. We all thought were decent poets until the professor took us down a peg or two with a combination of Hugo’s essays and an encyclopedia of poetry and poetics on the first day. Leave it to an old dog to teach new tricks. Hugo’s essays are a great reality check for the budding poet. His advice is both cheeky and heartfelt. The essays cover not so much what you should do, but rather what you shouldn’t do. He tries to excise the bad habits early in his classes.

The “triggering town” in the title is a landscape that he asks all students to imagine. From this town, you can create residents, landscapes, vignettes, and even whole lives to help with your poetry. In one chapter, he gives assumptions that you can give the town (without ever explicitly stating in the poem) to help give the poem some underlying charge, such as “there is no crime” or “the druggist is an alcoholic.”

I stopped being a poet long ago, but the sentiment of Hugo’s writing still resonates. Some of the chapters are designed to show how certain times in his life helped to structure and beget some of his poems. The essays devoted to his war days in Italy (and subsequent return) are especially poignant. The poems he includes from his work are not the best I’ve ever read, but you can tell a lot of time went into them.

I would wholeheartedly urge young poets to read this book over and over. It will do nothing but help their craft.