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Robert Hass United States Poet Laureate

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Born in 1941, Hass is an American poet, essayist, editor, and translator.

For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 18 and 39.

A respected American poet, Hass has served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate. Following the example of former Laureate Rita Dove, Hass took the opportunity afforded by the position to play an active role in American literary affairs. Hass pursued his goal of raising awareness of the importance of literacy with a countrywide speaking tour and a number of events at the Library of Congress.

Much critical attention has been focused on Hass from the beginning of his career. Upon the publication of his first poetry collection, Field Guide (1973), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, Hass was identified as an important new poet. In explaining his approach to writing poetry, Hass has remarked, "Poetry is a way of living … a human activity like baking bread or playing basketball." Critics quickly recognized the influence of all aspects of life, both mundane and extraordinary, in Hass's work, and lauded the conciseness, imagery, and clarity of expression in his poems. Hass's reputation broadened with the release of Twentieth Century Pleasures (1984), a collection of previously published essays and reviews which earned him the National Book Critics Circle award in criticism. Many reviewers remarked that the insight into poetry-writing Hass demonstrated in this work was both informed by and further illuminated his own poetry. Hass expanded in yet another direction with The Essential Haiku, translations of representative works by the most famous masters of haiku, a form of short poetry that has been influential in his own poetry writing. "Hass has noted his own affinity for Japanese haiku," Forrest Gander has remarked, "and his work similarly attends to the details of quotidian life with remarkable clarity."

Hass was nominated to the post of United States Poet Laureate in 1995 and 1996, and served both terms. "My first reaction was reluctance," Hass told David Streitfield. "It's a great honor and it seemed like a massive distraction. But it was also an opportunity to be a spokesperson for the literary community." Following his predecessor Rita Dove's example as an active, high-profile Laureate, Hass chose to use his position to raise awareness of literacy issues among community and civic groups across the country, going "where poets don't go." "I thought the thing to talk about is not poetic 'uplift,'" he told interviewer Francis X. Clines, "but the fact that basic literacy in this country is in a serious crisis." On the road most of the time, Hass found that, ironically, his duties as Poet Laureate interfered with his poetry writing, an uncomfortable situation made more so by the experimental nature of his project. As he neared the end of his second term, he remarked to Clines, "Did it do any good? Was I wasting my life? Should I have been home writing poems? It's like teaching. You have no idea."

Principal Works

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Field Guide (poetry) 1973
Praise (poetry) 1979
Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (essays) 1984
Human Wishes (poetry) 1989
The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa [editor and translator] (verse) 1994
Sun under Wood (poetry) 1996

Edward Hirsch (review date March 1985)

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SOURCE: "Praise," in Poetry, Vol. CXLV, No. 6, March, 1985, pp. 345-48.

[In the following review, Hirsch discusses the essays and reviews collected in Hass's Twentieth Century Pleasures, considering what they reveal about Hass and his work.]

Recently, I wrote a memorial speech for a close friend who had died of cancer. Reading the piece aloud, I discovered that I could deliver it with a modicum of calmness when I was speaking in generalities, but that I wavered whenever specific images of him were summoned up: my friend giving me a high five at a basketball game, or carrying a steaming cup of coffee across campus in the early evening. These images were so clear and palpable that I could feel him in front of me again. "Images haunt," Robert Hass tells us in Twentieth Century Pleasures. They are also, by their very nature, phenomenal, standing for nothing else but themselves, reaching down into the well of being and affirming, this is. It is a permanently startling fact that language can give us back parts of our own world, full-bodied. "Images are powers," Hass also writes, emphasizing that they are metonymic glimpses, fundamental acts of imagination, moments of pure being. The image is the primary pigment of the lyric poet and in its purest form it is the enemy of time, of discourse, of all narratives that seek to surround and distill it. No wonder that an image could cut the fabric of a memorial speech. Yeats claimed that the intensity of images actively bordered on the visionary, an intersection between two worlds. In a different tradition, one of Tu Fu's colleagues told him, "It is like being alive twice."

The nature of the image—its surprising fullness of being and phenomenological significance—is one of the leitmotifs of Twentieth Century Pleasures, Robert Hass's collection of prose pieces about poetry. The book brings together ten essays and four reviews, all of which were commissioned by various editors over the past five years, and consequently it has the character of an omnibus, weaving together a number of essays about individual poets—Lowell, Wright, Tranströmer, Kunitz, Milosz, Rilke, and others—with a memoir about the San Francisco Bay Area as a cultural region and three larger meditations about poetic form, prosody and rhythm, and images. Most of these essays are what used to be called "appreciations"—if we mean by the term something along the order of Randall Jarrell's essays on Frost, Auden, and Whitman. Like Jarrell, Hass is often at his best when he is both reconsidering a poet's work and rescuing it from a myriad of surrounding assumptions. His extended meditation on "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," for example, should forever lay to rest the received opinion that Lowell's early poems "clearly reflect the dictates of the new criticism" while the later ones are "less consciously wrought" and "more intimate." In a somewhat different vein, his indispensable essay on James Wright helps to define the inward alertness, luminous intelligence, and clarity of feeling in Wright's work; but it also unmasks some of the unspoken assumptions and limitations in his aesthetic, in particular the unconscious insistence on a "radical and permanent division between the inner and outer" worlds. For Hass, this Calvinist division—which is anyway denied by Wright's best work—is one of the recurrent problems in American poetry. Indeed, Twentieth Century Pleasures is held together not only by Hass's uniquely personal and unified sensibility, but also by his ongoing conviction that the division between inner and outer can be healed in post-romantic poetry and that human inwardness needs to find a viable shape in the external world. One of his persistent concerns is the relationship between looking and being, his sense of how the image comes together and how the mind—through the medium of the lyric poem—recovers and creates form.

Hass is the most intimate and narrative of critics—each of his essays begins with a personal example or story—and he writes with an unusually vivid sense that "Poems take place in your life, or some of them do, like the day your younger sister arrives and replaces you as the bon enfant in the bosom of the family…." So, too, he writes always as a man situated in a particular place at a particular time, a Wordsworthian poet, only partially off-duty, who is taking a specific occasion—a symposium, the publication of a book—to think about his art. As a native Californian with a formalist training (Kenneth Rexroth and Yvor Winter are two California presences who shaped his sensibility), Hass often seems to be standing at the edge of the continent, facing west. Throughout Twentieth Century Pleasures the Japanese haiku poets serve as his primary touchstones and models. Thus Chekhov's notebook entries are praised for being "close to the temperament" of Japanese poets, and Whitman's "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" is demonstrated to be "in the spirit" of Buson; Gary Snyder's "August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer" is located in a tradition of Oriental leave-taking poems, and James Wright's "Outside Fargo, North Dakota" is compared to a haiku by Basho which gets at the same feeling. Hass's essay on "Images"—which is the concluding and arguably the most important piece in the book—weaves together a series of radiant personal memories with a mini-discussion of Japanese poetics. Poems by Buson, Issa, and Basho are the essential examples in his argument that images are not so much "about" anything as they are things-in-themselves, "equal in status with being and the mysteriousness of being." At times Hass sounds like an intuitive Bachelard, a phenomenologist transplanted to California and turned into a mid-century American poet.

One recurrent problem for modern poets is the relationship between image and discourse, epiphanic moment and narrative time, song and story. Hass is particularly alert to the issue, noting in one piece that "The Cantos are a long struggle between image and discourse" and in another that "Winters never solved for himself the problem of getting from image to discourse in the language of his time." The problem is crucial for poets who seek to transcend Imagism (and deep Imagism) and want to carve forms in time, to build from the individual to the community and to incorporate into their work aspects of natural, social, political, and historical life. The "perilousness of our individual lives," Hass declares, "is what makes the insight of the isolated lyric untenable." One of the secondary dramas in Twentieth Century Pleasures is watching the essays circle the problem of image and discourse, finding different solutions in different poets. Thus, Hass argues that Tranströmer's Baltics solves the problem through a series of wandering fragments or islands, Wordsworth's Prelude by knitting together being and looking, giving the poet's own inwardness "a local habitation and a name." He finds that Rilke finally lets the world come flooding through him in the Duino Elegies and that Milosz circumnavigates the problem in "Separate Notebooks," continually returning to the issue of "whether one should try to rescue being from the river of time by contemplating or embracing it." The Japanese haiku poets serve as another type of model by organizing their anthologies seasonally; as a result each poem reaches out "toward an absolute grasp of being" but also takes its place in a larger seasonal cycle. In this way the stillness of the moment is given special poignance by the velocity of time. What is crucial to Hass in all of these works is the basic idea of poetic form, the mind making connections, creating rhythmic texture and shape out of diverse fragments.

