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The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing

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Richard Hugo was that rare phenomenon of American letters—a distinguished poet who was also an inspiring teacher. The Triggering Town is Hugo's now-classic collection of lectures, essays, and reflections, all "directed toward helping with that silly, absurd, maddening, futile, enormously rewarding activity: writing poems." Anyone, from the beginning poet to the mature writ Richard Hugo was that rare phenomenon of American letters—a distinguished poet who was also an inspiring teacher. The Triggering Town is Hugo's now-classic collection of lectures, essays, and reflections, all "directed toward helping with that silly, absurd, maddening, futile, enormously rewarding activity: writing poems." Anyone, from the beginning poet to the mature writer to the lover of literature, will benefit greatly from Hugo's sayd, playful, profound insights and advice concerning the mysteries of literary creation.


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Richard Hugo was that rare phenomenon of American letters—a distinguished poet who was also an inspiring teacher. The Triggering Town is Hugo's now-classic collection of lectures, essays, and reflections, all "directed toward helping with that silly, absurd, maddening, futile, enormously rewarding activity: writing poems." Anyone, from the beginning poet to the mature writ Richard Hugo was that rare phenomenon of American letters—a distinguished poet who was also an inspiring teacher. The Triggering Town is Hugo's now-classic collection of lectures, essays, and reflections, all "directed toward helping with that silly, absurd, maddening, futile, enormously rewarding activity: writing poems." Anyone, from the beginning poet to the mature writer to the lover of literature, will benefit greatly from Hugo's sayd, playful, profound insights and advice concerning the mysteries of literary creation.

30 review for The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jacob

    I want to write: that books about creative writing and the process of writing are stupid, are wasted breath, are an attempt at systemitizing something that is best left to its own devices. I want to write: that my copy of this book is worn and yellow; that this book is treated like a bible by so many creative writing professors and boy, do I have the photocopied readers to prove it; that my heart sometimes hurts and I wonder if I'll die young; that I like wandering through cemeteries in the spri I want to write: that books about creative writing and the process of writing are stupid, are wasted breath, are an attempt at systemitizing something that is best left to its own devices. I want to write: that my copy of this book is worn and yellow; that this book is treated like a bible by so many creative writing professors and boy, do I have the photocopied readers to prove it; that my heart sometimes hurts and I wonder if I'll die young; that I like wandering through cemeteries in the spring; that I'm good at pissing people off; that this book has nothing to do with writing or a lot to do with writing; that to surround a subject with words is similar to meticulously building a model village out of wood, gluing each piece in place, painting and sanding every little detail with a delicate and obsessive amount of care, until what emerges is a flawless miniature and then proceeding to burn it down. Instead, I am going to write: that I read this book on a hot summer day on a farm outside of Fresno, sitting in the shade near a horse pasture while yellow jackets buzzed my sweaty forehead and men with permanent sunburns played horse shoes and drank Bud Light nearby.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    "A lot of students today would rather not learn Milton than be made to feel inferior because they didn't already know his work. That makes academics sound petty. But damn it, some of them are petty." And damn it, what better way to have a resound of Hugo's voice and lectures, than through this single, cogent quote?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brandon

