Hugo’s Rules (of Thumb) for Poetry Writers

hugo

Rules. More rules. Sometimes rules are good, if they’re “of thumb,” I mean. Unlike compulsory ones, rules of thumb can be treated like Pied Pipers or given the thumb.

I just finished Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. Some of the essays are more memoir-ish than poetry advice-ish, but hey, the man packed a poetic license when writing it, didn’t he?

But where was I before I became so unruly? Ah, yes. Hugo’s Rules of Thumb for Poetry Writing. Here are a few selected ones from his book. See what you think:

  • Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one.
  • No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.
  • Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it.
  • Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
  • Beware using “so” and “such” for emphasis. They’re often phony words, uttered. “He is so handsome.” “That was such a good dinner.” If “so” is used, it is better to have a consequence. 
  • The poem need not end on a dramatic note, but often the dramatic can be at the end with good effect.

Hugo provides examples and elaboration on some of these rules, but I just wanted to give you a flavor. Interesting, no? And in some cases, almost mathematical in their specificity.

Taking these to my poetry manuscript, I see some possibilities and some not-so-good ones. Not using the same subject two sentence in a row? What about anaphora? Maximum sentence length, seventeen words? How will I ever channel Allen Ginsberg? And make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it? In the words of the Beatles, that’s a hard day’s night.

I do like the idea of posting a poem-in-progress where others can read it, though. On the refrigerator at work, for instance. That ought to get a lot of reads, between the “Who’s hummus is this? It’s been here for two months!” and the “Who took my Noosa black raspberry yogurt?”

Still, The Triggering Town was an intriguing and at times humorous read. Hugo taught at the University of Montana (of all places!). And, sure as his rules seem to be, he is admirably self-deprecating. In Chapter the First, “Writing off the Subject,” he writes:

I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until your realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go.

Is there a better caveat than that? And so, all thumbs in, one thumb in, or none. As you like it. An advice take-it-or-leave-it guy can do little better than that….

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6 thoughts on “Hugo’s Rules (of Thumb) for Poetry Writers

  1. Thanks for sharing some of Hugo’s advice. I feel a bit sorry for the semicolons he called ugly, even though I’m smirking. This sounds like another book for my wish list. Alarie

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  2. Richard Hugo! Every Montanan worth his salt knows of Richard Hugo. My husband (a middle school English teacher in a small Montana town on the Hi-Line) was a student of his once upon a time. Thank you for your enjoyable essay.

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    • From my vantage point in Massachusetts, Montana seems far away and exotic like a mountain wonderland! Thus, it’s understandable that I would miss the University of Montana’s (and Richard Hugo’s) notoriety as a poetic point of note. I do recall reading the book A River Runs Through It, however. Wasn’t Montana the setting, or am I a Rocky Mountain state or two off…?

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      • You’re right on target. Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It is an excellent read; the movie sort of spoiled it for western Montana in that suddenly everyone deemed it fashionable to want to fish the streams and rivers of Big Sky Country and, better yet, move here (at least part of the year – winter doesn’t really hold a great appeal for a lot of folks.)

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