Twentieth Century Pleasures begins by discussing the difficulty of talking about favorite poems, and it ends by affirming "the fullness and emptiness of being." Its very title sets itself against our twentieth-century experience of fragmentation, and one of the book's key subjects is the mind's capacity for "wonder and repetition," the way the best poems can focus an attentive and self-forgetful consciousness. Hass's own most successful poetic mode has been the meditative lyric which, as he notes in an essay on Stanley Kunitz's work, "can step a little to the side and let the world speak through it, and the world has no need to cry 'Let be! Let be!' because it is." Hass has an acute sense of the perils of twentieth-century history, but this is always tempered by his abiding faith in "the absolute value of being." He has a long memory for happiness and returns often to experiences of well-being, radiance, fullness, health. As his most well-known poem, "Meditation at Lagunitas," puts it: "There are moments when the body is as numinous / as words, days that are the good flesh continuing…." Twentieth Century Pleasures is informed by a deep faith that the greatest poems can capture the numinousness of the world and ultimately it is this faith which makes Robert Hass a critic—as well as a poet—of praise.

Anthony Libby (review date 3 March 1985)

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SOURCE: "Criticism in the First Person," in The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1985, p. 37.

[In the following review, Libby remarks favorably on Twentieth Century Pleasures.]

Twentieth-century pleasure is not precisely what we expect from a book of criticism, which often has a distinctly 19th-century quality and offers secondary pleasures at best. But as the California poet Robert Hass recounts and analyzes his complex joy in poets from Basho to Rilke to James Wright [in Twentieth Century Pleasures], he creates a very special pleasure of his own. This results partly from the almost fictional tendencies of his criticism. As Mr. Hass tends to locate poets in their times and places, so he locates his reading for us, giving up the illusion of objectivity to place the reading in his life. In a piece about Robert Lowell, Mr. Hass complains about the difficulty of judging the value of poetry "when it's gotten into the blood. It becomes autobiography then." So his criticism contains many snatches of autobiography, for instance as he introduces a study of the poetry and politics of Czeslaw Milosz with a memory of participating in a 1966 antinapalm demonstration or when he begins a piece on prosody with a quick, funny glance at dirty saloon repartee. Conversely, he writes only one overtly autobiographical piece for this collection, and it is mostly about poetry.

Mr. Hass's complexity shows not so much in his autobiographical gestures as in his thinking about the poems. We are conscious of a whole mind before us, presented in a style that is both elegant and plain, enlivened by a freely metaphorical imagination and magisterial one-liners. (About rhythm: "The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself.") Deep intelligence and wide knowledge serve Mr. Hass's particular vision of poetry, a vaguely Tory one that has been unfashionable for much of the past two decades, though it is coming dramatically into its own now.

Unlike the early modern Imagists and such recent neo-Surrea lists as Robert Bly, Mr. Hass cares more for the line than the image. Not that he opposes Surrealism, but he argues that what is genuinely basic, what gets to the unconscious, what defines "revolutionary ground," is rhythm more than visual representation, Mr. Hass admits that "images haunt," but he remains clearly less drawn to pictures than to ideas. This inclination has one unfortunate effect: the piece called "Images," despite some thoughtful meditations on haiku, is less compelling than the others. Even the tone of its personal reminiscences—which are too obviously rhetorically calculated, habitual—seems askew.

Another, more interesting effect of Mr. Hass's interest in thought is his ambivalence about modernism, partly an inheritance from the poet and critic Yvor Winters, with whom he briefly studied. But Mr. Hass moderates Winters's rather ill-tempered scorn for everything Romantic or post-Romantic. (He also does a little restorative work on Winters's image as a poet, trying in one review to remember "the fierce old curmudgeon of Palo Alto" as a young Romantic.) Whatever his position in the poetry wars, Mr. Hass remains devoted to the massive poems of modernism, like Lowell's "Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" or Rilke's "Duino Elegies." But because of his interest in the moral implications of ideas and because he locates poetry so squarely among the central experiences of existence, he worries about modernism's infatuation either with intense self-examination or with the inhuman—the darkness of instinct, not the light of reason, and finally death.

Mr. Hass argues with a rationalist's insistence on the value of reason as opposed to more mysterious ways of knowing. But unlike excessively rationalist critics, he understands precisely the appeal of mystery and admits the aesthetically generative power of dark forces in the self. Even while amusing himself by accusing Mr. Bly of describing "imagination as a kind of ruminative wombat," he tends to grant the general validity of Mr. Bly's Romantic insistence on the deep roots of poetry—though Mr. Hass insists that "the imagination is luminously intelligent." But there remains a problem. As he says in a moment of impatience in his wonderful essay on Rilke, at times he feels "a sudden restless revulsion from the whole tradition of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century poetry" because of its narcissistic obsession with inwardness and death.

The great skill of this critic is his willingness to entertain such judgments, as well as many small, fair, precise judgments of individual poems. His final intention is not merely to judge but to give a picture of the writer's mind. He begins with a balanced assessment of flaws in a particular vision and articulates a complex understanding of the way those flaws are inseparable from—genius. Among the transcendent contradictions of poetry, human or even esthetic weakness can be one of the springs of esthetic power.

Because he is so concerned with the absence of human relationships in so much poetry, Mr. Hass sometimes tends to welcome suggestions of sexual desire with an uncharacteristically uncritical enthusiasm. He is a stern judge of Surrealist sentimentalism about darkness and otherness, but when he finds traces of the erotic, Mr. Hass sometimes lets sentimentalism pass (in James Wright, for instance), and he does not always see the dangers of narcissism in the contemplation, especially male and abstract, of the sexual other. But it seems unduly crabby to insist on this small failing; let me suggest, as Mr. Hass does when he points to poetic flaws, that it is in ways inseparable from the strengths of Mr. Hass's own luminous sensibility.

Because of the range of that sensibility, many of these essays, especially the introduction to Rilke but even the rather too long discussion of prosody, are both interesting enough for a general audience and rigorous enough for professionals. Correspondingly, Mr. Hass's style balances conversational directness and eloquent complexity. However readers might argue with the details of his responses, his writing appeals. That comes naturally—if his highly self-conscious rhetoric can be described as natural—from his pleasure in poetry and in talking about poetry, always frankly mixed with enjoyment in talking about the self. The two are indivisible. Mr. Hass believes that poetry is what defines the self, and it is his ability to describe that process that is the heart of this book's pleasure.

Dick Davis (review date 15 March 1985)

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SOURCE: "Arguing in Unknown Quantities," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4276, March 15, 1985, pp. 293-94.

[In the following excerpt, Davis commends Hass for a collection that demonstrates his desire "to serve poetry—not appropriate it or crow over it or show off at its expense."]

We enter a different world, and one I think most readers of poetry would much rather live in, when we open Robert Hass's Twentieth Century Pleasures; his first sentence, "It's probably a hopeless matter, writing about favourite poems", establishes the tone—colloquial, welcoming, inviting complicity; and if you don't have favourite poems read no further. Hass is a poet himself and it shows; his love for poetry, his intimate awareness of how it is made and the kinds of effects it is capable of, are obvious on almost every page. This [book] … constantly sent me back with fresh understanding to poems I thought I knew, and in search of poems I had not known before.

The writing is relaxed, almost belletrist, certainly free of jargon: there are some brilliantly illuminating passages—the comparison of a James Wright poem with Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage, for example, and the scansion of a poem by Snyder. It may be that the writing will prove too personal for some readers (we learn a great deal about Hass's children in the course of the book), but the personal moments are often the most telling, as in the essay describing his own discovery of poetry during adolescence. An adolescent hunger for poetry is something he values and he quotes Octavio Paz with evident approval: "Young boys read verse to help themselves express or know their feelings, as if the dim intuited features of love, heroism or sensuality could only be clearly contemplated in a poem"; out of his own hunger a fine critical intelligence has grown. The book is helped by the fact that Hass writes almost entirely about poems and poets he likes: often his assurance is a little breathtaking (he confidently discusses poems he can read only in translation) and some of his aphorisms can seem more glib than true (particularly his dismissal of Herrick) but these are minor cavils. One reads here the prose of an intelligent man who wishes to serve poetry—not appropriate it or crow over it or show off at its expense—and this is a rare enough experience to arouse gratitude and admiration.

John Matthias (review date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: "Reading Old Friends," in Southern Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 391-406.

[In the following excerpt, Matthias, who is a personal acquaintance of Hass's, presents a thorough analysis of Twentieth Century Pleasures.]

