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Assumptions (The Triggering Town)


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This bit is from a chapter of a book by Richard Hugo called The Triggering Town - oh the chapter's called Assumptions. I think it's one of the best things I've read in ages, and I read David Foster Wallace, so I hope you do to.

"Assumptions lie behind the work of all writers. The writer is unaware of most of them, and many of them are weird. Often the weirder the better. Words love the ridiculous areas of our minds. But silly or solid, assumptions are necessary elements in a successful base of writing operations. It is important that a poet not question his or her assumptions, at least not in the middle of composition. Finish the poem first, then worry, if you have to, about being right or sane.

Whenever I see a town that triggers whatever it is inside me that wants to write a poem, I assume at least one of the following:

The inhabitants are natives and have lived here forever. I am the only stranger.

I have lived there all my life and should have left long ago but couldn’t.

I am an outcast returned. Years ago the police told me to never come back but after all this time I assume that either I’ll be forgiven or I will not be recognized.

A hermit lives on the outskirts in a one-room shack. He eats mostly fried potatoes. He spends hours looking at old faded photos. He has not spoken to anyone in years. Passing children often taunt him with songs and jokes.

The churches are always empty.

All the beautiful young girls move away right after high school and never return, or if they return they are rich and disdainful of those who stayed on.

No one dies, makes love, or ages.

No music.

Lots of excellent music coming from far off. People never see or know who is playing.

The annual picnic is a failure. No one has a good time.

The water tower is gray and the paint is peeling.

Two whores are kind to everyone except each other.

It is not on any map.

It is on a map but no roads to it are shown."

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Thanks for this, zero; I'm sure I'll be mulling this over all day. It's probably a truism that inspiration comes from having your expectations and presumptions blown out of the water, for good or (often enough) for ill.

It got me thinking of the Chuang Tzu poem, The Woodcarver:

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood. When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be

The work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

"What is your secret?"

Khing replied: "I am only a workman:

I have no secret. There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit, did not expend it

On trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to set

My heart at rest.

After three days fasting,

I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days

I had forgotten praise or criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

"By this time all thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

All that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought

Of the bell stand.

"Then I went to the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.

All I had to do was to put forth my hand

and begin.

"If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

"What happened?

My own collected thought

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits."

- Chuang Tzu

from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

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I'm glad you get a kick out of it Mouse, you seem to be something of the academic. His aim is really to instruct a young (presumably young not necessarily chronologically) poet how to be a good private poet, a good craftsman if you like and to gain power over his words through a kind of retreat into the imagination.

He begins by comparing the way that words are used in a newspaper, where immediately grasping the subject is of essence and once grasped the words and their (largely interchangeable) authors seem to disappear.

In the news article the relation of the words to the subject (triggering subject since there is no other unless you can provide it) is a strong one. The relation of the words to the writer is so weak that for our purposes it isn't worth consideration. Since the majority of your reading has been newspapers, you are used to seeing language function this way. When you write a poem these relations must reverse themselves. That is, the relation of the words to the subject must weaken and the relation of the words to the writer (you) must take on strength.

...So you are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical deed. You are trying to find and develop a way of writing that will be yours and will, as Stafford puts it, generate things to say. Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. 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.[/i}

What is really blowing my top about this seemingly simple yet infinitely nuanced argument if you want to call it that is this sentiment:

Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life.]

It would be hard to explain without getting into another big thing but essentially I have always used certain meta-narratives you could call them to piece together different strains of thought and literature. One narrative I have held most dear is the metaphor of home and the notion that one way to interpret many works of literature is to look at them as a, if you like, way of taking place. Yes, making a home is the act of sequestering onself off into the world, it is the place where the world arrives at your doorstep, yet it is also where you drink your coffee and look out the window, it is where your interiority takes place... this home... this town... Imagine making home or taking home as a simple grasping gesture with the hand, and a release.

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