Having originally published “Bookbuying in the Tenderloin” in The Hudson Review, Robert Hass included it in his first collection, Field Guide. A thirty-four-line poem employing a complex rhyme scheme punctuated by a scattered series of couplets, “Bookbuying in the Tenderloin” is vintage Hass: blunt, direct, and vivid in language and imagery but also profound in its larger social and philosophical implications. The title is straightforward enough; Hass’s poem does indeed describe a book-buying junket in the seedy Tenderloin district of San Francisco and details the thoughts about modernity that such an excursion occasions. The title is also ironic; buying books is not an activity normally associated with the decadent Tenderloin.
Indeed, the poet’s urban meanderings through the Tenderloin constitute something of a symbolic quest for meaning—perhaps even transcendence—not unlike the kind described by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), although Hass’s poem is, in every way, on a much more modest scale than Eliot’s epic. Ultimately Eliot was able to make a leap of faith and embrace Anglo-Catholicism in order to avoid the terrifying nihilism that marks the Zeitgeist of the twentieth century. Writing almost half a century later, after the horrors of World War II concentration camps and the atomic bomb, and at the height of the Vietnam War, Hass had less reason to be sanguine about humanity’s prospects. For American intellectuals in the 1960’s, Hass among them, theology was too quaintly remote to offer any comfort. Political idealism and hard-nosed scientific positivism offered nothing better as a way out of the agonizing cultural crisis that has engulfed the Western world.