Writing Off the Subject
by Victor Hugo
I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry writing class. You'll never be a poet until you 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. But 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. Don't start arguments. They are futile and take us away from our purpose. As Yeats noted, your important arguments are with yourself. If you don't agree with me, don't listen. Think about something else.
When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult, and you are not only
limiting the writing of poems to something done only by the very witty and clever, such as
Auden, you are weakening the justification for creative writing programs. So you can take that
attitude if you want, but you are jeopardizing my livelihood as well as your chances of writing
a good poem. If the second attitude is right, then I still have a job. Let's pretend it is right
because I need the money. Besides, if you feel truth must conform to music, those of us who
find life bewildering and who don't know what things mean, but love the sounds of words
enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing--try to stop us.
One mark of a beginner is his impulse to push language around to make it accommodate
what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases, what he has already conceived
to be the form. Even Auden, clever enough at times to make music conform to truth,was fond of
quoting the woman in the Forster novel who said something like, "How do I know what I think
until I see what I've said."
A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts
the poem or "causes" the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the
poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the
writing. That's not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject.
The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling
that the poem is done.
Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts
down the title: "Autumn Rain." He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain.
Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain
so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning
of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated
to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn't the
subject. You don't know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say
about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it's a good idea to talk about
something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.
Don't be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become more interesting the
longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are like me, I find. The longer they talk
about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the next sentence different from
the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music
of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.
In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong.
If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.
Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing,
glance over your shoulder, and you'll find there is no reader. Just you and the page. Feel
lonely? Good. Assuming you can write clear English sentences, give up all worry about
communication. If you want to communicate, use the telephone.
To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance, not in real life I hope. In real life
try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.
By arrogance I mean that when you are writing you must assume that the next thing you put
down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because
you put it there. You, the same person who said that, also said this. The adhesive force
is your way of writing, not sensible connection.
The question is: how to get off the subject, I mean the triggering subject.
Continue reading: http://ualr.edu/rmburns/RB/hugosubj.html