Robert Hass begins one of the pieces in 20th Century Pleasures by saying that he has been "worrying the bone of this essay for days" because he wants to say some things against the poems he has agreed to discuss in a special issue of a journal celebrating the work of James Wright. I have been worrying the bone of this essay for days as well, but not because I want to say anything against the work I intend to discuss. I have decided to write in an autobiographical way [in this issue of the Southern Review and in the next] about three books … which are themselves autobiographical in different respects and which are, as it happens, all by old friends. I thought at first that it would be a very simple business to give a strictly personal and subjective account of these books. There would be no need to feign anything like a critical disinterest; it was specifically agreed that I should write about the work of friends from the perspective of a friend. But this is not an easy task. The chief reason why it isn't is that years ago all these books began for me as conversations or as an exchange of stories growing out of conversations—long talks with Hass first at Stanford and then later in the pubs and coffee shops of Cambridge about the art of poetry, stories traded back and forth with [Michael] Anania driving in Chicago traffic jams, accounts exchanged with [Jiri] Wyatt in the London of the later sixties as we struggled for a language to articulate a politics and to describe our primal childhood memories—and not as something printed on a page. Reading these conversations back into the texts, which is something that I find I cannot keep myself from doing, I am acutely aware that other readers are not doing this, though some are doubtless reading different, even contradictory, conversations back into the texts. Should my account include the conversations or restrict itself to the texts? If I am to be the autobiographer of my reading, as Robert Hass often is of his in 20th Century Pleasures, I must risk talking about a book that no one else can read. For example, there is a point in Hass's essay on Robert Lowell's "Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" where he deprecates "the slough of poetry" engendered by Life Studies beginning typically "Father, you…." I remember his making that point in a coffee shop across from Trinity College, and I remember saying: "Yes, but your father is still alive." Then he said—but it doesn't really matter what he said; he went on to qualify or modify the remark by saying something else. What began in conversation and was open to the natural processes of conversation becomes a telling point, decisively made, in an essay where I still hear the resonance and backwash of an exchange which occurred ten years ago. This conditions my reading and my response and, while both can be communicated, the second probably cannot be fully shared. It also suggests that it may be more difficult to talk about work by someone you know than by someone you don't.

Then there is the question of voice, or, as the theorists like to say, the question of presence. The related questions of voice, conversation, and presence are taken up by Denis Donoghue in his recent book on current theory and ideology called Ferocious Alphabets. This has suddenly become a very useful book to me precisely because the form of language which Donoghue wishes to privilege, which in fact he thinks is privileged, is conversation. Arguing that conversation is so radically different from the notion of communication proposed by such early twentieth-century theorists as Jacobsen and Richards that we should regard it as communion rather than communication, Donoghue writes that conversation is made memorable "by the desire of each person to share experience with the other, giving and receiving."

All that can be shared, strictly speaking, is the desire: it is impossible to reach the experience. But desire is enough to cause the reverberations to take place which we value in conversation…. The resonating force in a genuine conversation is not admiration, but desire. In conversation … the words enact desire … the "I" and "you" are constantly changing places; not only to maintain the desire of communion but to keep it mobile. The two voices are making a music of desire, varying its cadences, tones, intensities.

When you separate these two communing and fully embodied voices in such a way that one becomes a writer and the other a reader, certain kinds of compensation must occur. The writer's compensation for the lack of conversation's true communion is style. The reader in his turn "makes up for the tokens of absence which he finds in written words…. He is not willing to leave words as [he] finds them on a page [but] wants to restore words to a source, a human situation involving speech, character, personality…. We read to meet the other. The encounter is personal, the experience is satisfying in the degree of presence rather than knowledge."

If this kind of reading, which Donoghue has an ugly word for—he calls it epireading—commits one not only to the epos of speech but to the logocentrism attacked by the kind of reader engaged in an activity he has an even uglier word for, graphireading, the objections of the graphireaders might be summarized in the most severely reductionist terms by a bit of graffiti appearing in a recent Times Literary Supplement that looks to have been written by a deranged graduate student:

     D'ya wanna know the creed 'a
     Jacques Derrida?
     Dere ain't no reada
     Dere ain't no wrider
     Eider.

I don't know if I can be an "epireader" in general, but I think I am unavoidably and inescapably an "epireader" of my friends. I hear their voices and I feel the pleasure of their presence in their words. At the end of Ferocious Alphabets, Donoghue says that he detests the "current ideology which refers, gloatingly, to the death of the author, the obsolescence of the self, the end of man, and so forth…. To be sure that I exist, all I have to do is catch a cold or stumble on the pavement. Pleasure achieves the same effect more agreeably…. Knowledge is debatable, pleasure is not." Robert Hass calls his book 20th Century Pleasures and, I think, shares most of Donoghue's basic assumptions about the nature of literature and language. Still, he writes in his essay on Robert Creeley that underneath some of the typical pleasures of our time are uncomfortable things "which the mind must, slowly, in love and fear, perform to locate itself again, previous to any other discourse." And in his best known poem he writes:

     Longing, we say, because desire is full
     of endless distances.

In reading the work of friends, something of desire's communion in the pleasure of familiar voices is very present and very real; but so, of course, is the longing, and so are the distances. We fall asleep in the middle of a conversation and awake with a page of prose in our hands.

I am surprised that Helen Vendler in a recent review of 20th Century Pleasures and some other books about contemporary poetry feels that Hass fails to engage some of the questions and assumptions touched on or alluded to above. Taking the part of the theorists in the November 7, 1985 issue of the New York Review of Books, she argues that all practical criticism "assumes positions silently taken" about basic premises and says that she would like to see Hass and the others consider first principles or at any rate make the reader confident that "the theoretical questions had been silently put, and satisfactorily answered, before the writing was undertaken." Vendler is also worried about the autobiographical element in Hass's writing—its familiar tone, its "determined effort toward the colloquial," its attempt through what she calls "interpolated narratives" to communicate the idea that the texts under discussion have some connection with his own sensual life and the life of the times, that the books have literally been lived with for a while and not just read and rapidly reviewed to meet a deadline. Actually, Hass engages the fundamental premises of the theorists and implies his own in any number of his essays. The piece on Creeley, for example, deals in Lacanian and Derridian terms with a poetics "which addresses the tension between speaking and being spoken through language," but also makes clear through some "interpolated narratives" why such an "austere and demanding" poet as Creeley could communicate with a large and often uninstructed audience during the 1960s. The "interpolated narratives" imply a "premise" as fundamental as anything in Lacan and Derrida—namely, that art unfolds both in individual lives and our collective history, and that factors which only narrative can reveal condition our response to it. But of course there is no systematic statement of principles, no prolegomenon to any further study of contemporary poetry, in a book like this. It achieves its unity and authority from the manner in which art is shown to intersect with life. It is an autobiography of sorts.

Epireader of this text that I must be, the first thing I am conscious of in 20th Century Pleasures is a voice. It is a familiar voice, and it sounds like this:

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 sunlight. The sun had risen.

Wonder and repetition. Another morning I was walking Kristin to her bus stop—a light blanket of snow after thaw, the air thick with the rusty croaking of blackbirds so that I remembered, in the interminable winter, the windy feel of June on that hill. Kristin, standing on a snowbank in the cold air, her eyes alert, her face rosy with cold and with some purity of expectation, was looking down the road. It was eight-fifteen. Her bus always arrived at eight-fifteen. She looked down the road and it was coming.

Helen Vendler objects to what she feels marks a difficulty in controlling tone in a passage similar to this one taken from the final and most fully autobiographical essay in this book, which I am going to quote a little later on. It is an intentionally vulnerable passage and functions, along with others like it, to make clear exactly what elements, insofar as Hass is conscious of them, combine to condition his reading and his response, to make it his reading and his response rather than mine or Helen Vendler's or someone else's. It tells us some of what we need to know in order to understand his perceptions, his reactions, and his judgments. And it is especially in passages like it, and like the one quoted above, that I hear the familiar, amused, vigorous, disarming voice often touched with a Chekhovian irony and sadness that I know. I sense the presence of a friend and not a difficulty in controlling tone. One function of the passage about Hass's children is, of course, to get an essay about form begun in a relaxed and graceful way. No academic categories introduced, no pedagogical solemnities. But we are also persuaded by this kind of writing that his coincident experiences of "trying to think about form" and remembering the power of repetition in the lives of his young children yield the surprised perception out of which the essay grows, that "though predictable is an ugly little word in daily life, in our first experience of it we are clued to the hope of a shapeliness in things…. Probably, that is the psychological basis for the power and the necessity of artistic form." But let me take an example from the first essay in the book to demonstrate more fully the usefulness of narrative and autobiography:

On these terms, Lowell's prayer moved me.

