Robert Hass 1941–
American poet, translator, and critic.
A respected critic and translator of works by Czeslaw Milosz and Japan's masters of haiku, Hass is also a renowned poet in his own right, and has garnered recognition for the breadth of his facility with poetic forms. Rich in allusion and abounding in nature imagery, Hass's poems often appear as discursive meditations illuminated by a richness of sensory experience and human feeling. Although his frequent references to books, music, paintings, films, and prominent figures of the belles-lettres have caused Hass to be labeled an "intellectual" writer, many critics counter what might be seen as a fault by pointing to his agility in his craft. Accordingly, most observe that his conversational style and use of traditional poetic images in a refreshing manner combine to make his verse highly accessible to readers. His essays are, likewise, personal and thoughtful, and provide engaging insights for readers of haiku, Milosz, and Hass's literary contemporaries.
A native of California, Hass has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for most of his life, graduating from St. Mary's College and Stanford University, the latter of which is also the source of his master's and doctorate degrees. He studied briefly with Yvor Winters, a proponent of New Criticism and a noted champion of the moral value of poetry. Hass has been influenced by Kenneth Rexroth and the "San Francisco Renaissance" of American poetry that originated with the Beat movement, and his work is often compared with that of Gary Snyder and John Ashbery. "I think very much the influence for me in poetry is poetry," Hass said in a 1981 interview. "Specifically Wordsworth and Pound and through them Snyder and Whitman and others…. I guess there is not one model. What I seem to return to most is Pound in the late Cantos, and Wordsworth's blank verse." Having lectured at the University of Virginia, Goddard College, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley, Hass taught at SUNY Buffalo before returning to his alma mater, St. Mary's College, where he has been a professor of English since 1971. His first volume of poetry, Field Guide, was honored with the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in the year of its publication, while his first collection of criticism, Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984.
With Field Guide and Praise, his third volume of poetry, Hass established himself as a naturist, and a meditative
and imagistic poet. In these works he creates catalogues, as a naturalist would, and demonstrates his ability to provide a "name" for the elements of everyday experience. Both works also display Hass's characteristically historical and geographic consciousness. The former is rife with descriptions and evocations of California flora and fauna, and contains musings on themes of desire and despair, nature and imagination, life and death. In many ways Praise continues with the work of Field Guide, exploring the act of naming as a movement toward closing the gap between subject and object and as a gesture of praise. Human Wishes, Hass's fourth collection, was originally titled The Apple Trees at Olema, but was changed before printing. The word "I" is absent from this work, reflecting Hass's concern with all of humanity as his subject. In keeping with this free-ranging and inclusive spirit, Hass experiments with the limits of free verse and the form of poetry. For example, he adapts Ezra Pound's spondaic style in "Late Spring" to prose narrative, from which Hass eventually shifts into the lyric mode. The second section of the volume, comprised of prose poems, uses formal diction and cadenced lines to heighten the tension between the seemingly prosaic and the poetic. Hass's collection of ten essays and four reviews, Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, treats the work of Robert Lowell, Rainier Maria Rilke, James Wright, and Stanley Kunitz, as well as the Slavic poetry of Milosz and Tomas Tranströmer. Three of the essays discuss poetic form; prosody and rhythm; and images, respectively, the latter focusing on the imagery of haiku and its use by contemporary American poets.
