November is gone and we’ve still only had a handful of cold nights. It’s rainy now, in the 50’s today, and I’m wondering when winter will settle in. If you’re more in the mood for photos rather than reading, there’s a link for some of my photographs of frost below.
I slide the rough door closed and turn
to see the barn’s black reflection,
its one story and tin roof, laying flat
on the ground, its outline zippering the grass
in half: shadow resting on white frost,
a stiff line against green and sparkling
blades shining in slanted November sun.
My own shadow hides in the barn.
Such a tidy split.
How long has it been since we last spoke,
when we tried to tell each other our own side
of it all, how we felt and why we couldn’t cross
the line each of us imagined? I still don’t
understand. I make a move and grass
crunches under my feet. It will be a cold
winter and soon the frost line won’t move
with the passing of the sun.
In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo’s collection of lectures and essays written from his teaching experiences at the University of Montana in the 1970’s, Hugo discusses the triggering subject of a poem. What gets us to begin writing something down? How does this differ than other forms of writing? Take the news, for example, as Hugo does. He says, “Once you have the information, the words seem unimportant.” But in a poem, the words are key, so much so that “the relation of the words to the subject must weaken and the relation of the words to the writer (you) must take on strength.” Hugo goes on to explain how the selection of words, the choosing and replacing of them with words that nearly mean the same thing but that shift the meaning just so can stretch the poem’s meaning and take you in new directions. He has the words leading the poem, leading us, to new places.
Regardless of what triggers you to jot down a few words, say it’s the sharp division that the frost delineates between the grass in the sun and the grass in the shade that you’ve come across, you have to think about it, mull it over, move away from it and return to it. What else does or can that idea trigger? Why has it appeared now? What does it mean? I agree that you “must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject” as Hugo says, but not necessarily “to the words.” Not entirely. What you have to switch your allegiance to is ideas. Hugo was getting at ideas through the shifting of words.
On my first post, I explained that this blog’s title, “The Quality of Light” is taken from the first sentence of Lorde’s essay, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury.” The sentence reads: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” If we read further into the essay, we find Lorde saying, “I speak here of poetry as the revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover their desperate wish for imagination without insight.”
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Hugo was merely playing with words. He used the manipulation of words to get to the heart of matter, to the ideas behind words, and as he says in his essay that gives the book its title, “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” (15).
So there lies the reason we tend to use the same words over and over. It didn’t bother Hugo that he often used the same words in different poems. He used these words because this is what he was feeling. They were his words, his obsessions. What triggers us to write a poem can be anything. Our obsessions will find their way.
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