What are "these terms," and what conditions them? The prayer which Hass is moved by occurs in Part V of "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket"—"Hide / our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side"—and the terms of his being moved are conditioned by the way in which his own inherited Catholicism has been modified or transmuted by a range of experiences and some important reading by the time it meets the intense but unorthodox Catholicism of a convert's poem. At the beginning of his essay, Hass says that it's difficult to conduct an argument about the value of music in favorite poems once it's gotten into the blood: "It becomes autobiography there." But so does the meaning of favorite poems become a kind of autobiography—so conditioned is it by the times and places and the circumstances of initial or repeated readings—and only narrative can really show us how this happens. After explaining the "enormously liberating perception" found in Robert Duncan's prose that "the mistake of Christianity was to think that the soul's salvation was the only human adventure" and, Christ seen therefore on an equal footing with the other gods, Pound's idea that they all were "forms of consciousness which men through learning, art and contemplation could inhabit," Hass writes this paragraph:

I got my Catholicism from my mother's side, Foleys from Cork by way of Vermont who drank and taught school and practiced law on the frontiers of respectability until they landed in San Francisco at the turn of the century. My father's side was Protestant and every once in a while, weary probably with the catechisms of his children, he would try to teach us one of his childhood prayers. But he could never get past the first line: "In my father's house there are many mansions…." He would frown, squint, shake his head, but that was as far as he ever got and we children who were willing to believe Protestants capable of any stupidity including the idea that you could fit a lot of mansions into a house, would return to memorizing the four marks of the true church. (It was one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.) But that phrase came back to me as a way through the door of polytheism and into myth. If Pound could resurrect the goddesses, there was a place for a temple of Christ, god of sorrows, desire of savior, restingplace of violence. I could have the memory of incense and the flickering candles and the battered figure on the cross with the infinitely sad and gentle face and have Aphrodite as well, "the fauns chiding Proteus / in the smell of hay under olive trees" and the intoning of Latin with which we began the mass: "Introibo ad altare Dei." On these terms, Lowell's prayer moved me: "Hide our steel, Jonas Messias, in thy side."

The essay on Lowell is important for a lot of reasons. It is the generative essay of the volume, written in England in the cold winter of 1977 when Hass and his family were living in the Cambridgeshire village of Little Shelford in a huge house owned by the master of St. John's College, which I had lived in two years before. The essay may be as personal, as autobiographical, as it is in part out of compensation for not being able to write, there in Little Shelford, the poems he had hoped to write in the course of the year away from his familiar turf in Berkeley and San Francisco. Actually, I feel vaguely guilty about this. I persuaded Hass to go to Cambridge for the year rather than to York where his Bicentennial Fellowship was really supposed to take him, thinking that it would be good to spend the year near one another—I was once again to be in the area—and that the big house in the little village would be as productive a place for him to live and work in as it had been for me two years before. Once the weather turned, all the poems were frozen out of his system—the house "has central heating," but the system is in a permanent state of disrepair—and he wrote very little poetry until the San Francisco sun had warmed his blood and spirit again eight or nine months later. He did, however, write a lot of prose, and he wrote this first essay of the present book which, I think, led to his wanting to write the others and established their characteristic tone and point of view. It begins and ends with recent and more distant memories of voices—that of a mild-looking schoolteacher in the Shelford pub who, when the subject of favorite poems came up one night, treated the locals to a recitation of Kipling's "Gunga Din," and the surprise of Robert Lowell's when Hass finally got to hear it at a reading, which sounded "bizarrely like an imitation of Lionel Barrymore" or "like a disenchanted English actor reading an Elizabethan sonnet on American television." So much, perhaps, for the possibility of being an epireader of poets whom we haven't heard give readings or of those we don't or cannot know. Hass's own poems returned to him again once he was back in the world where he and his brother, as he remembered in the pub, had also, like the Shelford teacher, loved as children reading Kipling aloud "on summer nights … in our upstairs room that looked out on a dusty fig orchard and grapevines spilling over the wooden fence." I suppose it would have been even colder in York than it was in Cambridgeshire. Anyway, the one piece in 20th Century Pleasures actually called a memoir returns Hass to "the San Francisco Bay Area as a culture region." It is a rich and evocative autobiographical essay, and it connects with the important reading of Milosz that comes just before and the remarkable "Images" which comes after.

In his Bay Area memoir, Hass is dealing in the most delicate and often amusing and ironic way with the fundamental mysteries of our common world as they were given a local habitation and a name in the area where he grew up. The memoir glosses his desire, in the Lowell essay, to have "the battered figure on the cross … and Aphrodite as well," and provides a context both for the way in which he deals with the gnostic side of Milosz and his celebration of the image in the final essay of the book. It begins, in fact, recalling Hass's attempt to write another essay—for one Sister Reginald to enter on his behalf in a competition sponsored by the National League for Decency in Motion Pictures about how fine a film could be made from a book called Stranded on an Atoll. In his comical account of the revisions and reversals of attitude while working on this junior high school project, Hass's memory connects Sister Reginald's austere Dominican habit first with the order itself, "founded in the 12th century as a kind of Papal CIA to root out the gnostic heresy of the Cathars," and then, to his surprise, with the modest dress of the Cathar women who had been burned alive at Montségur and elegized, as he had found years later, by both Pound and Robert Duncan. Hass's essay, revised at school but recopied at home before his favorite radio show came on—I Love a Mystery, heard ritually each night against the family rules but with his father's visible acquiescence—won a ten-dollar money order from a local bookshop where he bought, dizzy and confused by all the possibilities, A Comprehensive Anthology of American Poetry. Unable to understand any of the poems, he stumbles onto Stevens' "Domination of Black" with its cry of the peacocks. Though the young Hass does not at first remember the cry of the peacocks from the front yard of his Portuguese babysitter, the reader does at once, having read about them in the first paragraph of the memoir "trailing their tails in the dust" under a palm tree. Stevens' peacocks seem to announce the existence of another world. Hass read the poem again and again. "I read it exactly the way I lined up for a roller-coaster ride with a dime tight in my fist at Playland across the bay." It made him, he says, "swoon"—and it made him "understand what he word 'swoon' meant" a year before he found himself actually riding the Playland roller coaster beside a girl in his ninth-grade class he thought "the most beautiful being I had ever come close to in my life, which may also account for some of the previous year's swooning." Mysteries, then: The young boy's fascination with the Sister's habit and her "long beautiful hands which she waved in the air like doves when she conducted us at Mass in the singing of the Tantum Ergo and Pange Lingua," the Cathars at Montségur, the theosophical and gnostic writings standing behind the poetry of Robert Duncan later given association with these early memories, the hypnotized amazement at the sound of peacocks crying in what seemed to be an incomprehensible poem read over and over again like a mantra nevertheless, the similarly hypnotized amazement at the existence—at the otherness—of a beautiful girl, a radio program called I Love a Mystery mysteriously allowed to be heard even though it violated family rules, and the sound of peacocks crying in a babysitter's yard unconnected with the ones that cried in the poem, even unnoticed. In the same year he won the essay prize, Hass and his friends were playing baseball on teams sponsored by businessmen's clubs and insurance companies with hilarious names, especially when seen stitched on players' uniforms in competition, like Optimists and California Casualty. Playing center field, he heard the "irritated, prenocturnal cries of the peacocks" in the yard of the Portuguese babysitter. And the grown man writes:

I never once associated them with the Wallace Stevens poem. Art hardly ever does seem to come to us at first as something connected to our own world; it always seems, in fact, to announce the existence of another, different one, which is what it shares with gnostic insight. That is why, I suppose, the next thing artists have to learn is that this world is the other world.

Beside the baseball field ran a creek called Papermill. By the time Hass reads a poem by Kenneth Rexroth, who published "the first readable book of poems by a resident" of San Francisco in 1941, he is a little older. But reading that "Under the second moon the / Salmon come, up Tomales / Bay, up Papermill Creek, up / The narrow gorges to their spawning beds in Devil's Gulch" moves him deeply, and in a way very different from that in which he had been moved by "The Domination of Black" before. It is the presence of Papermill Creek in the poem that provides the final jolt and makes it "seem possible that the peacocks in Wallace Stevens and the scraggly birds under the palm tree could inhabit the same world."