Hass's work has most often been greeted with praise. His first published volume of verse, Field Guide, was acclaimed by Stanley Kunitz, who commented that "Hass's poetry is permeated with the awareness of his creature self, his affinity with the animal and vegetable kingdoms, with the whole chain of being…. Natural universe and moral universe coincide for him, centered in a nexus of personal affections, his stay against what he describes as 'the wilderness of history and political violence.'" Likewise, his third volume, Praise, earned Hass the William Carlos Williams Award and high critical favor: "[Hass is] an important, … pivotal young poet," remarked Ira Sadoff, and Hayden Carruth concurred in his review for the New York Times Book Review. His most recent poems, collected as Human Wishes, were seen as "swollen with abundance and perception … never ending, or at least as long as a list of human wishes…" by the Village Voice Literary Supplement. For Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry Hass was lauded by the National Book Critics Circle for bringing "a poet's sensibility to powerful readings of Lowell, Rilke, … combining deep learning with passionate conviction. The criticism, like Hass's poetry, is robust, engaged, and utterly lucid." His relaxed, refreshing prose style, peppered by anecdote, inviting and engaging, is said to affect in the reader Hass's deep faith in the power of poetry. His translations of Basho, Buson, and Issa, on which he worked for over two decades, are hailed as "the standard versions for at least as long again," as Hass "wisely resists attempting to re-create the multiple puns and allusions that reveal the occasion and further meanings of a particular haiku…." Hass has also been recognized as a Woodrow Wilson, Danforth and Guggenheim fellow and has received Belles Lettres and American Academy of Art and Letters awards.
Field Guide 1973
Winter Morning in Charlottesville 1977
Human Wishes 1989
Other Major Works
The Separate Notebooks [by Czeslaw Milosz; translator, with Robert Pinsky] (notebooks) 1983
Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (criticism) 1984
Unattainable Earth [by Czeslaw Milosz; translator, with Czeslaw Milosz] (poetry) 1986
Collected Poems, 1931-1987 [by Czeslaw Milosz; translator, with Louis Iribarne and Peter Scott] (poetry) 1988
The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa [editor, translator] (poetry) 1994
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SOURCE: A review of Field Guide, in Best Sellers, Vol. 33, No. 8, July 15, 1973, pp. 178-79.
[In the following review, Fahey criticizes Field Guide as self-consciously poetic, grounded in "ideas" and not in "words."]
The Yale Series of Younger Poets (e.g. anyone under forty and not yet published) has discovered some fine poets; most notably James Tate and recently Judith Johnson Sherwin for Uranium Poems, and Michael Casy for his acclaimed work, Obscenities. This year's winning volume has been described by Stanley Kunitz, the judge of the competition, as like "stepping into the ocean when the temperature of the water is not much different from the air." I find this compliment for Robert Hass's Field Guide accurate but in the pejorative sense.
One can easily fall into Robert Hass's poems and land not knowing what went by, and that, I feel is not an admirable quality. The work is deceptive. If one is skimming through the pages, the lines appear full of image; yet, after a closer look, the images are always a blur:
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
Blue air rises, the horizon weaves above the leaden bay
Rock crabs scuttle from my shadow in the silt.
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SOURCE: "Fool, Thou Poet," in Hudson Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973-74, pp. 717-34.
[In the following excerpt, Young comments on Hass's use of "naming," or providing a catalogue of nature, in Field Guide.]
With no gods all their own and with the total breakdown of their civic world as a vehicle of continuing aspiration (or even as a consolatory place to live out the day), American writers in greater number are turning to the wilderness as their one great external source of unadulterated poetry. Joyce Carol Oates … asks, in one of her intelligent and lovely poems, "Is all space so empty? / must we fill it with ourselves?" Of course: only so it can be habitable. To fill it, you'd need a heap of majesty; to inhabit it, with any hope of definition as poet, you begin by finding names for its manifestations. This is what Robert Hass is doing in Field Guide, finding names; if he succeeds as abundantly as he promises in his first bookful of poems, he will soon be a "name," himself, in the growing company of American naturists. Readers of The Hudson Review may better remember him from "Book Buying in the Tenderloin," an acrimonious, headlong poem of another sort. In the context of this admirable collection it has more recognizably the sound of another poet, perhaps Robert Lowell. Hass can be vehement, with political edge, in his own way (cf. "Assassin" and "The Failure of Buffalo to...
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SOURCE: A review of Field Guide, in Southwest Review, Summer, 1975, pp. 307-11.