    In the introduction, Richard Hugo observes that there is this "notion that the writer's problems are literary," which he counter-acts with his own theory: "In truth, the writer's problems are usually psychological, like everyone else's." This is the humble idea of the book. People aren't special because they are poets, poets are special because they are people. And Hugo spends his time exploring not just the poetic craft, but the emotional and psychological underbelly from which poems are birthe In the introduction, Richard Hugo observes that there is this "notion that the writer's problems are literary," which he counter-acts with his own theory: "In truth, the writer's problems are usually psychological, like everyone else's." This is the humble idea of the book. People aren't special because they are poets, poets are special because they are people. And Hugo spends his time exploring not just the poetic craft, but the emotional and psychological underbelly from which poems are birthed. Poems, for both the reader and especially the writer, become devices to explore the things we cannot otherwise dredge up from the soul. He begins with the "triggering" subject of a poem is the initial inspiration: A rattlesnake, a forest brook, a busy airport. We start here, and then travel from this "town" into something deeper. The subject transfers from the trigger to the real or generated subject. The poet says discovers something, or generates some meaning, consciously or not. The real magic of the book is later. He tells a story from high school of a kid who had written an honest experience that "could have gotten him thrown out of most classes in the school." But his teach had a different response: "McKensie broke the silence with applause. She raved approval, and we realized we had just heard a special moment in a person's life, offered in honesty and generosity, and we better damn well appreciate it. It may have been the most important lesson one can teach. You are someone and you have a right to your life. Too simple? Already covered by the Constitution? Try to find someone who teaches it. Try to find a student who knows it so well he or she doesn't need it confirmed." (p65) This idea that "you are someone" is extended. Not only are you someone, but who you are and how you feel about yourself are the key shapers of your poetry: Behind several theories of what happens to a poet during the writing of a poem--Elliot's escape from personality, Keat's idea of informing and filling another body, Yeats's notion of the mask, Auden's concept of the poet becoming someone elese for the during of the poem, Valery's idea of a self superior to the self--lies the implied assumption that the self as given is inadequate and will not do. How you feel about yourself is probably the most important feeling you have. It colors all other feelings, and if you are a poet, it colors your writing. It may account for your writing. (p67) Hugo writes humbly, honestly, and sincerely. He bemoans all the conflicting advice given to poets and speaks with a voice of maturity: "I've been seriously advised to take drugs, to avoid drugs, to eat only seafood, to live on welfare, to stop drinking (good advice it turned out), to drink more (at one time an impossibility), to avoid sex, to pursue sex, to read philosophy, to avoid philosophy. Once someone told me I should master every verse form known to man. A poet is seldom hard up for advice. The worst part of it all is that sometimes the advice is coming from other poets, who should know better." (p100) He avoids the fantastical, and comes across as a very readable, down-to-earth, thoughtful sort of person in touch with his emotions. This book transcends the poetic and would be helpful to anyone seeking to explore their inner self. More Quotes: "I've seen the world tell us with wars and real estate developments and bad politics and odd court decisions that our lives don't matter. That may be because we are too many....Maybe the narcissism academics condemn in creative writers is but a last reaching for a kind of personal survival. Anyway, as a sound psychoanalyst once remarked to me dryly, narcissism is difficult to avoid. When we are told in dozens of insidious ways that our lives don't matter, we may be forced to insist, often far too loudly, that they do. A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters. Your life matters, all right. It is all you've got for sure, and without it you are dead." (p65) "The words should not serve the subject. The subject should serve the words. This may mean violating the facts. For example, if the poem needs the word "black" at some point and the grain elevator is yellow, the grain elevator may have to be black in the poem. You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything." (p6) "As Bill Kittredge, my colleague who teaches fiction writing, has pointed out: if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self." (p7) "If I had to limit myself to one criticism of academics it would be this: they distrust their responses. They feel that if a response can't be defended intellectually, it lacks validity. One literature professor I know was asked as he left a movie theater if he had liked the movie, and he replied, "I'm going to have to go home and think about it." What he was going to think about is not whether he liked the movie, but whether he could defend his response to it. If he decided he couldn't, presumably he'd hide his feelings or lie about them." (p62) "I suppose I haven't done anything but demonstrated how I came to write a poem, shown what turns me on, or used to, and how, at least for me, what does turn me on lies in a region of myself that could not be changed by the nature of my employment." (p109) "Let's drop the phrase "as a poet." As a person, I simply like teaching in a university better than working in an aircraft factory." (p109) "What adult would dream of writing a poem?" (p109) "No job accounts for the impulse to find and order those bits and pieces of yourself that can come out only in the most unguarded moments, in the wildest, most primitive phrases we shout alone at the mirror. And no job modifies that impulse or destroys it." (p109)

  4. 5 out of 5

    M. Sarki

    This book was included in a list I published for Christmas gifts. I named it one of the best books I had read in 2010. A name like Richard Hugo will not sound a familiar chord with young readers, will it? Even I never heard of him until I embarked on an extensive study of the works and life of Raymond Carver. Interesting story in itself, this study of Raymond Carver. You do know Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life has everything to do with that infamous literary giant by the name of Gordon Lish, don This book was included in a list I published for Christmas gifts. I named it one of the best books I had read in 2010. A name like Richard Hugo will not sound a familiar chord with young readers, will it? Even I never heard of him until I embarked on an extensive study of the works and life of Raymond Carver. Interesting story in itself, this study of Raymond Carver. You do know Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life has everything to do with that infamous literary giant by the name of Gordon Lish, don't you? Always does. With anything I do. Seems Lish is everywhere in my work, and for good reason.

