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Poetry Book Review:

The Triggering Town

by Richard Hugo

the triggering townRichard Hugo was a celebrated poet who was well known mostly in the Northwest where he was from. He taught creative writing for many years at the University of Montana and studied under the iconic Theodore Roethke.

The Triggering Town is Hugo's poetic philosophy in a nutshell. In this book of essays, he reveals himself to be a sensitive person with an eye and an ear for language and shares his insights into how to write poetry for young writers struggling to make it on their own. I wouldn't say it's great, but it's a good read, particularly if you want to learn how to find your own voice.

Hugo's style is unique in that he shuns academic insider talk and isn't afraid to share personal stories and anecdotes. He even shares a few of his own poems later in the book, but the part that I find the most rewarding to read is the first half of the book where he really gets into the essentials of writing bare bones poetry. Hugo's “take no prisoners” approach to writing is well worth a mention in any literary group.

Richard Hugo is witty and exercises brevity in every sentence. His goal is to help writers learn how to teach themselves to write. He starts with the first chapter titled “Writing Off The Subject” in which he lays his cards on the table. In that chapter he tells readers his goal is to get them to write like he does, but their goal is to learn to write like themselves. His emotional honesty is refreshing in the world of literary teaching.

But the real meat of The Triggering Town can be found in the chapters that follow. “The Triggering Town”, “Assumptions”, “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching”, and “Nuts and Bolts" are the chapters that contain the bulk of the teaching material.

The Triggering Town is a metaphor that Hugo uses to illustrate the importance of getting to the real subject. He explains that he imagines himself in a fictional town where he move things around as opposed to making his writing conform to “the truth” - a mistake he says too many beginning writers often make. The “triggering” subject, he teaches, should lead to the real subject of the poem and the poet should not be afraid to go somewhere that she hasn't planned to. And that's the essence of Hugo's poetic, but you have to read The Triggering Town to fully appreciate his teaching philosophy.

In later chapters Hugo discusses his personal life including some anecdotes from when he was in the military and defends the creative writing class as a part of the university curriculum.

Richard Hugo was firmly grounded in the poetics of Postmodern free verse. I think much of what he shares in The Triggering Town is outdated, but it can be instructive for any student of poetry who wants to learn how one author met his muse. There is always something to learn from someone else in any work.

Order your copy of

The Triggering Town
by Richard Hugo


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