[In the following review, Waters praises Hass's defi "translation" of both nature and personal history in Field Guide.]
Field Guide is both the poet and his remarkable volume of poems, a tour through the America of his historical and political consciousness, his vast privacy of landscape. In a "Letter" to his wife he states: "I have believed so long / in the magic of names and poems." This belief extends his geography past any coastal boundary, and his vision telescopes through love for his family to focus with "an ancient / imagination" on "what is familiar / felt along the flesh."
The purpose of the book, then, is to name these feelings, the undercurrent that flashes through "the pulse / that forms these lines." There are three sections. The first, "The Coast," is set in California, the last frontier. Hass is fascinated by his woman and the land, and his marriage to both evokes a timelessness, a sense of ancestral memory. In the opening poem, "On the Coast near Sausalito," the poet catches "an ugly, atavistic fish" and holds it before him:
Creature and creature,
we stared down centuries.
While Hass and his wife struggle through their early years together, he places himself in a historical context with the men...
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SOURCE: "Impetus and Invention: Poetic Tradition and the Individual Talent," in Harper's, Vol. 258, No. 1548, May, 1979, pp. 88-90.
[In the following excerpt, Carruth reviews Praise favorably and includes Hass among the many individual talents "inventing" poetry today.
When we open a book at random and read this:
Ah, love, this is fear. This is fear and syllables
and the beginnings of beauty. We have walked the city,
a flayed animal signifying death, a hybrid god
who sings in the desolation of filth and money
a song the heart is heavy to receive. We mourn
otherwise. Otherwise the ranked monochromes,
the death-teeth of that horizon, survive us
as we survive pleasure. What a small hope.
What a fierce small privacy of consolation.
What a dazzle of petals for the poor meat …
we have found a poet who knows, loves, and uses the great tradition, knowing, too, that it is never pedantic, never self-imitative, but always moving its huge chords through the modulations of individual sensibilities. This is the first stanza of a poem by Robert Haas, whose first book won the Yale Younger Poets competition several years ago, and whose new and second book, Praise, is a notable advance. My quotation gives only an inkling of what he can do; he...
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SOURCE: "Summer Birds and Haunch of Winter," in Poetry, Vol. CXXXV, No. 4, January, 1980, pp. 229-37.
[In the following excerpt, Stitt argues that Praise illustrates the development of the American poem in terms of organic structure and ingenuity.]
In Praise, Robert Hass combines rather radically two complementary trends present in the progress of American poetry since the nineteenth century. In terms of imagery and statement, he is willing to include anything demanded by the poem, no matter its source, no matter how subtle or tenuous its relevance. In terms of structure, he is carrying the idea of the organic poem to ever-increasing degrees of linearity. The idea of a well-made poem generally includes the concept of circularity; all is preconceived, blue-printed, nothing enters by happenstance; the end refers to the beginning, all questions are answered, nothing is left dangling, a circle is formed. The organic poem, by contrast, grows as a tree grows, responding to the necessities of environment; its logic is internal, discovered along the way, never preconceived. When the organic poem achieves linearity, as is often the case in Hass, its end may neither resemble nor remember nor refer to its beginning; questions may go unanswered, all things may be left dangling; we stop at the end of the line on a one-way trip to somewhere.
Probably the best poem of this sort in...
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SOURCE: A review of Praise, in the New York Times Book Review, May 4, 1980, pp. 15, 43.
[In the following excerpt, Kalstone comments favorably on the sequence "Songs to Survive the Summer" but observes that Praise as a whole is an uneven work.]
