Down where the ladders start—that’s where you’ll find the writing workshop of Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. More nakedly than any American poet I know of, Hugo writes about the task and function of poetry from a position of sheer abjection. "The self as given is inadequate and will not do"—that statement stands at the core of his disarmingly ad hoc poetics, outlined in chapters with titles like "Assumptions," "Nuts and Bolts," and "Statements of Faith." At first and probably even second glance he looks like an advocate of confession and the unified lyric "I"—not least because he himself is a compulsive confessor. We learn about his traumatic experiences as a World War II bombardier; we overhear English Department infighting and gossip; and between the lines we discover Hugo as a painfully shy, immature, sexually inhibited, passive-aggressive alcoholic. And if this weren’t embarrassing enough, Hugo also implicates the reader in his vision of the poet as awkward failure.
Borrowing his terms from Hemingway and Faulkner, Hugo characterizes all poets as being either "Krebs" or "Snopes": "In Hemingway’s story, the protagonist, Krebs, by birth and circumstance is an insider. As a result of his experiences in a war and his own sensitivity, he feels alienated and outside. In Faulkner’s story, the protagonist, Snopes, a little boy, by birth and circumstance is an outsider who wants desperately to be in." These are not appetizing choices, but they suggest a number of appalling truths. One is the usually unspoken question of class in American poetry that separates poets into self-deprecating MFA insiders and resentful nonacademic outsiders. Another is the fact that any poet, even the most successful, is likely to feel herself an outsider in a culture where most literate people are cheerfully oblivious to poetry—they literally don’t know what they’re missing.
Hugo’s book is for those who know or suspect that they need poetry, who are—why not admit it?—nearly always poets themselves. That need, that state of abjection, is Hugo’s given, and if you take it as your own, he can teach you how to write a poetry that transcends your inadequate self. Again and again Hugo warns poets against defended writing—against "writing what you know." The central metaphor of "the triggering town" is the jumping-off point, the subject—for Hugo, always a town that has seen better days, "the town [that] will have become your hometown." A piece of the world, something glimpsed from a car window or from inside a bar, is the start of every poem for Hugo.
But the world inevitably sends you to language—to your language: "you are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical deed….Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens." In spite of the relentless repetition of "you" and "your" in this passage, note that it’s the relation of "you to your language" that gains power and not the "you." The implication is that "you" will only discover yourself beyond your givens: "give up what you think you have to say, and you’ll find something better." The "something better" is the poem, but it’s also perhaps a version of the self beyond what you think of yourself and what others think of you. The outsider, Krebs or Snopes, can disappear into the poem if the poet can just "get off the subject, I mean the triggering subject." The self as given is the triggering town: the point of departure. The destination is in the poem.
In spite of his instinctive aesthetic conservatism, Hugo’s insistence on going beyond the self can serve as an imperative for poets to go beyond the mere ratification of subjectivity in their poetry. This stance has the latent pathos—and latent Modernism—of T. S. Eliot’s prescription against personality in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," including its often omitted follow-up sentence: "But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things." Of course this does not mean that Hugo himself did not believe in an authentic "inner self" ("Quest for self is fundamental to poetry," he writes), only that he was persuaded that we cannot access it directly—that experience must lead to language before language can be an experience.
"A good teacher can save a young poet years by simply telling him things he need not waste his time on, like trying to will originality or trying to share an experience in language or trying to remain true to the facts." Like the small towns that have seen better days, for Hugo a given poet’s will, experience, and knowledge of "the facts" are just materials, triggers, with no intrinsic value in the world of the poem. This radical democracy of the given can look like cynicism, just as Hugo’s humility can look like a cunning pose. Actually, it’s a profound faith in the imagination as an intrinsically redemptive force. "It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.... In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout."
The last chapter of The Triggering Town is titled, "How Poets Make a Living" and it takes the form of a story Hugo heard while he was working at Boeing—the only story from his working life Hugo ever put directly into a poem. It was about a homeless man—"the Admiral"—and his wife who were squatters on company land, who were eventually evicted and driven in a truck full of trash ("old pieces of dirty rags, hunks of wood, maybe even stones, anything that might show a hostile world that he was not destitute") to the Monroe Valley, where they were eventually abandoned by the side of the road. It becomes clear by chapter’s end that Hugo identifies with the Admiral—his defiance, his incoherent letters to the management of Boeing, his desperate attempt to make a semblance of life from garbage. There’s a sentimentality here that’s easy to turn away from, but there’s truth, too, about the poet’s human condition and what we must all be prepared to give up—to be good poets, yes, but also simply to be good.
Read at the right angle, The Triggering Town can help bridge the gap that now yawns so wide between a poetry of subjectivity and a poetry that foregrounds the operations of language, that seeks to demonstrate the fragile constructedness of our selves and the world. For Hugo, doing one necessarily leads to the other. "All truth must conform to music" is Hugo’s constructivist gamble, and if that attitude is right, he still has a job to do.