  5. 4 out of 5

    S.B. Wright

    One of those books that came along at the right time for me. The more I engage with the study of poetry the more I learn the different ways you can approach poetry. The beginning chapters of the book were brilliant especially if you've been writing poetry for a couple of years and have the basics under your belt. The later chapters which were more autobiographical were interesting.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ken

    At turns humorous and serious, The Triggering Town is a mix of poetry advice, poet's experience, and poet's personality. A nice mix. I'll post some of his more interesting pieces of advice for writers of poetry soon. I tracked some of his "nuts and bolts" (read: rules of thumb) about poetry writing here: https://kencraftpoetry.wordpress.com/... If you write poetry, you might give them a look. Even these do not give his rules full justice, however, as I omit his elaborations and such. If you're a t At turns humorous and serious, The Triggering Town is a mix of poetry advice, poet's experience, and poet's personality. A nice mix. I'll post some of his more interesting pieces of advice for writers of poetry soon. I tracked some of his "nuts and bolts" (read: rules of thumb) about poetry writing here: https://kencraftpoetry.wordpress.com/... If you write poetry, you might give them a look. Even these do not give his rules full justice, however, as I omit his elaborations and such. If you're a true student of the trade, you might want to check the book out.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tuck

    i didn't realize how fucking brilliant hugo was. no wonder i like his proteges so much, william kitredge, jim harrison, james welch, m l smoke, ron carlson,....

  8. 4 out of 5

    Alec Lurie

    Don’t waste your time. Here’s a quick summary: “Poetry has no rules! Be bold and willing to fail! ...Unless your poems suck. Here’s a list of things that disqualify you from being a good poet...”

  9. 4 out of 5

    Russell13013

    Best when it strays from its subject, which is fitting I suppose. Still, coming to it as I did out of concern over my bewilderment and skepticism about the act of reading poetry, I found it strangely disheartening that this book only confirmed my suspicions and forgave my ineptitude. Poems, for Hugo, are not about communication, at least not with others. He presents a moving depiction of the act of writing poetry as an engagement of and with that dark, elusive and inarticulable void most particu Best when it strays from its subject, which is fitting I suppose. Still, coming to it as I did out of concern over my bewilderment and skepticism about the act of reading poetry, I found it strangely disheartening that this book only confirmed my suspicions and forgave my ineptitude. Poems, for Hugo, are not about communication, at least not with others. He presents a moving depiction of the act of writing poetry as an engagement of and with that dark, elusive and inarticulable void most particular to ourselves and most common to all. That depiction, though, is strongest in his prose, where we can share in the struggle and the triumph, in the humanity. The lesson I take away is that we should write poetry to learn and become ourselves, but if we want to share that self or save others time in finding their own, it's to prose (or maybe "public language poetry") we must turn. Having written this, I'm not sure I mean it, but if I did take away anything from this book, it's that a provisional position is a better place to start than no place at all.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jsavett1

    I read these lessons in one sitting. I'm incredibly thankful to my main poetry reader friend for introducing me to Hugo's essay "The Triggering Town." The first essay in this book "Writing Off The Subject" might be the most informative and inspirational lesson I've been taught about writing poetry well. I recommend this book to poets who consider themselves a bit further along than "beginning," though of course, we're always beginning again and again. I say this only because Hugo's challenges and I read these lessons in one sitting. I'm incredibly thankful to my main poetry reader friend for introducing me to Hugo's essay "The Triggering Town." The first essay in this book "Writing Off The Subject" might be the most informative and inspirational lesson I've been taught about writing poetry well. I recommend this book to poets who consider themselves a bit further along than "beginning," though of course, we're always beginning again and again. I say this only because Hugo's challenges and the implications of his approach require a level of artistry already informed and steeped in some of the more foundational "dos" of poetry writing like showing not telling, writing for the senses, and finding the large in the small. Being "arrogant enough to follow the music" takes some time. I believe Hugo's book will forever change my writing. I can't recommend it highly enough. ******* Just reread this book and it was just as helpful and revelatory as it was the first time. Amazing.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Susan Toy