One of the tests for good poets these days seems to be whether they can take the leap from writing accomplished short poems to building longer structures, refigure their isolated lyric discoveries as part of a larger tissue of inquiry…. Robert Hass—though on a small scale—[does so successfully] in the sequence, "Songs to Survive the Summer" that closes his new book, Praise. Perhaps it's no accident that the poem … is addressed to a young daughter in whose presence her father is made to feel "This is my life, / time islanded / in poems of dwindled time." The songs are triggered by what he and his daughter hear from the child next door: "Let's play / in my yard. It's OK, / my mother's dead." The dead woman, 31, had been a friend of his daughter, had taught her to weave. The set of poems, obliquely related to one another, is an attempt to forestall her nightmares and fears. One section was in fact a separate poem, "For Chekhov," in Mr. Hass's first book, where it seemed orphaned; here it is truer because more tentative, only one among a number of views of suffering. The sequence is invigorated by its variety: youthful memories, a recipe,...
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SOURCE: An interview in Chicago Review, Vol. 32, No. 4, Spring, 1981, pp. 17-26.
[In the following interview, Remnick questions Hass about his own work in light of his influences.]
- What was the original impulse to begin writing?
- I just liked the sound of it, I think.
Do you remember what those early efforts were like?
They were all rhymed imitations of Robert Service or Vachel Lindsay. They were very often narratives about my friends.
Was there a point at which you realized that you didn 't really have to use traditional forms?
I sort of knew that early on. I mean I had seen e.e. cummings in anthologies, but I didn't know how to hear the music of poetry without rhyme until I was in high school. City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco published Allen Ginsberg's Howl around that time. I think the Chief of Police banned it as a dirty book so, naturally, we went out and bought it and read it. The music of Howl and then Kerouac's novels, which were appearing then, sent me to writers they mentioned, Whitman and Pound, and I began to get a feeling, a very primitive feeling, for free verse.
What was it about Howl that was particularly inspiring?
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SOURCE: "One Body: Some Notes on Form, 1978," in Claims for Poetry, University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 151-64.
[In the following essay, Hass traces the development of poetic forms from the human hunger for repetition, for mother, and for myth, to its present use as an expression of the poet's personality.]
I've been trying to think about form in poetry and my mind keeps returning to a time in the country in New York when I was puzzled that my son Leif was getting up a little earlier every morning. I had to get up with him, so it exasperated me. I wondered about it until I slept in his bed one night. His window faced east. At six-thirty I woke to brilliant sunlight. The sun had risen.
Wonder and repetition. Another morning I was walking Kristin to her bus stop—a light blanket of snow after thaw, the air thick with the rusty croaking of blackbirds so that I remembered, in the interminable winter, the windy feel of June on that hill. Kristin, standing on a snowbank in the cold air, her eyes alert, her face rosy with cold and with some purity of expectation, was looking down the road. It was eight-fifteen. Her bus always arrived at eight-fifteen. She looked down the road and it was coming.
The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself. I had been taught to believe that the freshness of children lay in their capacity for wonder at the vividness and...
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SOURCE: '"And There Are Always Melons,' Some Thoughts on Robert Hass," in Chicago Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, Winter, 1983, pp. 84-90.
[In the following essay, Shapiro illustrates how Hass's strengths—his intellectuality and his ability to render experience—are often at odds with each other in his poetry.]
One of the strengths of Robert Hass's work is his great ability to describe the world around him. Yet much of his interest in description proceeds from a disturbing desire (which gets complicated in his later work) to live wholly in a world of sensory experience and from a concomitant distrust of intellectuality. This distrust may seem surprising, as Hass is a plainly intellectual writer. His poems abound with references to books, films, paintings and music: his great temptation is to prefer representations of experience to experience itself, a temptation for which description serves as an antidote. Take, for instance, "Spring," a poem from his first book, Field Guide:
We bought great ornamental oranges,
Mexican cookies, a fragrant yellow tea.
Browsed the bookstores, You
asked mildly, "Bob, who is Uggo Betti?"
A bearded bird-like man
(he looked like a Russian priest
with imperial bearing
and a black ransacked raincoat)
turned to us, cleared
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SOURCE: "The Discursive Muse: Robert Hass's 'Songs to Survive the Summer'," in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 61, No. 2, 1989, pp. 193-201.
