Robert Hass was born in San Francisco, California, on March 1, 1941. He absorbed the literary culture of the West Coast, and although he initially intended to become a novelist or essayist, the poems of Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg excited him. In his mid-twenties, after trying fiction, he turned to poetry with the sense of having found a vocation. As a native Californian, he absorbed California’s Asian influence, its radical politics, and its dramatic landscape. His great-grandfather had settled in California in the nineteenth century, and Hass acquired a feeling for the natural world from his surroundings in Marin County. The ocean, the mountains, and the unique flora and fauna of the San Francisco Bay Area shape his poetry collections as well as his critical observations in Twentieth Century Pleasures.
He married Earlene Leif while an undergraduate at Saint Mary’s College in California. Their three children, Leif, Kristin, and Luke, were born while both parents attended graduate school. Hass received his master’s degree from Stanford University (1965), where he studied and sparred with poet and New Critic Yvor Winters. In graduate school, Hass edited a campus newspaper dedicated to investigating Stanford’s research connection to the United States military, an experience that encouraged his developing leftist politics. He established friendships at this time with other poets, including James McMichael and Robert Pinsky. Hass afterward taught English at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and in 1971 was awarded his doctorate from Stanford. He then returned to his alma mater, Saint Mary’s College, as a professor of English, and in 1989 accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley. He and his wife divorced in 1989, and in 1995, he married poet Brenda Hillman, who provided fresh impetus to his poetry. She helped him to write more inwardly through techniques of hypnosis and meditation as well as through a review of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and of Sylvia Plath.