“I Didn’t Know How Good the Poem Would Be” – Hugo and Finding Out

Richard Hugo continues the sentence in one of the most powerful essays of The Triggering Town by writing, “but it would be honest and I would like it because it wouldn’t be any tougher than the human heart needs to be” (96). “Ci Vediamo” barely resembles other essays in the collection, with very little direct advice, but instead reflects on Hugo’s return to the little Italian town where he was stationed in WWII. Despite not directly conveying advice to writers, Hugo imbues the essay with a well-modulated experience which brings the reader to tears with the author at the end. This control of modulation offers enough to study in itself, though this response is not the appropriate place. Instead, this essay will examine the way “Ci Vediamo” and other essays in Hugo’s collection urge the reader toward an honesty and openness which leads to better poems.

Indeed, “Ci Vediamo” offers a clear case study of the role for honesty in creating good poetry, honesty both with others and with the self. We writers of course strive for what we call honesty in our artwork, but this essay of Hugo’s presents the experience of seeking out that personal honesty. Though Hugo opens with the idea of “that heavy stuff” (75) – the problem of perspective in memory and translating that into a poem – he quickly moves into that self-questioning honesty. One might argue that he becomes self-effacing or even -deprecating, but the action really is the humility of a man recognizing his shortcomings. Admissions of being the “world’s worst” bombardier, of being so terrified that he “didn’t trust the equipment,” and of the difficulty of returning to Italy in 1963 (75), present in the space of three short paragraphs a portrait of weaknesses. Hugo displays strength, however, in that same action of leaving his job to return to Italy, and even in tackling that process in text. That the resulting essay moves with grace and pays off in catharsis makes his strength even more apparent.

Hugo offers even more insight into the GI experience in these small Italian towns by describing some of their adventures and desires: the ride to a coastal village to source more liquor, the wish “to be…strong men, men in control. Humphrey Bogart. Herbert Marshall,” leads into a poem in which he admits to “create some adequate self… I would be tough in the poem” (79). The poem, “Index”, is emotionally hard, and the speaker distant; its metaphor is buried deep under the text, making it difficult to unveil what the speaker is approaching. Hugo claims not to “even understand that one anymore” (80). In his discussion of the poem, he notes the pride and difficulty of it, and then admits that wanted others to “in real life, be my friend” (81), that the hard shell of the poem hides the vulnerable speaker underneath it. In other words, Hugo views this poem as a failure of honesty with the self. To drive this idea home without directly stating it, he describes an anecdote where he would go to a makeshift bar, how he “[would laugh] when…expected” and “made a point…of the attraction I felt for the [waitress],” who he “could not have had…even if she had consented” (81). The vulnerability of this character in contrast to the voice of the poem underscores Hugo’s point, that a poem of self-honesty would offer the vulnerable voice, and not that of the movie soldier.

The second poem offered in the essay, “Centuries Near Spinnazola” – which as he notes, spells the town incorrectly – attempts to address a “moment of surrender” (84). Hugo only states that it “fail[ed] miserably” (84), and offers no other explanation. The lyrical narrative following describes a miserable man withholding cigarettes from an Italian woman. She had offered to pay for them and he refused, and the incident became one of those guilty or embarrassing moments which haunt us at the least expected moments. It becomes one of those moments which drives the artist; in Hugo’s case, back to Italy and Spinazzola, the field of surrender. “Do you understand?” he asks the reader, “I’m not sure I do…say I am a silly man” (85). Leading into the third poem, Hugo acknowledges that “whatever [had happened (the moment of surrender)], [he] didn’t accept completely the psychoanalyst’s explanation…it was too pat” (87). And this poem, “Spinazzola: Quella Cantina La”, offers that ambivalence to the reader. The speaker is much closer to the recounting, and often admits “I can’t explain,” while the images are much more lovely than the previous two poems, and offer a distinct contrast to the war. The poem is also a rough sestina, allowing word substitutions not of direct synonyms, but close enough to recognize. The relaxed form allows for a quiet meditation on an event which is not quite explicable. In this case, finally, Hugo comes to the emotional honesty with the self in the poem.

As he brings us toward catharsis, Hugo reflects on the meanness of war time. The “troppo miseria” which infected the soldiers, the civilians, and the land alike, and which he says “about the whole damned world” (96). Hugo offers no apologies, instead offering the lines which begin this essay. “It wouldn’t be any tougher than the human heart needs to be,” in contrast to the poem “Index”, which is Humphrey Bogart tough (96). In “April in Gerignola”, the poet again relies on a quiet repetition, though not as formal as the previous “Spinazzola” poem. Instead, a repetition of syntax and of small phrases move this poem. The speaker is personal, “the only one / came back”, and the town personified, “and you’re amazed / I haven’t seen Milan/…/you’re still my town” (97). Time is conflated between the two visits to Cerignola – where the airbase was located – until, at the final lines, “the streets are wide, / lead nowhere, and dying in your weather / takes a lifetime of surviving last year’s war” (98). The conflation allows for juxtapositions in images between the terrifying times of war and the return two decades later, when “the men returned…the women opened doors” (97), and these juxtapositions create another sort of inexplicability. The essay closes swiftly in catharsis, as both their driver who was a boy at the time of the war and Hugo break down in sobs, hidden from each other.

This stripping away of the hard masculine exterior and unveiling of the emotional life runs parallel between the essay and the poems presented within. The search for honesty with the self leads to more honest poetry, and even though Hugo never directly states that fact, the twinned movements clearly reveal this intent. He made no mistake in placing this essay at the end of the collection. Most of the other essays in The Triggering Town are more direct treatments of advice as in “Nuts and Bolts” or “Assumptions”. “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching” seems to straddle those direct and lyrical impulses. As the title implies, Hugo tackles the subject of his own most influential teacher, his teaching style, and his own growth as a teacher and student of poetry. Though not easy subjects to tackle (especially when disagreeing with someone like Roethke), Hugo manages the tone through his own viewpoints and opinions. In fact, it is exactly these disagreements which display the same search for honesty as “Ci Vediamo”. This is not honesty above all else, but Hugo’s quiet and reserved recognition of the self – both good and bad – that he knows poets need to approach in order to write successful poems.

Works Cited

Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town. New York: Norton, 1979. Print.