[In the following excerpt, Gustavsson explicates "Songs to Survive the Summer," while observing that the poem is Hass's most successful work using a new discourse that breaks with the aesthetics of modernist lyric poetry.]
In the 1970s a group of American poets emerged who shared the common ambition to write a new discursive poetry. These poets, among others Robert Pinsky, Stanley Plumly, and Robert Hass, perhaps the best poet of the group, all reacted against the conventions of modernist lyric poetry and instead they wanted to recover for poetry the virtues of good, expository prose. Rejecting the esthetics of modernist lyric poetry they wanted to write a poetry of the mind that explored the discursive resources of statement and argumentation. The goal was to "have a mind of winter," in Wallace Stevens's terminology: to go beyond the lyric self and to speak about the facts of our common existence in the world. Thus these poets sought in their own individual ways to develop the possibilities of discourse in contemporary poetry. …
Among the poets of his generation, Robert Hass best succeeds in his ambition to write a new poetry of discourse. Instead of limiting discourse to didactic reflection or mastery of tone, as Pinsky and Plumly seem to do, Hass...
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SOURCE: "Necessities of Life and Death," in the The New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1989, p. 63.
[In the following review, Kizer provides a favorable assessment of Human Wishes.]
Robert Hass is so intelligent that to read his poetry or prose, or to hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure. He is the master of what I call the reticule poem. A reticule is a capacious bag carried by some of our grandmothers, which might contain knitting, cough drops, gloves, a tin of cookies, a volume of Wordsworth or Jane Austen or a missal, coin purse, shopping list, makeup and a folder of family snapshots. In short, necessities of life. One can say that all these articles go together because they are together, in one bag. But it is Mr. Hass's associative processes, his associated sounds and his strategies that enhance, combine and weave together these elements to give his poems their rich and singular flavor:
[Human Wishes needs] to be heard, spoken: resonances, pauses, intonations, the vocal music. Mr. Hass is a poet of domestic passion—for children, friends, the household, the neighborhood, for women as lovers, women as friends. His publisher speaks of his work as poems of loss, of mutilation. Rather, he is a poet of abundance, a romantic of the breakfast table, of a companionable walk in his California hills. Perhaps his publisher was bemused—as well she might be—by...
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SOURCE: "A Student of Desire," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CCXXXXIX, No. 20, December 11, 1989, pp. 722-23.
[In the following review, Bogen lauds Hass for his ability to evoke and explore the complexity of desire in Human Wishes.]
What's immediately striking in Robert Hass's work is the sheer abundance of pleasures. Who else among our poets would bring together the delights of landscape, climate and food in a salad "with chunks of cooked chicken in a creamy basil mayonnaise a shade lighter than the Coast Range in August" ("Vintage") or include a recipe for onion soup—complete with shredded Samsoe and advice on how to eat it with friends—as a "Song to Survive the Summer"? In his incisive collection of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures, Hass set our engagement with poetry squarely in the context of other forms of satisfaction—in domestic life, in nature, in the senses. The title of his new book of poetry, Human Wishes, reveals his basic concerns: He is a student of desire, of what we want and how likely we are to get it.
If one pleasure of poetry is the evocation of beautiful things, Hass's work definitely satisfies. From his first book, Field Guide, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973, through Praise in 1979 and now Human Wishes, he has shown a mastery of sensory description, combining the light touch of a calligraphier...
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SOURCE: "Approaching the Fin de Siècle," in The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 200-18.
[In the following excerpt, Davidson evaluates Hass's use of the scenic mode in his poetry, commenting on his skill in evoking the natural landscape and describing its allegorical relationship to a cognitive act.]
