Thursday, March 24, 2011

Trigger, Treasure, Shadow

A now-dead poet named Richard Hugo wrote a little book many years ago called The Triggering Town. One of the main points of Hugo's book is that writers (poets, but we can apply the concept to all creative writing, I think) often create good poems by having it in the back of their minds that their "triggering subject," the idea they start with in a poem, is not really the true subject of the poem they are writing, and that the writing itself will lead, if one is fortunate and sufficiently inspired, to the "generated subject." So, as I have emphasized elsewhere on this site, writing is a process of discovery, and we should not hold too tightly to our initial ideas as we write, but keep ourselves open to discovery.

Billy Collins, former Poet laureate, wrote an essay called "My Grandfather's Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry," in which he cites Hugo, but also goes into further detail about the problems of staying too close to memory and not allowing imagination room to take over in the poem. The "generated subject," in Collins' language, is the "treasure," which one finds via the triggering subject's "map."

(I offer those alternate metaphors because I think your effort to internalize the concept depends on being able to invest in the right metaphor; and having considered Hugo's mixed metaphor of "triggering" and generated," you might find Collins' "map and treasure" more compelling. But really, the way to possess an idea on your own is to give it your own metaphorical frame. What is it for you?)

Collins, in his essay, goes on to discuss a particular poem that he feels is too caught up in the literal business of memory, failing to launch itself beyond mere memory into the space of imagination; in other words, that is in Collins' earlier words, the "map" does not lead to "treasure." Or according to Hugo's main metaphor, the trigger doesn't fire. Here are some of the more useful words from Collins' critique (without the poor poem he's politely leveling):

"There is no call to read the lines again," Collins asserts; which, I think, indicates that a good piece of writing does indeed demand re-reading, or what I sometimes call "reading backwards" -- we get to the end, and trace back to where we encountered moments of meaning in the work that are transformed by our experience of the whole.

"Even a poem based on a past event can give a feeling of immediacy if it manages to convey an awareness that it exists in the present tense of its own unfolding -- an awareness, ultimately, of its own language." Now, this is an assertion that does a few things. First, to create a simple matrix from it: a good piece of writing that works from specific remembered experience will of course present something of the past, but it will also create something of the "immediate," or the felt present. It helps, I think, to have a matrix positioned in your mind as your write; a continuum between one thing and another, to create a space within which your thoughts can seek their ultimate form. Think of it as the need for both a positive and a negative pole, as with electricity.

But also, in Collins' words above, there is a kind of figuration going on: the poem is a thing with consciousness, and not merely a reflection or transcription of consciousness.  At least, it seems that way to me. That is shamanistic silliness, on one level, but I think most people with creative spirit tend to animate things ad relations in the world around them. It is non-rational, but it is a legitimate activity of the mind. And here, it is not merely a figure, a metaphor or personification, but a necessary sense that in a poem (or other inspired writing), we spark into existence something distinct from our own minds, though contained within our own minds. The poem or writing seems to have an awareness of itself; going beyond what Collins says, the writing communicates with itself, which, to return to the matrix concept, is what happens when conceptual relations multiply as we work, and many nodes of response are established, overlapping, creating a network of reverberations within and beyond the writing. Allusion is one way a poem or other text sends and receives signals from beyond itself; but as I think Collins means, it is also something deep down in the words themselves: the etymologies, the sounds of consonants and syllabus, the stresses, the pauses, the rhythms, and so forth. A creative work taps into the archetypal dimension, and much of what it touches is not even known to the writer or reader; that's why a good work beckons us to read again, and again, and to share it with others, whose readings will resonate with ours, but also expand and compete with our own understanding.

Here, Collins gos even further with the animation of the poem:

A poem about a past experience can transcend the mere circumstances of its triggering event through many different kinds of maneuvers. The poem may turn down an alley into another part of the poem's town; it may develop a disproportionate interest in some feature of itself; it may get sick of its own reminiscence and throw up its hands., a poem even has hands! (We already knew it had feet, from studying prosody). But in particular, Collins emphasizes another key part of Hugo's conception: that within the poem, or within our efforts to create the poem, there is a dynamic space (the matrix, or the town if you prefer some comfort and familiar sights), and the creative act is an intrepid exploration of that space -- going somewhere in the poem, even when it starts in an act of memory, that we have not visited before. "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," as Robert Frost said.

When writing, then, find a way to "turn down an alley"; the main road might be your memory of your father or mother, of a frightening experience, a lost love, etc.; but find where, in that memory, there is a secret trapdoor, pathway, crawlspace, wormhole, closet, treasure chest, or whatever metaphor works for you. You might still, on one level, be writing about your triggering subject; but you'll perhaps find a way to escape a mere replay of the memory; you'll find the immediacy of experience, in the writing itself, which will make it more likely that the reader will find it, too.

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