These are some of the factors that condition the mind—the being-in-the-world—of the man who will read Milosz for us (and Rilke and Wright and Transtromer and Brodsky) and tell us about the nature of images, the music of poetry, and a poetic form which is "one body." We learn to trust his voice because he does not seek to mute its characteristic tones and intonations in the idiom of critic-talk or theoreze, and because, as they used to say in the sixties, we know—we are specifically told—where he's coming from. One of the places he is coming from is the 1960s, and Helen Vendler is right to point this out in her review. But she is wrong to stress the notion that Hass's aim is to rehabilitate the familiar essay. The familiar essay may be rehabilitated along the way in some of these pieces—and very winningly so at that—but the aim of the autobiography and "interpolated narratives" is to dramatize as vividly as possible the inevitable historical conditioning of both the texts to be read and the perceptions of the reader who intends to talk about them. Hass does not attempt to clear his mind of everything that's in it before turning to the poem on the page; instead, he gives us an account of what is in his mind when he begins to read and how it comes to be there. He does not stop living while he struggles with intractable profundities in Milosz or in Rilke; he shows us daily life as an illumination of the struggle. Even poems that do announce the existence of another world have got to be perceived in this one, and the history—both personal and social or political—which shapes the circumstances of their being read by this particular reader in this particular time in this particular place becomes, in Hass's writing, essential to the work at hand. The premises which Helen Vendler is looking for are found, essentially, in the narrative and autobiographical passages of the book. And not only premises, but a whole implied poetics. There is a moment—and Vendler doesn't like it; it is the passage she objects to in terms of what she regards to be a descent into bathos and a failure of tone—when Hass the particular reader becomes for a brief moment the perfectly average American of his time and place, which is one aspect of his existence as person and poet and reader of poems which he knows he must acknowledge.

I am a man approaching middle age in the American century, which means I've had it easy, and I have three children, somewhere near the average, and I've just come home from summer vacation in an unreliable car. This is the selva oscura.

That is the passage which Vendler quotes. But it goes on: "Not that it isn't true, but that it is not the particular truth. It is the average, which is different from the common; arbitrary, the enemy of form." And Hass is the friend of form.

In the Milosz essay, the Berkeley native, conditioned by a life that makes him in some ways a hostage to what he calls "the seemingly eternal Saturday afternoons of l'homme moyen sensuel" and in others a gifted and utterly displaced member of the diaspora of poets and readers of poems still half listening for the peacock's cry that announces the existence of another world, must deal with the fiercely isolated and visionary Berkeley immigrant from Lithuania who refuses "in the privacy of his vocation as a poet to become an accomplice of time and matter." This last, says Hass, is a difficult step for the American imagination to take.

Hass's imagination as a poet does not take that step, but his imagination as a critic follows with deep sympathy and understanding the voyage of Milosz as he takes it. The essay on images which ends the book probably comes closer than anything else to being Hass's Ars Poetica. The essay on Milosz, to use a word borrowed I think from Robert Duncan in these essays, gives "permission" for its affirmation of the world—of time and matter—by testing the most typical manifestations of the American poetic imagination against Milosz's "leap into dualism or gnosticism" seen against the full history of the poet's life and thought and, again, the factors conditioning the critic's reading. "It might be useful," he says, "to begin by invoking a time when one might turn to the work of Czeslaw Milosz."

The time turns out to be the later 1960s, and the first scene recalled is a protest march to the napalm plant in Redwood City which I remember very well participating in. Bearing our pathetically inadequate signs and listening to the hopelessly inane or merely rhetorical speeches, we did indeed "feel sheepish between gusts of affection for this ragtag army of an aroused middle class." In three pages of narrative and description as good as anything in Armies of the Night, Hass evokes the atmosphere of guilt, commitment, generosity, illusion, disillusion, cynicism, and craziness culminating in what he calls "a disease that was on me." He remembers the Second World War veteran who shaved his head, smeared himself with red dye, and began attending Quaker meetings carrying an American flag; the careerist professor who returned from a European antiwar demonstration "to wear jeans, T-shirt and a Mao cap to teach his course in Victorian bibliography"; a friend arrested with dynamite in his trunk driving off to blow up a local air base. On his way home from the Redwood City demonstration, he even catches a glimpse of his loathed double twenty years before its time, a version of "the man approaching middle age in the American century" from the essay on images in the form of a vacationing paterfamilias driving his wife and somewhere-near-the-average-number-of-children off to enjoy dinner "on a deck from which you can admire green pines, grey granite, blue sky … thousands of miles away [from] fear, violence, brothels, villages going up in an agony of flames." He thinks about myth and decides that "myth is about eating each other … man's first tool for sanctifying the food chain…. The world was a pig-out; or the matter-universe was a pig-out. As if there were some other universe to distinguish this one from."

The disease that was on him had various names—philosophy, theology, eschatology—and the one thing he felt he knew about them "was that they were the enemies of poetry." But they were the enemies of a poetry inherited from Williams and Pound, an American modernism which sought to render things rather than ideas, to build a poetry out of natural objects or pictographs "as if no one had ever thought before and nothing needed to be thought that was not shot through with the energy of immediate observation." The problem was that the things and objects and pictographs of an imagist or imagist-derived poetics threw "the weight of meaning back on the innocence and discovery of the observer, and something in the dramatic ambivalence of that gesture rhymed with the permanent unconscious of the man with the boat," the vacationing paterfamilias noticed while returning from Redwood City. Hass felt "vaguely ashamed" when he saw this in the poems he was reading. "I wanted to read a poetry by people who did not assume that the great drama in their work was that everything in the world was happening to them for the first time." He finds such a poetry in the work of Milosz, but also a poetry willing to postulate a universe different from this one, different from the pig-out matter-universe of Hass's eschatological disease which the medicine of American poetry didn't seem to cure.

Hass discusses or alludes to twenty-nine books by Milosz in his long and loving consideration of the full career, and I haven't space enough to outline the entire argument. For my own purposes, I want to focus on the end of the piece, the pages where Hass's poetic imagination sidles up most closely to Milosz's own, but where—because Milosz really does locate the disease Hass was suffering from in the matter-universe itself, and not in a particular subjective aberration caused by a particular objective moment in a nation's history—the two imaginations also must part company.

Hass argues that Simone Weil's lesson to Milosz that "contradiction is the lever of transcendence" gave the poet, who had also taken eros as one of his teachers, permission to dwell in contradiction: "and once that happened, eros—in the form of dream, memory, landscape—comes flooding back into his work" after the years in Paris during the 1950s. But since erotic poetry "is usually intense because it is narrow and specific, mute and focused," when the focus of Milosz's work "widens through a terrible and uncompromising love of his own vanished experience, the poetry, refusing to sacrifice the least sharpness of individual detail to that wider vision, makes a visceral leap into dualism or gnosticism." Hass writes three closely argued pages explaining exactly how this happens, concluding thus:

If you do not want one grain of sand lost, one moment lost, if you do not admit to the inexorable logic of the death or suffering of a single living creature, then you might, by a leap of intuition, say that it is all evil, because then nothing could be judged. Because it all dwelt in limitation or contradiction or, as Blake said, in Ulro. But the universe could be saved if you posited a totally independent but parallel universe of good in which each thing also had an existence. Thus, when the matter-universe fell away, the good universe survived.

Again, if you like, the cry of peacocks. But for Hass himself the other world announced has got to be this very world he's living in, the other universe the only universe we know.

In the final essay in the book—and I am passing over a brilliant reading of Rilke which falls between the Milosz essay and the essay celebrating images, not to mention half a dozen others of enormous interest—Hass becomes "an accomplice of time and matter." To praise things is not necessarily, as it comes to be in Milosz, "to praise the history of suffering; or to collude with torture and mutilation and decay." The American will out (with a little help from the Japanese), his illness purged perhaps by contemplating all the implications of the gnosis vouchsafed to the Lithuanian. But the most extraordinary thing about this essay is that it requires from life a vision as remarkable as any given to a Catholic mystic or a gnostic prophet, and that life cooperates with all the urgency that literature could possibly require of it.

It's difficult to know even what to call the essay on images. Like other essays in the book—but maybe here more fully achieved—it may invent a new nongeneric form of writing in its combination of vivid anecdote, personal reminiscence, literary history and analysis, meditation on life and death and imagery found in poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, mythology, and ordinary quotidian experience. Hass begins by gathering some images from his recent domestic life and running them through his mind along with others found in Chekhov, Buson, and Issa to demonstrate their power and the extent to which we may be haunted by them. He examines the nature of "the moment, different for different memories, when the image, the set of relationships that seems actually to reveal something about life, forms." Then he picks out such a moment: a woman camping with him and his family in a canyon about to tell a story of early sorrow: a frying pan in one hand, a scouring pad in the other, a Stellar's jay perched in the tree above her, Hass's son playing card tricks, a long granite moraine behind them, a meadow in the distance. Then Issa, then Buson, then Tu Fu who said of the power of images: "It's like being alive twice." Neither idea, nor myth, nor always metaphor, images do not explain or symbolize: "they do not say this is that, they say this is."

