Robert Hass Hass, Robert - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Field Guide 1973

Winter Morning in Charlottesville 1977

Praise 1979

Human Wishes 1989

Other Major Works

The Separate Notebooks [by Czeslaw Milosz; translator, with Robert Pinsky] (notebooks) 1983

Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (criticism) 1984

Unattainable Earth [by Czeslaw Milosz; translator, with Czeslaw Milosz] (poetry) 1986

Collected Poems, 1931-1987 [by Czeslaw Milosz; translator, with Louis Iribarne and Peter Scott] (poetry) 1988

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa [editor, translator] (poetry) 1994

James Fahey (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Field Guide, in Best Sellers, Vol. 33, No. 8, July 15, 1973, pp. 178-79.

[In the following review, Fahey criticizes Field Guide as self-consciously poetic, grounded in "ideas" and not in "words."]

The Yale Series of Younger Poets (e.g. anyone under forty and not yet published) has discovered some fine poets; most notably James Tate and recently Judith Johnson Sherwin for Uranium Poems, and Michael Casy for his acclaimed work, Obscenities. This year's winning volume has been described by Stanley Kunitz, the judge of the competition, as like "stepping into the ocean when the temperature of the water is not much different...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Vernon Young (essay date 1973-1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fool, Thou Poet," in Hudson Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973-74, pp. 717-34.

[In the following excerpt, Young comments on Hass's use of "naming," or providing a catalogue of nature, in Field Guide.]

With no gods all their own and with the total breakdown of their civic world as a vehicle of continuing aspiration (or even as a consolatory place to live out the day), American writers in greater number are turning to the wilderness as their one great external source of unadulterated poetry. Joyce Carol Oates … asks, in one of her intelligent and lovely poems, "Is all space so empty? / must we fill it with ourselves?" Of course: only so it can be...

(The entire section is 684 words.)

Michael Waters (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Field Guide, in Southwest Review, Summer, 1975, pp. 307-11.

[In the following review, Waters praises Hass's defi "translation" of both nature and personal history in Field Guide.]

Field Guide is both the poet and his remarkable volume of poems, a tour through the America of his historical and political consciousness, his vast privacy of landscape. In a "Letter" to his wife he states: "I have believed so long / in the magic of names and poems." This belief extends his geography past any coastal boundary, and his vision telescopes through love for his family to focus with "an ancient / imagination" on "what is familiar / felt along the...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)

Hayden Carruth (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Impetus and Invention: Poetic Tradition and the Individual Talent," in Harper's, Vol. 258, No. 1548, May, 1979, pp. 88-90.

[In the following excerpt, Carruth reviews Praise favorably and includes Hass among the many individual talents "inventing" poetry today.

When we open a book at random and read this:

Ah, love, this is fear. This is fear and syllables
and the beginnings of beauty. We have walked the city,
a flayed animal signifying death, a hybrid god
who sings in the desolation of filth and money
a song the heart is heavy to receive. We mourn
otherwise. Otherwise...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Peter Stitt (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Summer Birds and Haunch of Winter," in Poetry, Vol. CXXXV, No. 4, January, 1980, pp. 229-37.

[In the following excerpt, Stitt argues that Praise illustrates the development of the American poem in terms of organic structure and ingenuity.]

In Praise, Robert Hass combines rather radically two complementary trends present in the progress of American poetry since the nineteenth century. In terms of imagery and statement, he is willing to include anything demanded by the poem, no matter its source, no matter how subtle or tenuous its relevance. In terms of structure, he is carrying the idea of the organic poem to ever-increasing degrees of linearity....

(The entire section is 714 words.)

David Kalstone (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Praise, in the New York Times Book Review, May 4, 1980, pp. 15, 43.

[In the following excerpt, Kalstone comments favorably on the sequence "Songs to Survive the Summer" but observes that Praise as a whole is an uneven work.]

One of the tests for good poets these days seems to be whether they can take the leap from writing accomplished short poems to building longer structures, refigure their isolated lyric discoveries as part of a larger tissue of inquiry…. Robert Hass—though on a small scale—[does so successfully] in the sequence, "Songs to Survive the Summer" that closes his new book, Praise. Perhaps it's no accident...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Robert Hass with David Remnick (interview date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Chicago Review, Vol. 32, No. 4, Spring, 1981, pp. 17-26.

[In the following interview, Remnick questions Hass about his own work in light of his influences.]

What was the original impulse to begin writing?
I just liked the sound of it, I think.

Do you remember what those early efforts were like?

They were all rhymed imitations of Robert Service or Vachel Lindsay. They were very often narratives about my friends.

