Bookbuying in the Tenderloin Analysis

Robert Hass

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 527 words.)