Robert Hass 1941–
American poet, translator, and critic.
A respected critic and translator of works by Czeslaw Milosz and Japan's masters of haiku, Hass is also a renowned poet in his own right, and has garnered recognition for the breadth of his facility with poetic forms. Rich in allusion and abounding in nature imagery, Hass's poems often appear as discursive meditations illuminated by a richness of sensory experience and human feeling. Although his frequent references to books, music, paintings, films, and prominent figures of the belles-lettres have caused Hass to be labeled an "intellectual" writer, many critics counter what might be seen as a fault by pointing to his agility in his craft. Accordingly, most observe that his conversational style and use of traditional poetic images in a refreshing manner combine to make his verse highly accessible to readers. His essays are, likewise, personal and thoughtful, and provide engaging insights for readers of haiku, Milosz, and Hass's literary contemporaries.
A native of California, Hass has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for most of his life, graduating from St. Mary's College and Stanford University, the latter of which is also the source of his master's and doctorate degrees. He studied briefly with Yvor Winters, a proponent of New Criticism and a noted champion of the moral value of poetry. Hass has been influenced by Kenneth Rexroth and the "San Francisco Renaissance" of American poetry that originated with the Beat movement, and his work is often compared with that of Gary Snyder and John Ashbery. "I think very much the influence for me in poetry is poetry," Hass said in a 1981 interview. "Specifically Wordsworth and Pound and through them Snyder and Whitman and others…. I guess there is not one model. What I seem to return to most is Pound in the late Cantos, and Wordsworth's blank verse." Having lectured at the University of Virginia, Goddard College, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley, Hass taught at SUNY Buffalo before returning to his alma mater, St. Mary's College, where he has been a professor of English since 1971. His first volume of poetry, Field Guide, was honored with the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in the year of its publication, while his first collection of criticism, Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984.
With Field Guide and Praise, his third volume of poetry, Hass established himself as a naturist, and a meditative
and imagistic poet. In these works he creates catalogues, as a naturalist would, and demonstrates his ability to provide a "name" for the elements of everyday experience. Both works also display Hass's characteristically historical and geographic consciousness. The former is rife with descriptions and evocations of California flora and fauna, and contains musings on themes of desire and despair, nature and imagination, life and death. In many ways Praise continues with the work of Field Guide, exploring the act of naming as a movement toward closing the gap between subject and object and as a gesture of praise. Human Wishes, Hass's fourth collection, was originally titled The Apple Trees at Olema, but was changed before printing. The word "I" is absent from this work, reflecting Hass's concern with all of humanity as his subject. In keeping with this free-ranging and inclusive spirit, Hass experiments with the limits of free verse and the form of poetry. For example, he adapts Ezra Pound's spondaic style in "Late Spring" to prose narrative, from which Hass eventually shifts into the lyric mode. The second section of the volume, comprised of prose poems, uses formal diction and cadenced lines to heighten the tension between the seemingly prosaic and the poetic. Hass's collection of ten essays and four reviews, Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, treats the work of Robert Lowell, Rainier Maria Rilke, James Wright, and Stanley Kunitz, as well as the Slavic poetry of Milosz and Tomas Tranströmer. Three of the essays discuss poetic form; prosody and rhythm; and images, respectively, the latter focusing on the imagery of haiku and its use by contemporary American poets.
Hass's work has most often been greeted with praise. His first published volume of verse, Field Guide, was acclaimed by Stanley Kunitz, who commented that "Hass's poetry is permeated with the awareness of his creature self, his affinity with the animal and vegetable kingdoms, with the whole chain of being…. Natural universe and moral universe coincide for him, centered in a nexus of personal affections, his stay against what he describes as 'the wilderness of history and political violence.'" Likewise, his third volume, Praise, earned Hass the William Carlos Williams Award and high critical favor: "[Hass is] an important, … pivotal young poet," remarked Ira Sadoff, and Hayden Carruth concurred in his review for the New York Times Book Review. His most recent poems, collected as Human Wishes, were seen as "swollen with abundance and perception … never ending, or at least as long as a list of human wishes…" by the Village Voice Literary Supplement. For Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry Hass was lauded by the National Book Critics Circle for bringing "a poet's sensibility to powerful readings of Lowell, Rilke, … combining deep learning with passionate conviction. The criticism, like Hass's poetry, is robust, engaged, and utterly lucid." His relaxed, refreshing prose style, peppered by anecdote, inviting and engaging, is said to affect in the reader Hass's deep faith in the power of poetry. His translations of Basho, Buson, and Issa, on which he worked for over two decades, are hailed as "the standard versions for at least as long again," as Hass "wisely resists attempting to re-create the multiple puns and allusions that reveal the occasion and further meanings of a particular haiku…." Hass has also been recognized as a Woodrow Wilson, Danforth and Guggenheim fellow and has received Belles Lettres and American Academy of Art and Letters awards.