Hass walks through the rooms of his house feeling his life to be in part "a long slow hurdle through the forms of things." It is a sensation he resists because it implies a kind of passivity, but he would doubt the absence of the sensation because he knows his life is lived among the forms and facts and objects of the natural world. "The terror of facts is the purity of their arbitrariness. I live in this place, rather than that. Have this life, rather than that. It is August not September." Then comes the sentence about being a man approaching middle age in the American century having come home from a summer vacation. The true haiku of his recent domestic life would have to go, he says, something like this: "Bill and Leif want to climb Mount Allac and Karen and I are taking the Volkswagen to go fishing, so can you and Mom walk to the beach now and pick up Luke at Peter's later in Grandma's car?" Collecting images, beginning his essay, these distracting twentieth-century pleasures had begun to eat him up. He felt "a means to a means to a means" and longed for a little solitude in which to think about poems as arresting as Basho's haiku written just before his death: "Sick on a journey, / my dream hovers / over the withered fields."

At this point, Hass breaks off writing. The second part of his essay begins by unexpectedly incorporating an experience which has just occurred: "Because it is summer," he says, "I have been in the mountains again and am now back at the typewriter." The experience in the mountains has been shattering. Walking a path in Desolation Wilderness, Hass began to feel the prickly sensation and notice the rash of an allergic reaction which he sometimes gets. He ignored it and kept walking until the inside of his mouth began to swell, the sign of a generalized reaction which can end in one's throat closing up. He took two antihistamines, but the reaction intensified nevertheless, and he began to feel dizzy and frightened. He thought of the worst that might happen: that his son would have to punch a hole in his trachea with a knife; no, that he would die. The images and attendant memories that he had been collecting passed through his mind, including Basho's dream that "hovers over the withered fields." Then his legs gave way and he was on his back looking at the hillside and the sky: "everything green in the landscape turned white, and the scene flared and shuddered as if it were on fire." Later, after the antihistamines had taken hold and he had recovered, he felt as if he had been granted a vision of death: "White trees, white grass, white leaves; the snow patches and flowering currant suddenly dark beside them; and everything there, rock, tree, cloud, sky, shuddering and blazing. It was a sense, past speaking, past these words, that everything, all of the earth and time itself, was alive and burning."

This is an amazing passage to encounter in the middle of a literary discussion, and it ought finally to make clear that phrases such as "interpolated narratives" or categories like "familiar essay" don't begin to say enough about how Hass's writing works on us. After the death vision—and it is a vision of death, not resurrection, not the vision of Czeslaw Milosz where "the demiurge's workshop will be stilled … / And the form of every single grain will be restored in glory"—Hass returns gratefully to time and things and human beings to celebrate the world of the peacocks in the babysitter's yard, the other world which is this world, and the sensation great art and image-making give us of marrying that world, of living in the grain at the permission of eros and "in the light of primary acts of imagination." He doesn't give up the idea from the Milosz essay that many things bear thinking about that are not "shot through with the energy of immediate observation," but he does, here, affirm that energy as one of the supreme values in poetry. In spite of this, or maybe even because of it, the essay is death-haunted to the end, and this is one of the things that makes it so exceptionally memorable. "The earth turns, and we live in the grain of nature, turning with it…. When the spirit becomes anguished or sickened by this cycle, by the irreversibility of time and the mutilation of choice, another impulse appears: the monotheist rage for unity…." One sometimes finds this rage in Hass's work both as poet and critic, but not very often; not, at any rate, unless it appears as the "fuel" which he says can power "the natural polytheism of the life of art." Remember the essay on Lowell's monotheistic rage in "The Quaker Graveyard" and the terms according to which Hass was able to be moved by the prayer at the end of its fifth part. For the rest, the essay delicately builds a collage of images from the haiku masters, from Pound and Williams and H.D., from Whitman and Chekhov and Cézanne, and comments on them, bringing life's experiences—his own and those of the artists whose work he loves—to bear upon that commentary. If we are lucky, he says, the images in terms of which we live our lives "are invisibly transformed into the next needful thing." (The danger is in clinging just to one, to the exclusion of yet others which should naturally compose themselves.) Though there is something of Basho's spirituality and a lot of Issa's humanity in the prose of 20th Century Pleasures, I associate the author of these essays most of all with the spirit of Buson whose "apparent interest in everything that passed before his eyes and the feeling in his work of an artist's delight in making" provide a sense of "something steadying and nourishing" for Hass. I am similarly steadied and nourished by his own work here, and by the sound of a voice that I think I know. Concluding his book by quoting a final Buson haiku about whale-watching, Hass remembers his own participation in a West Coast version of that ritual and says: "We go to glimpse being." And of the poet himself, whose whale-watchers in the haiku find no whales: "Buson is not surprised by the fullness and the emptiness of things."

Carolyn Kizer (review date 12 November 1989)

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

[In the following excerpt, Kizer praises Hass's 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 articles go together because they are together, in one bag. But it is Mr. Hass's associative processes, his associated sounds and his strategies that enhance, combine and weave together these elements to give his poems their rich and singular flavor.

     when Luke was four or five
     he would go out … still in his dandelion
     yellow pajamas on May mornings
     and lie down on the first warm stone
 
     Later, on street corners,
     you can hardly see the children, chirping
     and shivering, each shrill voice climbing over
     the next in an ascending chorus "Wait, you guys,"
     one little girl says, trying to be heard
     "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait" …
 
     Richard, who had recently divorced,
     idly rolling a ball with someone else's child,
     healing slowly, as the neighbor's silky mare
     who had had a hard birth in the early spring,
     stood quiet in the field as May grew sweet,
     her torn vagina healing

[The poems in Human Wishes] need to be heard, spoken resonances, pauses, intonations, the vocal music. Mr. Hass is a poet of domestic passion—for children, friends, the household, the neighborhood, for women as lovers, women as friends. His publisher speaks of his work as poems of loss, of mutilation. Rather, he is a poet of abundance, a romantic of the breakfast table, of a companionable walk in his California hills. Perhaps his publisher was bemused—as well she might be—by his elegy to a vanished life, a miscarried child, called "Thin Air." This noble poem, which defies paraphrase and should not be amputated by quotation, is the keystone of a remarkable book.

David Barber (review date December 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of Human Wishes, in Boston Review, Vol. XIV, No. 6, December, 1989, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Barber compares Human Wishes to Hass's earlier work.]

While not quite as rare as a lunar eclipse, a new book of poems by Robert Hass isn't likely to escape notice. In his first two collections, Field Guide (1973) and Praise (1979), Hass helped ignite a running dialogue between the possibilities of the lyric and the demands of the intellect. And the intellect, in his case, seemed to have won out. Over the past decade Hass's prominence has owed less to his distinctively crafted poems than to his determined undertakings as a critic (Twentieth Century Pleasures, a volume of gracefully erudite essays, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1984) and translator (most notably, by way of his working partnership with Berkeley neighbor Czeslaw Milosz).

At an age by which many of his contemporaries are starting to cobble together their selected poems, Hass's restrained literary enterprise has had about it an air of almost monkish detachment. Naturally, then, one is tempted to regard the conspicuous hiatus between collections as the product of either painstaking ambitions or painful reservations. Human Wishes, as it turns out, provides ample evidence on both sides.

"I think I must have thought / the usual things," Hass muses early in "On Squaw Peak," a supple elegy for a miscarried child that closes the book. It's a moment that could serve as a refrain. Human Wishes teems with Hass's "usual things": studious observations of his native California landscape, reflections on the failed paradigms of language and desire, dilemmas over art's relation to social circumstance, appeals to a muscular sense of history and memory. But what gives the line its signature ring and the book its familiar cast is Hass's characteristic attempt to eavesdrop on his own intelligence, his impulse toward incessant revision and quiet skepticism. Nor has this most self-conscious of poets broken the mold of his colloquial yet elliptical meditative manner: more than ever, Hass seems to want to be overheard more than he wishes to address us, so absorbed is he in the workings of his mind, the sifting of his experience, and the act of articulation itself.

What's always righted Hass's tilt toward solipsism is his infectious zest—verging at times on fetish—for the world's sensual particulars. Happily, Human Wishes draws nourishment from a bulging horn of plenty—"sweet hermaphrodite peaches and the glister of plums," "the frank nipples of brioche," "chunks of cooked chicken in a creamy basil mayonnaise a shade lighter than the Coast Range in August." Riffs like these tell us unmistakably that we've happened onto a Hass poem. Where else can the mandarin break bread with the mystic, the Epicurean sit down with the Stoic? Yet Human Wishes confirms that there's more to Hass than courtly efforts to keep body and mind on speaking terms. The give and take of passionate dialectics lends this book its very grain, abstraction answering to detail, pleasure to pain, clarity to mystery, epiphany to commonplace. Then there's Hass's noted penchant for fleshing out contraries by way of the flesh itself, his candid tracking shot into bedrooms where lovers entwine in a blur of ardor and desperation. This time around, in two of the volume's finer poems, Hass opens the door on a couple who are "trying to become one creature / and something will not have it" ("Misery and Splendor") and who "close their eyes again and hold each other, each / feeling the mortal singularity of the body / they have enchanted out of death for an hour or so" ("Privilege of Being").

