The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo
W.W. Norton, New York, London. 1997 Retail (US):
I freely admit I am a book junkie. I binge-buy books of many sorts, but most usually I start my spending spree on poetry “how-to” books. One thing we bingers start to notice about “how-to” and advice books after buying a few of them is they start to repeat themselves. After all, how many different ways can people explain how to construct a rondeau or give examples of slant rhymes? So for my sisters and brothers with budgets which won’t permit binge-buying frenzies, just find a solid and time-tested guide to writing poetry which includes a goodly amount of poetic forms and samples and you’ll be fine.
But that leads not only to the sad and somewhat lonely sight of a nearly empty bookshelf and perhaps, more seriously, a lack of guidance. Imagine a father showing his child how to ride a bicycle and then not taking hat child places to ride it. All that how-to knowledge and nowhere really to go.
This is why I find books like Richard Hugo’s fine The Triggering Town to be invaluable additions to my sagging bookshelves. Hugo assumes we can pretty much ride a bike. He now guides us on short trips which will open vistas to us which will remain in our memories long after we get home.
The nine chapters in The Triggering Town contain material Hugo taught as the director of the creative writing program at the University of Montana in Missoula, USA. His voice comes through quite clearly and several times as I read I felt I was sitting in a class or workshop.
To be clear: there is very little “how-to” information in The Triggering Town. Despite one chapter being entitled “Nuts and Bolts,” the training wheels are assumed to be off at the point a writer reads this book. I don’t agree with Donald Hall’s blurb on the front cover which states this book is of use mainly for “beginning writers.” Learning writers, certainly, and if one isn’t learning, one isn’t growing. One need not be new to grow.
And growth is what Richard Hugo fosters in this excellent compact book. Besides Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual, I own no other short book on poetry writing which I will re-read and refer to as often as The Triggering Town. Ricard Hugo walks beside us as we go down the path of his writing process. Why do particular images – the town which triggers ideas for poems, say – strike us as worthy of repeated thought? Which words are best to use when writing about such places and the people, events, and objects which inhabit them? How true must a poet be in her recounting of this town’s past? All these questions and many more are covered in Hugo’s flowing thoughts. If nothing else, The Triggering Town will provide fuel to help you on your journey as a writer.
Two jouneys Hugo took to Italy, one as a young soldier in World War II and a return trip with hs wife in the 1960s are recounted in detail in the book’s longest chapter, and, while the rest of The Triggering Town is very helpful and, at times, quite witty, Hugo becomes a wonderful storyteller at this point in his book. I felt like I was listening to him speak as he recounted his experiences during the war and his return to an Italy transformed. His power of description is on full display and the poems he wrote of is experiences in Italy which are included in the chapter are magical. Of note, we see that a master craftsman like Richard Hugo knows when to bend or break rules he set up for his students and readers earlier in this book.