Robert Hass ranks high among America’s academic poets, winning admirers for his transparent language, the verbal music of his lines, and his earnest political sensibility. His work wins admirers even among those who care little for the trappings of academia or the intellectual gamesmanship that preoccupies many university writers. This places him among the few who are able to straddle the divide splitting contemporary American poetry.
Poets of the academy stand in opposition to those of everyday life, in an uneasy relationship whose roots may be traced back two hundred years. In the early 1800’s, the division noticeably widened between the writers of New England and those of the rest of the young United States. While many New England writers aspired to fit into the British and European tradition, those elsewhere, notably in the South, dreamed of producing an indigenous American literature.
The European-leaning writers tended to lead lives of relative ease; New England’s European-style institutions of higher learning, such as Yale and Harvard Universities, in aiding the spread of colleges across the Old West, planted the seed for Americans’ continuing association between comfortably placed university poets and an academic milieu that seems removed from everyday American life.
Long associated with the University of California, Hass has built his substantial reputation with works in the traditional mold. Through his translations, especially those cotranslated with Polish poet Czesaw Miosz, he has conspicuously emphasized a connection to the European example. In his own poems, moreover, his concerns take a decidedly academic turn. His objects of contemplation are often exterior, formal, and aestheticand frequently European. In this new collection, for instance, notes about the poverty-stricken life of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche provide subject matter for the lyric “A Supple Wreath of Myrtle.” Similarly, contemplation of a painting by Dutch artist Jan Vermeer gives rise to the long poem “Art and Life.” The volume also includes translations and imitations of works by Roman poet Horace, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, and Hass’s longtime literary friend and cotranslator, Miosz.
This is not to say Hass avoids American subjects, or subjects taken from the other side of the “town-gown” divide. Words by American poet John Ashbery provide the initial impetus for the long poem “I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name is Dmitri”even if Russian author Fyodor Dostoevski takes an equally important role as literary stimulus as the meditative poem goes on. In a like manner, a quotation from American poet Richard Eberhardt opens the strongly political work “A Poem,” concerned with the impact of American military actions overseas, from the Vietnam War to the present day.
The poet most frequently mentioned in Time and Materials, moreover, is the one typically considered the most American of all: Walt Whitmana telling choice, given that Whitman’s work stood in stark opposition to the work of the intellectuals of his day. Even a poem initially concerned with an intimate moment between lovers can transform into a meditation upon Whitmanas occurs in the short lyric “Futures in Lilacs,” in which Hass visualizes the nineteenth century poet studying etchings in the Library of Congress. The striking irony is that Whitman, the poet of experience, has become for Hass an object of academic knowledgeeven though he puts this knowledge to poetic use.
The emphasis Hass places in his poems upon knowledge neither dampens the verbal music of his lines nor derails the essential artistic aim of his poems. In the previously mentioned “Art and Life,” he establishes his initial focus upon the Dutch painting almost conversationally: “You know that milkmaid in Vermeer?” Subsequent lines vividly establish the poet’s impressions of the painting. A string of associations then leads to a moment of more personal immediacy, when the poet finds himself contemplating the people around him in the museum cafeteria and considering the curious act of painting restoration. Surrounded by suggestive facts and elusive notions, he concludes: “Something stays this way we cannot have,/ Comes alive because we cannot have it.”
Ironically, it is at his most personal, and least academic, that Hass’s words take on a heavier, less musical tone. Examples may be found in “Three Dawn Songs in Summer” or “The Distribution of Happiness,” both short lyrics. In both cases the verses make no reference outside the...
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