The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing | Chapter 16 of 28 - Part: 1 of 10

Author: Richard Hugo | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 2661 Views | Add a Review

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Nuts and Bolts


THAT’S WHAT these are. Nuts and bolts. My nuts and bolts. For me they helped, or once helped, and some still do. I’m stating them as rules, but of course they are no more than suggestions—I find the axiomatic tone preferable to a lot of qualifiers. If these work for you, good.

Use number 2 pencils. Get a good pencil sharpener and sharpen about twenty pencils. When one is dull, grab another.

Don’t write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn’t be changed.

Pen or pencil, write with what gives you the most sensual satisfaction. When I said use number 2 pencils, I was really saying that when I use number 2 pencils I feel good putting words on paper.

Write in a hard-covered notebook with green lined pages. Green is easy on the eyes. Blank white paper seems to challenge you to create the world before you start writing. It may be true that you, the modern poet, must make the world as you go, but why be reminded of it before you even have one word on the page? The lines tend to want words. Blank paper begs to be left alone. The best notebooks I’ve found are National 43–581.

Don’t erase. Cross out rapidly and violently, never with slow consideration if you can help it.

When young it’s normal to fear losing a good line or phrase and never finding anything comparable again. Carry a small pocket-size notebook and jot down lines and phrases as they occur. This may or may not help you write good poems, but it can help reduce your anxiety.

Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things. When the poem starts, things should already have happened. (Note: White unlined paper gives you the feeling nothing has happened.) If Yeats had begun “Leda and the Swan” with Zeus spotting Leda and getting an erection, Yeats would have been writing a report.

When rewriting, write the entire poem again. If something has gone wrong deep in the poem, you may have taken a wrong turn earlier. The next time through the poem you may spot the wrong path you took. If you take another, when you reach the source of your dissatisfaction it may no longer be there. To change what’s there is difficult because it is boring. To find the right other is exciting.

If you want to change what’s there, use the same words and play with the syntax:

This blue lake still has resolve.

This lake still blue with resolve


By playing with the syntax we’ve dropped a weak verb and left the sentence open with a chance for a stronger one. But maybe you can’t find a stronger verb, or you still want to end the sentence:

This lake’s still blue with resolve.


You may object that the meaning has changed, that you are no longer saying what you want to say. Never want to say anything so strongly that you give up the option of finding something better. If you have to say it, you will.

Sometimes the wrong word isn’t the one you think it is but another close by. If annoyed with something in the poem, look to either side of it and see if that isn’t where the trouble is. You can seldom be certain of the source of your annoyance, only that you are annoyed. Sometimes you may feel dissatisfied without justification. The poem may be as good as it will get. Often a word is not right but very close: dog—hog, gill—gull, hen—hun.

When you feel a poem is finished, print it. The time needed to print a word is a hair longer than the time needed to write it. In that extra moment, you may make some lovely changes. Had Auden printed his poems he might not have needed the happy accident of the typist inadvertently typing “ports” for “poets,” a mistake that helped a poem considerably.

Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.

Put a typed copy on the wall and read it now and then. Often you know something is wrong but out of fear or laziness you try to ignore it, to delude yourself that the poem is done. If the poem is on the wall where you and possibly others can see it, you may feel pressure to work on it some more.

Use “love” only as a transitive verb for at least fifteen years.

End more than half your lines and more than two-thirds your sentences on words of one syllable.

Don’t use the same subject in two consecutive sentences.

Don’t overuse the verb “to be.” (I do this myself.) It may force what would have been the active verb into the participle and weaken it.

Once out of nature I shall never be taking

My bodily form from any natural thing.

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths are making

Of hammered gold and gold enameling…


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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