    There is such a raw honesty to Hugo's writing, and to his instruction, that is very different and refreshing from many of the contemporary authors I've read in this past year or so. I knew of Hugo, because I had read and enjoyed his only mystery, "Death and the Good Life," when it was reissued posthumously by Clark City Press. This has remained one of my favourite novels since then and I reread on a regular basis. So, as soon as I discovered that Norton was reissuing "The Triggering Town," I sna There is such a raw honesty to Hugo's writing, and to his instruction, that is very different and refreshing from many of the contemporary authors I've read in this past year or so. I knew of Hugo, because I had read and enjoyed his only mystery, "Death and the Good Life," when it was reissued posthumously by Clark City Press. This has remained one of my favourite novels since then and I reread on a regular basis. So, as soon as I discovered that Norton was reissuing "The Triggering Town," I snapped it up and have finally had a chance to sit and savour the book. I have underlined a great deal of the text, because what Hugo says of learning about, and teaching, creative writing makes sense to me. While most of his instruction covers the writing of poetry specifically, much of it holds true for writing in general - and also for living the life of a writer. Excellent book! This will remain on my shelf for a very long time.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    My husband thought it odd that I was laughing while reading a book on poetry. But Hugo is really funny! How refreshing. Very gratifying to hear him explicate ideas I had been mulling over much less eloquently (trying not to let it go to my head). My copy is a used one, marked up by the previous readers--at first I thought it a hindrance, but then I began to like it. Like reading it in a class, I got a couple other opinions on the book. A real treat.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Helen Losse

    This is a book I return to again and again. By reading this book, I learned to trust myself to become a poet.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Hank Early

    What an odd and wonderful little book. A lot of insight here, not just for writing, but for life. My favorite bit: "It doesn't surprise me at all when the arrogant wild man in class turns in predictable, unimaginative poems and the straight one is doing nutty and promising work. If you are really strange you are always in enemy territory, and your constant concern is survival."

  15. 5 out of 5

    A.M. O'Malley

    Wow. I never knew Richard Hugo was so funny. In the first chapter I knew I was in for a treat when he wrote of poems "Assuming you can write clear English sentences, give up all worry about communication.If you want to communicate, use the telephone." He has proceeded to engage me and help me in my own path in writing. Definitely worth owning and marking illuminating passages.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kat

    Absolutely essential reading for poets and writers! Hugo offers a truly unique perspective that stands out from the many other "how to write a poem" books.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Shashi Martynova

    восхитительная коллекция высказываний о поэзии и ее писании человека одновременно остроумного, великодушного и очень цельного. всю исчиркала карандашом. в каждом абзаце есть идеальные фразы.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gary McDowell

    Getting ready to teach this.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Emilia

    The exercise in Chapter 4 really did help me write one of my best poems.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Julie Christine

    Blowin' my mind again. Review to come.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Genevieve