Was there a point at which you realized that you didn...

(The entire section is 4721 words.)

Robert Hass (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "One Body: Some Notes on Form, 1978," in Claims for Poetry, University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 151-64.

[In the following essay, Hass traces the development of poetic forms from the human hunger for repetition, for mother, and for myth, to its present use as an expression of the poet's personality.]

I've been trying to think about form in poetry and my mind keeps returning to a time in the country in New York when I was puzzled that my son Leif was getting up a little earlier every morning. I had to get up with him, so it exasperated me. I wondered about it until I slept in his bed one night. His window faced east. At six-thirty I woke to brilliant...

(The entire section is 4239 words.)

Alan Shapiro (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: '"And There Are Always Melons,' Some Thoughts on Robert Hass," in Chicago Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, Winter, 1983, pp. 84-90.

[In the following essay, Shapiro illustrates how Hass's strengthshis intellectuality and his ability to render experienceare often at odds with each other in his poetry.]

One of the strengths of Robert Hass's work is his great ability to describe the world around him. Yet much of his interest in description proceeds from a disturbing desire (which gets complicated in his later work) to live wholly in a world of sensory experience and from a concomitant distrust of intellectuality. This distrust may seem surprising, as...

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Bo Gustavsson (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Discursive Muse: Robert Hass's 'Songs to Survive the Summer'," in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 61, No. 2, 1989, pp. 193-201.

[In the following excerpt, Gustavsson explicates "Songs to Survive the Summer," while observing that the poem is Hass's most successful work using a new discourse that breaks with the aesthetics of modernist lyric poetry.]

In the 1970s a group of American poets emerged who shared the common ambition to write a new discursive poetry. These poets, among others Robert Pinsky, Stanley Plumly, and Robert Hass, perhaps the best poet of the group, all reacted against the conventions of modernist lyric poetry and instead they wanted to...

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Carolyn Kizer (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Necessities of Life and Death," in the The New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1989, p. 63.

[In the following review, Kizer provides a favorable assessment of Human Wishes.]

Robert Hass is so intelligent that to read his poetry or prose, or to hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure. He is the master of what I call the reticule poem. A reticule is a capacious bag carried by some of our grandmothers, which might contain knitting, cough drops, gloves, a tin of cookies, a volume of Wordsworth or Jane Austen or a missal, coin purse, shopping list, makeup and a folder of family snapshots. In short, necessities of life. One can say that all these...

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Michael Davidson (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Approaching the Fin de Siècle," in The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 200-18.

[In the following excerpt, Davidson evaluates Hass's use of the scenic mode in his poetry, commenting on his skill in evoking the natural landscape and describing its allegorical relationship to a cognitive act.]

The most obvious change that has occurred in the past twenty years (the perennial Beat revival notwithstanding) has been a growing skepticism about the more expressive or visionary claims of neoromantics like Duncan, McClure, and Ginsberg. The elegiac rhetoric of the 1940s and the bardic chant of the...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)

Robert Hass with Linda Gregg (interview date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Iowa Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 126-45.

[In the following interview, Hass discusses prose poetry and explains his views on the poet in relation to politics.]

Unfortunately, not all of the questions that arose during this session held in November 1989 were preserved on tape, and so we leave some of them to your imagination.

Why a prose poem, and what is a prose poem?
I haven't arrived for myself at any very satisfactory formulation of what a prose poem is. Certainly it has something to do with condensation....

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Louise Glück (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Obstinate Humanity," in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, The Ecco Press, 1994, pp. 65-71.

[In the following excerpt, Gliick discusses Hass's work in relation to that of Robinson Jeffers and Czeslaw Milosz.]

Robinson Jeffers appears to be a poet other poets chastize eloquently. That is: the inducement to literary reprimand is in proportion to the stakes: the grander, the more fundamental the objection, the more inviting the project. The remarkable poems of this little genre, Milosz's and Hass's, are devoid of flamboyant condescension, at least insofar as the living can avoid flaunting their ongoing development at the immobile dead. "So brave in a void /...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Aldan, Daisy. Review of Human Wishes. World Literature Today (Spring 1990): 313.

Examines the four parts of the volume in order, praising Hass's imagery and prose poems in particular.

Berger, Charles. "Dan Pagis and Robert Hass." Raritan 10, No. 1 (Summer 1990): 126-38.

Explores Human Wishes, focusing on Hass's lyrical pieces and prose poems.

Florby, Gunilla. "Holding Out Against Loss and Jacques Lacan: Some Reflections on Robert Hass's Sensuous Line." Studia Neophilologica 63, No. 2 (1991): 189-95.


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