I felt that way when I began an MFA in Creative Writing program in the 1990’s. I was at a loss as to why my fellow students kept mentioning “Hugo.” It was “Hugo this” and “Hugo that.” I broke down and asked one of the professors, “Why does everyone keep talking about Victor Hugo?”
If you’re a fan of 20th century poetry, you’re probably laughing at me (good-naturedly, of course).
The other students weren’t talking about Victor Hugo, the 19th century French author of Les Miserables. They were talking about Richard Hugo, a poet, teacher and literary theorist from the Pacific Northwest. I’d never heard of him.
I had a solid background in European literature, especially Romantic and Victorian poetry, but I knew very little about poets of the twentieth century, except for poets associated with feminism, like Plath and Sexton and Rich, and a few other New England poets. Richard Hugo had not been on my radar.
Soon, I was reading his book, The Triggering Town, a collection of essays and lectures on poetry. Hugo’s overarching thesis was that rather than “writing what you know,” poets should open themselves to the unknown via triggering subjects. His approach had a spiritual element to it, as represented in the following passage:
“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.”
Sadly, I was never able to enter fully into conversations about R. Hugo. I found him difficult to comprehend, but I did understand about being moved to write by an encounter with the unfamiliar, and writing about the unfamiliar by imagining yourself into that unfamiliar space.
Where I stopped following Hugo’s logic, though, was in his suggestion that the poet’s relation to the triggering subject should weaken. I was committed to the opposite: immersion.
This probably had something to do with my intense admiration of persona poems, or dramatic monologues, in which the poet takes on the identity and voice of another. Examples include “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning and “The Kid” by Ai.
Years later, when I lived in Maine, a very old woman told me the story of a black walnut tree that grew in her front yard. I was enchanted by the tree, the story, the woman, and the way she represented an archetypal Maine figure: independent, resilient, crotchety. The woman and her story were the triggers for the following poem, originally published in my poetry collection Back East.
He offered us a thousand bucks
for all — the trunk and limbs and roots —
of our black walnut. It didn’t arch
above our roof as it does now.
He wouldn’t tell us why, or how
he’d haul it out, a monstrous job
if you consider how the roots
extend their feelers underground,
mirroring the walnut’s crown.
We told him no, and when he bent
to crack a fallen nut, we warned
him of the stain. He didn’t listen.
With a skull-sized rock, he split it open.
His handprint, darker than the door-
yard mud in spring, still gripped the front
porch rail the year he came again.
We watched him through the window then.
He lay his hands along the trunk
as if he thought himself a healer,
and we mistrusted him more. We couldn’t
ask why he wanted what we wouldn’t
sell. We don’t meet others halfway,
or go beyond the wall out there
where some glacier gave up and left us rocks.