The poetry of Robert Hass displays a range of emotion as well as a thoughtful meditative stance. His openness to the Asian aesthetic is evident in his poems, which offer a keen insight into a fleeting moment. He has acknowledged the influence of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Also, influenced by California’s rich natural showcase, Hass makes nature a primary theme in his poetry.
After reading works of Aristotle and Charles Darwin in his great-books course at Saint Mary’s College in California, Hass was assigned to examine nature with field glasses and then write about these observations. This practice of close observation followed by written meditation soon became a pattern for his poetry. In fact, his first collection of poems is titled Field Guide. It introduces precise details of California’s landscape. In “Fall,” he tells of gathering “mushrooms/ near shaggy eucalyptus groves/ which smelled of camphor and the fog-soaked earth.” This sense of smell is compounded with attention to the other senses as well in “San Pedro Road”:
Casting, up a salt creek in the sea-rank air fragrance of the ferny anise, crackle of field grass in the summer heat. Under this sun vision blurs.
The poet continues with mentions of rock crabs, mussels, black rocks, and white bass. Many of the poems in Field Guide offer a Whitman-like joy in cataloging things seen, heard, touched, tasted, and felt. Also the influence of haiku is evident in the chaste brevity of image, as in “Maps”: “Apricots—/ the downy buttock shape/ hard black sculpture of the limbs/ on Saratoga hillsides in the rain.”
In “Measure,” Hass introduces his quiet, receptive narrative voice as he sits at his writing desk watching a plum tree in the sunset. He suggests that he belongs to the “idleness of attention” that finds quiet fulfillment in poetry. The next poem in the volume displays Hass’s ability to satirize a self-important professor. He mocks the professor’s egoism and his confidence in his fashionably complex observations. His sterile dream is to develop an “odorless narcissus.” Foolishly self-centered, he does not notice the disinterest around him:
There is a girl the self loves. She has been trying to study him for days. but her mind keeps wandering.
Praise is a collection of twenty-three poems and one longer poetic meditation. Again, Hass displays the quiet listening and reflective posture he developed in his first collection. “Meditation at Lagunitas” is the thematic center of the collection and one of Hass’s best-known poems. The first-person narrator is troubled after talking with a friend who is anxious over the inadequacies of language: “. . . everything dissolves: justice, pine, hair, woman, you and I.”
Pondering the word blackberry, the narrator regrets that “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” However, the chill brought by this observation is erased when he recalls a loved woman’s skin, a childhood river outing,“little orange-silver fish.” Hass ends the poem incanting “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry,” asserting his assurance in the power of words to retrieve and to convey meaning.
Twentieth Century Pleasures
Hass shows himself to be a subtle and insightful prose stylist in this volume on poets and poetry. Twentieth Century Pleasures is a collection of essays and reviews commissioned by journals from 1977 to 1983. In his warm, intimate conversational style, he explores the work of other poets, including James Wright, Robert Lowell, Tranströmer, Miosz, and Rainer Maria Rilke. He comments on the power of the imagination and meditates on poetic form, rhythm, and image. In “One Body,” he decries the distortions of excessive poetry analysis, which he sees as “a huge body of commentary which has very little to do with the art of poetry.” This volume also includes a memoir, “Some Notes on the San Francisco Bay Area as a Cultural Region,” in which he recounts his coming of age as a boy in California. He also traces the influence of various writers on his own development.
Human Wishes, Hass’s third collection of poems, consists of meditative lyrics and short prose pieces. In this work Hass abandons the short lyric poem with its focus on natural image. Instead, these thirty-two poems use a sentence-length line, and, in general, move closer to prose. In the title poem, taken fromSamuel Johnson’s verse satire “The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated,” (1749), Hass ponders language’s subjection to desire, which brings distortion, making words seem inadequate. In this volume, he is less concerned with recording tangible, immediate images; instead, he explores an ever-widening pool of social contexts and associations. In “Human Wishes,” for...
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