The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270

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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

“Bookbuying in the Tenderloin” is cast in the form of a peripatetic meditation that employs precise descriptive detail, a sardonic tone, and a flair for ironic, even grotesque, juxtaposition. At the outset of his wanderings through the Tenderloin, Hass’s speaker passes St. Boniface Church, a 1902 city landmark at 133 Golden Gate. In the Church’s Gethsemane Garden “a statuary Christ bleeds sweating grief” in a distinctly secular neighborhood “where empurpled winos lurch to their salvation.” Because “incense and belief” no longer suffice in the modern age, the drunkards’ port in the storm of urban decay is, literally, port: a self-defeating psychic defense that produces “muscatel-made images of hell” out of the quotidian chaos. St. Boniface’s “Christ in plaster” suggests an injured deity or a cheap and fragile icon. In either case the image underscores the increasing irrelevance of religion in contemporary America, an institution that has lost its legitimacy as a means of spiritual redemption.

Just as the Church has been reduced to moribund parcels of real estate that no longer harbor the spirit they were meant to tend, so too has the union movement ceased to exist as a vital force for social change. Continuing onward, the poet notices Longshoreman’s Hall, across the street from St. Boniface’s. A hotbed of radical politics in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the hall has become something of a historical mausoleum since the ouster of “the manic Trotskyite/ screwballs from the brotherhood” three decades earlier. De-radicalized after World War II, the unions have “closed their ranks,/ boosted their pensions, and hired the banks/ to manage funds for the workingman’s cartel.” For the most part, unions have been robbed of their revolutionary promise and are now docile upholders of the capitalist status quo.

After the church and union hall, the third type of symbolic structure the poet encounters on his walk is the secondhand bookstore. Here he finds works by “Comte, Considerant, [and] Fourierthick with dust in the two-bit tray[s].” Hass chose these particular writers for a very specific symbolic effect. French positivist Auguste Comte was a passionate adherent of rationalism. He sought nothing less than a sweeping reorganization of the social order in accord with scientific principles. Charles Fourier, French philosopher and a leading proponent of revolutionary socialism, was author of the “universal principal of harmony” between the material universe, organic life, animal life, and human society. Nineteenth century American Fourierists founded a number of short-lived utopian communities, among them Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Victor Considerant was a follower of Fourier. Hass cites these utopian thinkers to tacitly argue that, in contemporary America, the intense optimism and social idealism of the Enlightenment is long dead; its obscure traces can be found only in secondhand bookstores.

To reinforce and extend a pervasive sense of hopelessness, Hass infuses the poem’s closing lines with street images of “Negro boy-whores,” “noisy hustler bars,” “girls who sell their bodies for a dollar/ or two, the price of a Collected Maeterlinck.” The allusion to Maurice Maeterlinck, Symbolist dramatist and the 1911 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is particularly apt inasmuch as his work was famous for its melancholy and pessimism.

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