Teaching Poetry Writing: R. Hugo’s advice and my seconding of it

My creative writing classes this semester read Hugo’s “Writing off the subject” about 5 weeks into the semester. (And after we read, we wrote, Hugo-style.) We have already talked about the sounds of words and we’ve written some poems where students are given some words randomly and asked to make these into poems.

I tend to give minimal advice/”shoulds” in this writing class because it seems to me that the best way to grow as a writer is by doing, not be thinking. As I told students at the end of these notes, don’t hold these ideas in mind. For me, advice like this maybe helped guide me, when I first read it 8-9 years ago, into finding my own writing process, and now when I re-read it, I can see in my own experience what Hugo was saying. But part of what I had to learn was overcoming the idea that I could hold anyone else’s advice in mind, as guidelines, when I was writing. Gotta let those go and do whatever seems/feels right when it comes to writing.

But here are the notes from Hugo’s essay, and my additions to these:

 “Poet Richard Hugo’s Advice”

— “I hope you learn to write like you.” – If what I say (or what anybody says) doesn’t work for you, let it go. You can become yourself. You can force yourself to write in many ways, but forcing yourself feels like work.  We do work only for money. There’s very little money in creative writing, so write what feels good, write whatever you enjoy writing just for the sake of writing it.
— Let truth conform to music: Pay attention to word sounds, and let the meanings take care of themselves.  (And they will – our brain can’t see two words together without looking for a meaning, an idea or an image.)
— You don’t have to know what things mean in order to write poetry [you can describe, stay concrete, etc]
— “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve said” – giving up control. You can try to control your writing, but that’s not fun – you’re not likely to be surprised, and your readers won’t be, either.
— Don’t try to control it – throw stuff out, see what’s interesting.  This idea allows you to go beyond yourself, be smarter, more interesting, etc., than you know how to be.  If you plan out your writing, you’re probably not being creative. Writing can feel like play; if it feels like work, change.
— You FEEL, instinctively or intuitively, that the poem is done.  There is no standard, model, or perfect poem. This is the beauty of creativity.  Yes, you can write a limerick and then you’d know you’re done with it when it has 5 lines, rhymes, and rhythm. But then you are just writing to a known standard – that’s creative, but at your MOST creative, there is no standard. You start out and see where it leads. Since there’s no standard to tell you when you’re done, you just have to feel it.
— When writing a poem, the next thing you write always belongs – it fits there because you put it there
— If you want to communicate, use a telephone (or an essay…).  There is no reader over your shoulder. You are writing for yourself.
— Be willing to say surprising things – a poem is not you. It isn’t about you, the poet.
— Knowing can be limiting – if the town’s population is 19 but the poem needs the sound 17, use 17
— There’s no need to explain in a poem. In art, as in life, things happen without cause.
— It’s OK for a poet to make arbitrary rules for his/herself
— Take an interesting path. – Let “what’s interesting” be your only guideline.
— Final advice, from Mr. H.: Now, forget all this advice the next time you go to write. You can’t write creatively by following guidelines (I’ve tried – it isn’t fun or helpful). These ideas may be useful to you, they may shape your ideas of what poems can be and your process for writing them, but it will likely not help to be thinking of these things as you write. Maybe the trick is to find what works for you and, after the fact, confirm that these ideas worked for R. Hugo and/or M. Hagemann, too. The only real way to become a writer, to develop your creative-writing ability, is to write.

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