Obsessive though Hass is, mulish he's not. Despite unquestionable similarities in theme and manner, Human Wishes is at once a more ingratiating and disquieting book than its predecessors. Paradoxically, it appears as if Hass's poems now rest easier in their skins even as they feel sharper chills in their bones. He's more assured than ever, for example, in quarrying poems out of the personal and the local, in naming names and limning intimacies, all but pulling up a chair for us at the family table in his conviction that poetry begins at home. Hass's wife, children, and friends not only are routinely invoked but generously quoted, even, as in "Santa Barbara Road," when words are barely within reach: "Household verses: 'Who are you?' / the rubber duck in my hand asked Kristen / once, while she was bathing, three years old. / 'Kristen,' she said, laughing, her delicious / name, delicious self." It's difficult to think of any poet since Williams who so persuasively brings the pulse of daily common life to the page.

A good portion of that daily life, however, teeters on doubt and resignation. In Hass's previous books melancholy lapped at the poems' edges; here it wells up at almost every step. One trace of this residual sorrow can be detected in the nearly complete absence of Hass's once customary delight in marrying refined poetic measure to unpruned organic forms, the best efforts of which (Praise's "Weed" comes to mind) suggested a sturdy hybrid of hothouse prosody and wayside vernacular. In Human Wishes, he's given himself over almost entirely to the long line and block stanza, steadfastly adhering to unadorned, prose-like rhythms throughout the sinuous paragraphs and strict prose poems of the first half of the book and the sequences and monologues of the second. Nothing if not resourceful, he's cultivated a more open, intimately epistolary verse that makes room for everything from strenuous metaphysics, beguiling storytelling, and wry recollections to haiku-like snapshots, flinty epigrams, and tremulous lyricism. Yet, on another level, the self-effacing withdrawal from poetic shapeliness, the occasionally stolid essayistic manner, betrays a sensibility increasingly consumed with diminishment and flux. "There is no need for this dream-compelled narration," writes Hass abruptly at the close of "Late Spring," biting off the poem's lulling seasonal evocation: "the rhythm will keep me awake, changing."

Change Hass has, though time and age alone cannot account for the somber hues of Human Wishes. Even the youthful Hass was wise to how myths and hopes exhaust themselves, how language turns in on itself, how mindfulness is a mixed blessing. Here his concessions run deeper: provisionality and mutability make hash of human will and insight, not to mention human wishes. And where does that leave the poet? In part, prematurely autumnal (there's no small irony in the fact that so many poems here are spring and summer set pieces); in part, tempering his reckonings with a poetry unashamed of bordering here and there on prayer. Frost, you'll recollect, aspired to verse that might provide "momentary stays against confusion." Hass's new poems, whether zeroing in on the "interval created by if, to which mind and breath attend," or reaching to embrace "the blessedness of gathering and the blessing of dispersal," strive for equilibrium amid disorder—and reward us more often than not with something we might call equipoise.

Don Bogen (review date 11 December 1989)

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SOURCE: "A Student of Desire," in Nation, Vol. 249, No. 20, December 11, 1989, pp. 722-23.

[Bogen is an author and educator. In the following review, he remarks favorably on Human Wishes.]

What's immediately striking in Robert Hass's work is the sheer abundance of pleasures. Who else among our poets would bring together the delights of landscape, climate and food in a salad "with chunks of cooked chicken in a creamy basil mayonnaise a shade lighter than the Coast Range in August" ("Vintage") or include a recipe for onion soup—complete with shredded Samsoe and advice on how to eat it with friends—as a "Song to Survive the Summer"? In his incisive collection of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures, Hass set our engagement with poetry squarely in the context of other forms of satisfaction—in domestic life, in nature, in the senses. The title of his new book of poetry, Human Wishes, reveals his basic concerns: He is a student of desire, of what we want and how likely we are to get it.

If one pleasure of poetry is the evocation of beautiful things, Hass's work definitely satisfies. From his first book, Field Guide, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973, through Praise in 1979 and now Human Wishes, he has shown a mastery of sensory description, combining the light touch of a calligrapher with the specificity of a botanist. Place—particularly northern California, where he grew up and now lives—has always been central in Hass's poetry, and few writers capture the special qualities of this environment as well. "January" gives a fine sense of that gorgeous oddity, a Bay Area winter:

     Back at my desk: no birds, no rain,
     but light-the white of Shasta daisies,
     and two red geraniums against the fence,
     and the dark brown of wet wood,
     glistening a little as it dries.

Hass's continuing engagement with Japanese poetry is evident here. Casual in tone, the lines seem almost transparent, as if they were just a moment's observation. Yet their arrangement is exquisite. The contrast between the blank monosyllables of the first line and a half—"no birds, no rain"—and the sudden appearance of those specific, polysyllabic Shasta daisies; the step-by-step expansion of the color scheme—"white," "red," then "dark brown"; the subtle echoes of sound in "red" and "wet," "daisies" and "dries"; and the hint of blank verse for closure in the last line show a rigorous and self-effacing craftsmanship. The lines have been written so well they hardly seem "written" at all.

With his California subjects and his skill at evocation, Hass could easily have settled for the reproduction of a predictable and popular verse "product." Indeed, a few years after Field Guide came out, a small fad for poems with references to food, accounts of hikes and other surface elements of his work flourished in the literary magazines. But Hass is after something more than sensuous word painting. The mind behind the description is analytical, probing, unsatisfied with the conventional stances language often provides. The poems in Human Wishes are energetic and full of surprises. They turn on themselves suddenly, breaking into self-consciousness or rejecting their initial visions, as when the idyllic reverie of "Late Spring" is revealed to be a fabrication that keeps the poet awake at night, or the list of pretty images at the start of "Spring Drawing" and again in "Spring Drawing 2" implies but then fails to generate a sentence.

Hass's awareness of the limits of language helps fuel his restless exploration of different poetic strategies. Each of his books makes use of a range of approaches and forms, from rhymed iambic pentameter to haiku, from brief lyrics to sequences of fragments to long discursive meditations. In Human Wishes he consolidates the strengths of his earlier work while pushing on into fresh territory. The first section of the book, for example, develops a new kind of line: lengthy, proselike in its rhythms and set off in a stanza by itself. These lines function as independent postulates in an argument, some plush and physical like the one about chicken salad, others gnarled with abstraction like these from the first poem in the book, "Spring Drawing":

     as if spirit attended to plainness only,
     the more complicated forms ex-
     hausting it, tossed-off grapestems
     becoming crystal chandeliers,
 
     as if radiance were the meaning of
     meaning, and justice responsible to
     daydream not only for the strict
     beauty of denial,
 
     but as a felt need to reinvent the inner
     form of wishing.

Hass has never shied away from the language of theoretical discourse. In fact, he finds a rarefied music in the polysyllabic abstractions, long clauses and parallel constructions of his argument. This is not a music everyone will enjoy. It can be daunting to encounter a passage like the one above on the first page of a book of poetry. But if the demands on a reader are high, they signal Hass's commitment to his enterprise: an art that can both evoke and analyze the complexity of human desires.

The second section of Human Wishes consists of prose poems, a form prefigured in some of the work in Praise but not developed consistently until now. Rimbaud is the father of this type of poem, and much American work in the genre still reads like a bad translation from the French. Hass has avoided the portentousness and easy surrealism that can afflict paragraphs trying too hard to be poetic. Instead, he looks to narrative models—the short story, the anecdote—as well as to allegory and the personal essay as guideposts. A few of the shorter prose poems—"Duck Blind," "In the Bahamas"—can seem a little thin, but the longer pieces give him room to juxtapose scenes and events, building up a constellation of meaning. "The Harbor at Seattle," for example, looks at friendship and personal tragedy within different contexts of history, art and work. Each paragraph in this beautifully structured poem works like a controlled reaction as the poet puts two elements together, notes the effects, then moves on to the next step. In the title poem of Human Wishes, Hass achieves a more dense interactive texture. This page-long paragraph uses rapid shifts of focus, from the Upanishads to a Cambridge pub, to expose a web of varied individual desires—for beauty, for understanding, for wealth, for a good time with friends—in all its intricacy and imperfection.

The unspoken element in all "human wishes" is, of course, vanity. Hass may not be as explicit as Juvenal on this point—he finds beauty in some of these wishes, flawed as they are—but he's well aware of the devastating power of time and human failings. In the extended meditations that make up the last two sections of Human Wishes, he traces pleasures and their loss—in love, in family life, in the living world—with intelligence and a deft control of tone. Despite the wealth of personal detail in these poems, there is little overt self-dramatization. The poet is not set up as the tragic hero of his own life. His presence in the work is rather that of a man thinking: remembering, describing, defining, comparing, imagining.

