August 12, 2016

Triggering the Poem


Poet Richard Hugo believed that we’ve written every poem we ever loved. He said that he was particularly proud of having written Yeats’ poem Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.”

The Dodge Poetry Festival blog has asked several poets "What great poem are you proud of having written?" One of my first professors of poetry, Alicia Ostriker, said she was "I’m pretty proud of having written Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear. Maria Mazziotti Gillan answered, "I am proud to have written 'somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond' by E.E. Cummings. I often recite it to myself when I’m driving or walking and I find it very comforting. I think it is one of the most beautiful love poems I have ever read."


In his book of poetics, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo offers a series of essays about what triggers poems.

He argues against the often heard idea that a writer should “write what you know.” Instead, he suggests an approach to poetry based on triggering subjects and words.

In one essay, he explains triggering subjects, using the example of towns, as points of entry into the realm of the imagination.

Again, opposing the write-what-you-know, he suggests that new poets might try to own an imagined, or barely-known, town, rather than trying to convey their actual hometown. That hometown, he feels, may be one in which “the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns.” Then, the poet can focus on the play and music of the language.

At this point, the poet's private language, personal connections and certain words that have rich associations for the poet can move the poem forward.
“Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feel­ings, that triggering town chooses you. 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.”
Hugo's book is not about writing prompts, but it does offer a lot of advice. Here are some examples:
  1. “Don’t write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn’t be changed. 
  2. Write in a hard-covered notebook with green lined pages. Green is easy on the eyes. Blank white pages seems to challenge you to create the world before you start writing. It may be true that you, the modern poet, must make the world as you go, but why be reminded of it before you even have one word on the page?
  3. Don’t erase. Cross out rapidly and violently, never with slow consideration if you can help it.
  4. Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  5. Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.
  6. Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: One.  
  7. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
We might choose one of Hugo's more obvious "town" poems such as "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" or "Glen Uig" as examples of his "triggering town" approach. But I chose his poem "The Church On Comiaken Hill."

As with this month's writing prompt, the title is the trigger. In this case, the trigger is a place.

In the poem, we explore the place, both by seeing what the poet saw, and what no one can see with their eyes - such as the Indians who were once there.

I did a simple search and found that real church. You don't need the history to understand the poem, but the history does help you see why it triggered the poem.

Your assignment this month is first to tell us up front in your title what it was that triggered the poem. Second, your poem needs to begin rather literally with that triggering person, place or thing, but then it needs to move beyond that to things we would not know even if we encountered that trigger. It should be two stanzas.

Of course, that second stanza is what makes it your poem. It contains what it triggered in you that might not be triggered in any other poet.

The submission deadline for this prompt is September 7, 2016.

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