The most obvious change that has occurred in the past twenty years (the perennial Beat revival notwithstanding) has been a growing skepticism about the more expressive or visionary claims of neoromantics like Duncan, McClure, and Ginsberg. The elegiac rhetoric of the 1940s and the bardic chant of the late 1950s have given way to a considerably cooler tone and chastened rhetoric. At times, as in the case of "language writing," this skepticism has been embodied in formal procedures (the use of Fibonacci number series, collaboration, the "new sentence," etc.) that limit the role of personal expression. And where a process- or action-oriented aesthetics dominated much of the poetry that we have seen so far, poets of the 1980s have developed more subtle modulations of tone that return a degree of irony and self-effacement to poetry. Though these characteristics are by no means limited to Bay Area writers, they have been nurtured by and in response to many of the issues raised by the expressivist poetics that dominated the San Francisco...
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SOURCE: An interview in Iowa Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 126-45.
[In the following interview, Hass discusses prose poetry and explains his views on the poet in relation to politics.]
Unfortunately, not all of the questions that arose during this session held in November 1989 were preserved on tape, and so we leave some of them to your imagination.
- Why a prose poem, and what is a prose poem?
- I haven't arrived for myself at any very satisfactory formulation of what a prose poem is. Certainly it has something to do with condensation. If it's narrative in form and gets to a certain length, it's probably a story; if it's very short and in a book by a fiction writer, it's a sudden fiction; if it's in a book by a poet, it's a prose poem; and if it gets to a certain length, it's an essay, or a sketch, or something like that. So I suppose condensation has something to do with it.
I don't know how to define it in terms of genre, and when I was working, I guess I just stopped trying to think about that. What I did think about was what the conventions of the prose poem were. At the time that I was starting to write them, the prose poem, as it had been revived in America, was used almost entirely for a kind of wacky surrealist work, and I think...
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SOURCE: "Obstinate Humanity," in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, The Ecco Press, 1994, pp. 65-71.
[In the following excerpt, Gliick discusses Hass's work in relation to that of Robinson Jeffers and Czeslaw Milosz.]
Robinson Jeffers appears to be a poet other poets chastize eloquently. That is: the inducement to literary reprimand is in proportion to the stakes: the grander, the more fundamental the objection, the more inviting the project. The remarkable poems of this little genre, Milosz's and Hass's, are devoid of flamboyant condescension, at least insofar as the living can avoid flaunting their ongoing development at the immobile dead. "So brave in a void / you offered sacrifices to demons": so Milosz addresses Jeffers. If not exactly tribute, this is nevertheless a particular species of reproach: giant to giant.
The reprimand is moral: at issue is humanity, the definition thereof. And Jeffers' crime, in Milosz's poem, "to proclaim … an inhuman thing." Hass concurs, pretty much, though his formulation changes the emphasis, focusing on causes: "human anguish made him cold."
What's odd to me is that Jeffers in all his hardness and obstinate fixity and dogmatic revulsions is, of the three, the most poignantly, albeit cheerlessly, human.
I read Milosz in translation, which makes discussion of tone problematic. And yet, at issue in his poem...
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Aldan, Daisy. Review of Human Wishes. World Literature Today (Spring 1990): 313.
Examines the four parts of the volume in order, praising Hass's imagery and prose poems in particular.
Berger, Charles. "Dan Pagis and Robert Hass." Raritan 10, No. 1 (Summer 1990): 126-38.
Explores Human Wishes, focusing on Hass's lyrical pieces and prose poems.
Florby, Gunilla. "Holding Out Against Loss and Jacques Lacan: Some Reflections on Robert Hass's Sensuous Line." Studia Neophilologica 63, No. 2 (1991): 189-95.
Discusses Hass's poems as adumbrations of Saussurean and Lacanian theories of language.
Lea, Sydney. "A Matter of Conscience." The Nation (19 May 1979): 574-75.
Reviews Praise, finding Hass's distinctive voice as the vehicle that successfully balances the volume's aesthetic and moral conflicts.
Selman, Robyn. Review of Human Wishes. Village Voice Literary Supplement (December 1989): 5-6.
Delivers unqualified approval of Hass's fourth collection of verse.
Additional coverage of Hass's life and career...
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