Hass, Robert 1941–
Hass is an American poet. In Field Guide, which won for Hass the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973, he uses a geographical and historical consciousness of place to help define personal identity. His second collection, Praise, has added to his reputation as an important new poet.
Robert Hass's Field Guide is an impressive first collection, whether one is looking for a poet who develops a new track or one who proves his skill along older routes. Without many contradictions in tone or method, Hass appears to do both. Reminiscent in his sharply detailed lists of the purist Imagists, Hass can just as deftly move from image to the statement of the experience which crystallizes the happening for the reader. The poet's consistent voice is the unifying device. (p. 89)
Field Guide as a collection also has integrity. The poems in the three sections fit well together; they are arranged, as the title suggests, to provide a guide, a map, to both natural phenomena and human experience.
Part I, entitled "The Coast," pictures the various areas of California which Hass chooses to write about—Sausalito, Palo Alto, Los Altos, Bolinas. But he carefully opens the book with two poems less obviously geographical, more concerned with the Emersonian theme of knowing the self in and through its responses to nature. The first poem pictures the poet fishing, unsure of either his catch or his own motivation, but moved by his affinity with the ugly cabezone…. The second poem describes the anxiety of the amateur mushroom collectors, instructed only by what Hass terms "the terrifying field guide." Even a man's most commonplace acts bring him to the edge. "Death shook us more than once/those days…." The...
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Field Guide is both the poet [Robert Hass] 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. (p. 307)
[He] creates a beauty by working the language of the land, by preserving through his own life the perfect details of natural landscape.
The poems in "A Pencil" deal with writers and are necessarily self-conscious. Hass feels a brotherhood with all poets through history, through "the peace/of the writing desk/and the habitual peace/of writing." (p. 308)
This group ends with a series of "pornographer poems" that try to settle a difference, at least in the poet's mind, between physical reality and creative imagination. The pornographer keeps a pencil "in a marmalade jar/which is colored the...
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The new work of Robert Hass, one of our foremost younger poets, shows what sacrifices immediacy requires. His second book, Praise …, has an architectural grandeur that even his nearly flawless first volume, Field Guide, did not aim at. Poem after poem sets limits for itself as stern as gravity: white on white, block on block of stone, frames around pictures. The very motionlessness of the visual arts plays a part in Hass's aesthetic ("It's an advantage of paintings"), as do the minutiae of nature….
Hass's poetic intelligence is so acute that he keeps, like Hamlet, cerebrating himself into the static condition, which turns out to be all that his verbs will allow him. His poems too seldom break out of the straight subject-predicate construction. They keep getting stuck in the is-ness of situations. It is not surprising that he concentrates upon pictures, paintings, sculptures, motionless images, even in his very finest poems, such as "Heroic Simile," one of the most remarkable single poems of recent years. In a terrible struggle against the condition of permanence, Hass engages in a wrestling match with the actual—abandoning his resources of grammar and syntax—and is disarmed by a more powerful adversary:
The given, as in given up
or given out, as in testimony.
He praises what is given him; but I would praise him more if he would use his powers of artifice to give more back. (p. 94)
Peter Davison, "The Great Predicament of Poetry," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 243, No. 6, June, 1979, pp. 93-4, 96.∗
If a book of poems has even one poem in it that makes a reader go back again and again, then the reader can consider himself extremely fortunate, and Robert Hass' second book [Praise] has a number of such poems. They are poems about limits, "the silence of separate fidelities," the self-contained integrity of things and individuals. What interests this poet is not the crisis, the big event, not "the fire" or "the ash" but "the still hour,/a deer come slowly to the creek at dusk,/the table set for abstinence…." His method is often to set art against life and to contrast the quietness and commonplaceness of his subjects with an intricate syntax and sonorous rhythms….
Hass leads us to belief, so that when he modestly admits that "there are limits to imagination," we wonder if there are any limits to where this fine poet's imagination can take us.
Susan Wood, "Discovering New Voices: 'Praise'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), August 19, 1979, p. 8.
[Hass is a very skillful poet: he is] slowly but convincingly becoming one of the best poets of his generation…. [In his work] we get a range of emotion combined with a steadiness of style. Now that sounds like a book-reviewer's formula, but it is in fact a rare achievement among poets today. We can say we recognize … a Hass poem, and still know that the dialectic of reading one is not staled by foregone conclusions. [Hass is] as "honest" as any confessional poet could hope to be; [he aspires] to and sometimes [obtains] a childlike wonder; [he is a guide, though also an interested party,] in an external, shareable world…. [Hass gives the impression he has found his words] after some effort, but that the effort and the finding have been part of the feeling, and hence inevitable and pleasurable.
Praise is Robert Hass's second book, and it contains a dozen or more poetic virtues, all centered on the act of praising. Hass's praise is a wonder-filled gesture, but not a blind one; it gives him his lyric occasions, but it doesn't lull him into easy or undemonstrated images. His book is filled with "the design dumb hunger has upon the world." (pp. 98-9)
This book is flooded with imputed meanings, earned meanings, mythical meanings: all made of our needs and hungers. It's a book suffused with eroticism, but something beyond the erotic as well.
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[Robert Hass's first book, Field Guide,] was intelligent and well-crafted; it tapped Hass's power of observation carefully and engagingly. My reservations about this earlier book stemmed from some sense of chilliness that seemed to pervade a number of poems, as if the poems were wrought by an intellect distant from its subject matter. I have no such problems with Praise, Hass's second collection. In fact, Praise contains four or five of the most moving poems I've read in years, and marks Hass's arrival as an important, even pivotal, young poet…. [It] might even be the strongest collection of poems to come out in the late seventies.
Hass's intelligence is still abundantly...
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Let me be blunt: the recent publication of Robert Hass' Praise marks the emergence of a major American poet. If his first book, Field Guide,… did not provoke such acclaim, this second book will. But first, keeping in mind that—as the cliché goes—a poet's strengths are inextricably bound up with his weaknesses, I would like to preface my reading of Praise with a rather extensive critical précis of the strengths and weaknesses of the first book. (p. 2)
Field Guide, especially when read against the second book, Praise, reveals two aesthetics that present the book as divided against itself: (1) poetry as description (as we understand it from certain late...
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