    Richard Hugo inspires boldness, encourages perseverance, and promotes self-awareness in the pursuit of good creative writing in his craft book, The Triggering Town. As a prolific poet and professor, Hugo’s lectures and essays draw from his background in poetry, but when he writes “poet,” we can easily substitute “writer” because writers of all genres can learn from him. On the very first page of his book, Hugo writes about two attitudes all writers carry to the page: “all music must conform to t Richard Hugo inspires boldness, encourages perseverance, and promotes self-awareness in the pursuit of good creative writing in his craft book, The Triggering Town. As a prolific poet and professor, Hugo’s lectures and essays draw from his background in poetry, but when he writes “poet,” we can easily substitute “writer” because writers of all genres can learn from him. On the very first page of his book, Hugo writes about two attitudes all writers carry to the page: “all music must conform to truth, [or] all truth must conform to music.” A piece of creative writing, whether it be a villanelle, flash fiction story, or personal essay is a work of art that takes craftsmanship, or music, but is often, at least in some small way, born out of experience, or truth. Hugo encourages the poet to stray as far from the truth as she can, to keep truth at the center of the poem, but to divorce the facts when the language demands it. This same advice could be applied to fiction writers, but creative nonfiction provides a different challenge. Nonfiction writers are married, and must stay married, to the truth and the facts; we must make our truth conform to music, not the other way around. Hugo writes extensively about the importance of developing a voice for writers throughout his craft book. He tells us, “[our] obsessions lead [us] to [our] vocabulary. [Our way of writing locates, even creates, [our] inner life. The relation of [us] to [our] language gains power.” For all writers, especially nonfiction writers, our lives are our writing well. Much like a water well, we cast down the bucket and draw up experiences and conversations that spark new writing projects, bringing with them a bucket full of words, ideas about structure, methods of approach, and rules we’ve learned or unlearned. Our voice, Hugo seems to suggest, is born from our relationship to the music of language. On the vein of one’s “writing process,” Hugo, again, focuses on the individual. He encourages us to find what works for us, that “once [we] have a certain amount of accumulated technique, [we] can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally [ours] will stay with [us].” He promotes the idea that there is no “luck” in the process of writing, that writing is a skill, just like shooting a basketball. Hugo supports the idea that if we write often we will stay “in shape” and the hard work will pay off, maybe not in the first essay/poem/story, but it will, eventually. Ultimately, this book is an encouragement to all writers to keep pursuing creative writing, to allow ourselves to recognize that we own our stories and that, alone, is reason enough to put them down on paper.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ian Casey

    A poet is seldom hard up for advice. The worst part of it all is that sometimes the advice is coming from other poets, and they ought to know better. Such is the amusingly self-aware advice offered by the poet Richard Hugo in this, his collection of essays and lectures about poetry and (mainly creative) writing. It's not intended as a structured textbook, nor is any advice intended as definitive. It's simply a diverse and thoroughly engaging collection of thoughts and insights into the subject fr A poet is seldom hard up for advice. The worst part of it all is that sometimes the advice is coming from other poets, and they ought to know better. Such is the amusingly self-aware advice offered by the poet Richard Hugo in this, his collection of essays and lectures about poetry and (mainly creative) writing. It's not intended as a structured textbook, nor is any advice intended as definitive. It's simply a diverse and thoroughly engaging collection of thoughts and insights into the subject from an experienced poet, teacher, and human being. The subject matter ranges from the micro to the macro. One one end of the scale, it goes to the extent of discussing what type of notebook is to be preferred. On the other, the longest chapter in the book is a touching recollection of Hugo's time as a bomber tailgunner in Italy during World War II, and his return there two decades later. It is worthy purely as a short memoir, but also as a means for discussing its impact on his poetry, with examples of poems directly attempting to capture those experiences. As a stimulant to the neurons of beginning poets and writers, or another perspective for those more experienced, this book succeeds admirably even some four decades after publication.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Brian Murray

    Hugo's collection on writing craft and the life of the artist is not only peculiar, but almost singular in how contradictory it can be. It is a text constantly at odds with itself, but one that somehow makes its clashing lessons essential through its lyricism and ability to inspire rather than merely instruct. Definitely one of the odder books on writing, but one I can happily recommend.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Monique

    An interesting little book that starts out feeling as if one is in a writing class and can be a little off-putting if one isn't really interested in being in a writing class, but I found it more interesting as it turned into more of a memoir and since I'm trying to learn about memoir writing, I found it interesting.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Savannah Porter

    The first half of the book was fine - full of witty remarks about his (Richard Hugo) own style of writing poetry and a few notable lines of encouragement and advice. The second half was garbage. In other words, if you're really scraping for some sarcastic poetry advice, sure - read the first half of Richard Hugo's Triggering Town. If not, don't.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    This got me writing poetry after the second chapter. The first several chapters are a wealth of ideas. Once I started writing, I looked at poetry in a new way. Hugo has a wonderful tone, he's fun and inspiring. He's a legit poet on his own too.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ash Tray

    I’m not a big fan of poetry, but I have definitely learned a lot about life with it

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ingrid Nelson

    Some very interesting things in this book, though the author seems like he was a very unpleasant and misogynistic person.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Wendy Wagner

    A love story to words and to living and to being something more true than we usually get a chance to be.

  30. 5 out of 5

    David Olsen

    Great book on how (not) to approach poetry. Very helpful.

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