Talking Craft || The Triggering Subject in Poems and other Genres

My editor gave me some books to read to expand my views. He recommended I look at Richard Hugo’s  The Triggering Town. I found the advise given useful not just for poetry. I thought to list a few things from his essay in the book: Writing Off The Subject that I selected for my study and perusal.


Causes and The Triggering Subject


A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning  of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.

My Own Thoughts

The image I created for the blog on the top of the side bar summarizes my thinking:  “Everything is a path leading to something other than itself.” I think that that works for many aspects of life not just poetry. So many times in life the path we commit to leads us places we didn’t conceive at the onset. When it comes to writing whether a novel, short story, poem, prose poem, there are things to consider:

  1. How do we represent the journey ? – a sequence of events, feelings , images, voices, actions or some admixture of the aforementioned ?
  2. What techniques do we employ in writing to add dimensionality to what we are writing

There are many more questions to be asked but for me in the back of my mind when I write my stuff, I like to jump off from the triggering subject and dance all around things. Usually it’s not till after a few edits, that I see the real subject of the poem or the writing. There is still much for me to learn in how to jump from the triggering subject.  Here is an example of a poem from Seamus Heaney that jumps well (taken from his poem “Lightenings”)

Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light 
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep 
A beggar shivering in silhouette. 

So the particular judgement might be set: 
Bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into- 
Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams. 

And after the commanded journey, what? 
Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown. 
A gazing out from far away, alone. 

And it is not particular at all, 
Just old truth dawning: there is no next-time-round. 
Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind. 

I find its interesting how each line presents us with a new  image also. Sometimes what is interesting to do in a poem whether one being read or written is to list sequentially the nouns in the poem. In this case we would have: brilliances, light, doorway, doorstep beggar silhouette, judgement wallstead, heart puddle, cloud life. As we continue throughout he poem the scope widens and widens. The distance from the beginning image of shifting brilliances has become vast,


That’s it


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