Let me begin by saying this: Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town is one of the most important books that I’ve ever encountered. For those that aren’t familiar with either the collection or the individual essay, you should know that Hugo was the most important poet to come out of the Montana in the last century and the work that he did in establishing the University of Montana MFA program as one of the preeminent western writing programs was legendary. For me, the essays in that collection really got me to understanding on a more mechanical level what goes into crafting poems. The processes that I was running to work out my amateurish first attempts at poetry were starting to take on a cognizant form because of those essays.
It is said that to be a writer one must also be a reader. Which is absolutely true. I can tell you that as an editor at Urban Farmhouse Press, I can generally tell a poorly read writer in the first few pages of any manuscript. They tend to lack an engagement with the works of both their peers and ancestors. They do so in every manner from their syntax, their narrative control, to their choices of images. This lack of engagement hurts them in so much as we understand literature and all of human experience relies upon some conversation with the world around us and before us. To read means you get a window in those common spaces between our differing experiences of them.
So we should all agree that we need read other work, but what kind of work, exactly? Easy answer is all of it. Trust me, it helps. But essays on craft occupy a certain interesting and important part of our repertoire as readers/writers. They afford us the more technical observational point of view of how many of the best works of writing that are crafted. You can read say, Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” and really enjoy it and decided that this is a manner in which you would like to write. You might even try and to copy Hugo’s meter and line breaks and try to come up with something and maybe even manage something that sounds close enough. But the fact of the matter is that every move in that poem is an embodiment of the psyche that went into creating. You need to understand work on a more fundamental way.
To understand how his work is properly crafted, you must under Hugo’s process and the acts he brings to it. To do so, read his words about the act of creating, the thought process(es) it took to set about building his poems. You can’t necessarily learn the totality and the knowledge of the writer through their essays, but you can learn their process. The process matters. The other parts, the metaphors, the lyricism and the like, that comes from you as the poet or writer. Many of the best writers we’ve had have recorded a least notes on their craft if not essays or entire books on the subject. Seek those out.
But don’t always stop with their own words. There are plenty of smart folks out there writing important essays about the reading of other’s work. I’m thinking here of writer’s like Wayne C. Booth (Rhetoric of Fiction) and Tzvetan Todorov (Poetics of Prose) although there are countless more, but these expert readers of literature are absolute treasure troves of the mechanical knowledge of crafting fiction, poetry, or non-fiction. They point out the details you often miss in your readings, the details that make work dazzle, the parts that your work needs to have to be what you need it to be. To be a good writer you need to be an excellent reader. Essays on craft and about craft are must for every one who writes. So the thing with essays on craft is, well, read them.