As in the prose poems, the strength of these meditations lies in Hass's ability to handle several themes at the same time and his exploration of the range of possibilities the form presents. In one of the most intriguing, "Berkeley Eclogue," he takes on the hoary literary convention of the pastoral dialogue. The decorous speech of stylized shepherds becomes an internal argument, with a harsh second voice—a kind of nagging muse—prodding the poet toward more clarity and depth with italicized comments such as "You can skip this part" and "Do you believe in that?" Other meditations are symphonic in structure. "Santa Barbara Road" introduces, repeats and varies several different motifs—the poet building a bench, children and their parents, classical Chinese thought, June weather, various walks—in an extended reflection on the abundance and impermanence of family life.

Hass's sense of the interrelatedness of all human endeavor gives his book a breadth of perspective and a distinct focus. Even the man brewing one cup of tea and immersing himself in his own memories at the end of "Thin Air" is connected to the frustrated warehouse worker who packed the tea leaves. This is not liberal sympathy but a recognition of how things work, of the context of suffering and loss in which we live. It is a mark of Hass's integrity as a poet that he rejects the usual consolations here. Art, nature, love—these are certainly pleasures but not solutions. They are parts of what he calls in "On Squaw Peak"

     … the abundance
     the world gives, the more-than-you-
     bargained-for
     surprise of it, waves breaking,
     the sudden fragrance of the mimulus at
     creekside
     sharpened by the summer dust.
     Things bloom up there. They are
     for their season alive in those bright
     vanishings
     of air we ran through.

If the first half of the passage is as rich and surprising as its subject, the last sentence stumbles on the perfect awkward placement of "for their season." In Human Wishes Robert Hass captures both the brightness of the world and its vanishing.

John Ash (review date 31 December 1989)

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SOURCE: "Going Metric," in Book World—The Washington Post, December 31, 1989, p. 6.

[In the following excerpt, Ash offers a negative appraisal of the poems in Human Wishes, with the exception of "Natural Theology."]

[Human Wishes] raises disturbing questions about what can be said to constitute a poem today. I am not referring to the fact that the first two of its four sections are written in prose. In fact the opening sequence of prose poems is by far the best part of the book. The prose here is elaborate and compacted in such a way that we are left in no doubt that we are reading poetry, but, despite some good moments, the pieces in the second section obstinately refuse to catch fire. Inconsequential anecdotes (a visit to the doctor, an upper-middle-class dinner party, remarks the neighbors made) are recorded in prose that is unremarkable when not actually clichéd. Hass seems to have fallen victim to confused intentions and weakly sentimental failings.

Sentimentality is often taken as evidence that the writer's heart is in the right place, that he is just too close to his material. But Wallace Stevens's stern definition of sentimentality as "a failure of feeling" is the correct one. This failure also infects the verse that follows in parts three and four. When Hass remarks of "the famous night / we first made love" that "I think I remember / stars, that the moon was watery and pale," it isn't the facile romanticism that irritates so much as the inauthenticity betrayed by that "I think I remember." One either remembers or one does not. Hass is being coy.

His habit of continually mentioning family and friends by name also makes the poems a little too cozy for comfort. Hass has made the common mistake of assuming that the details of middle-class, intellectual domesticity are innately interesting. This is writing that is confined by class, writing that routinely signals "sadness," "love" and "loss" in fluent, characterless language. Attempts at a more heightened style only result in unconvincing mannerism. The opening lines of "Privilege Of Being" suggest that Rilke has a lot to answer for:

     Many are making love. Up above, the angels
     in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing
     are braiding one another's hair, which is strawberry blond
     and the texture of cold rivers …

After reading this it is impossible to believe any thing that Hass says in the rest of the poem. What follows is in any case a concatenation of some of the hoariest clichés in the poetic lexicon (subcategory: making love), for example, "awkward ecstasy," "mortal singularity of the body" and "unspeakable sadness." I will not go on. But it is worth dwelling on this failure since Hass is a poet of real talent. He proved this in his last collection, Praise, and he proves it again, here, with "Natural Theology," a genuinely affecting poem that addresses itself with impressive eloquence to "the imagination of need from which the sun keeps rising into morning light." Let us hope that this poem will set the tone for his next collection.

Darcy Aldan (review date Spring 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Human Wishes, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 313.

[In the following review, Aldan praises Hass's imagery in Human Wishes.]

The delicacy and sensibility of Robert Hass, as exemplified in his new volume of poetry, Human Wishes, is a distinct joy to experience in this time when so many published works deal with violence, aberration, and alienation. His elegant gleanings of essence, often impressionist in tone, make us aware once again that beauty and meaningful silence still exist; that the day's events, as they progress into weeks, months, seasons in the cycle of life, are timeless and universal. What is required is that one remain attentive. Hass has done so, and has used his skill to record, and to remind us.

The collection is divided into four parts, through which various themes weave in flowing rhythm and resonance of imagery, among them the theme of progression, of metamorphosis. In mingling the sublime with the "everyday," as Mallarmé called it, the inner life is revealed, and we are grateful to acknowledge that this does not occur computerlike. Careful selection of details and image placement here lead not to naturalism but to art, to the true poem. Thus Hass succeeds in achieving what Mallarmé attempted: to depict "non la chose, mais l'effet qu'elle produit." Hass's poems, however, are not the convoluted, complex, multimeaning structures of the French poet, but rather an easy-flowing form consonant with the English language and the evolution of poetic structure.

Parts 1 and 4 contain the most successful poems, the latter section being a veritable apotheosis toward which the rest of the collection ascends. At the very start, in "Spring Dawning," Hass states: "A man thinks lilacs against white houses … and can't find his way to a sentence, a brushstroke carrying the energy of brush and stroke … as if radiance were the meaning of meaning, and justice responsible to daydream not only for the strict beauty of denial but as a felt need to reinvent the inner form of wishing." Later, in "Spring Dawning 2," he will say, "A man says lilacs against white houses, two sparrows, one streaked, in a thinning birch, and can't find his way to a sentence."

In part 2 an attempt is made to create the prose poem. Hass's is not the prose poem of Mallarmé, Poe, or even W. S. Merwin, but rather similar to those of the Swiss poet Albert Steffen, who calls his creations "little myths." Among those, the one called "January," with its combination of structured verse and narration, is an evocative experience. This section contains observations, nostalgia, memories, dreams, in sudden beautiful images, as in the poem "Calm": "The meadow, you remember the meadow? And the air in June which held the scent of it as the woman in religious iconography holds the broken son? [That is amazing!]… You can go into that meadow, the light routed by a brilliant tenderness of green." Another enjoyable image occurs in "Novella": "It lay in her memory like one piece of broken tile, salmon-colored or the deep green of wet leaves, beautiful in itself but unusable in the design she was making."

In part 3 the poet returns to the familiar verse structure, but in a free projected line and rhythm. "The Apple Trees at Olema" alone would make the volume worth owning. A magical atmosphere and tone are created by such lines as "She is shaken by the raw, white, backlit flaring / of the apple blossoms" or "a thin moon of my dismay / fades like a scar in the sky to the east of them." Moments of sadness, love, and communion are captured and re-created with economy, suggestion, and skill. Hass weaves events as a spider might weave a delicate silken net and depicts "so many visions / intersecting at what we call the crystal / of a common world."

In part 4 the profusion of exquisite images is so great I can only recommend that any poetry lover purchase the collection, for choosing an image or two to quote seems inadequate. Perhaps the following lines from "Natural Theology," however, will whet the appetite for beauty:

… and the fluting of one bird where the road curves and disappears,

becoming that gap or lack which is the oldest imagination of need, defined more sharply by the silvergrey region just before the sun goes down and the clouds fade through rose to bruise to the city-pigeon color of the sky going dark and the wind comes up in brushstroke silhouettes of trees and to your surprise the window mirrors back to you a face open, curious, and tender….

In "Tall Windows" the secret of Hass's creative esthetic is revealed: "What kept you awake was a feeling that everything in the world has its own size, that if you found its size among the swellings and diminishings it would be calm and shine." Hass finds the size of disparate experiences and renders them calm—and they shine.

Bruce Bond (essay date Fall 1990)

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SOURCE: "An Abundance of Lack: The Fullness of Desire in the Poetry of Robert Hass," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XII, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 46-53.

[In the following essay, Bond centers on Hass's manipulation of language as he discusses themes of desire, loss, and redemption in Hass's poetry and prose.]

The word "clarity" is often unclear. If by "clear" we mean "under the clarifying light of reason," placed with quieting control in a world promoted as stable, without contradiction, then Robert Hass's poetry is repeatedly unclear. But if by "clear" we mean "lit by an immanent light," creating a persuasive model of consciousness in all its disjunctions, wonder and loss, paradox and uncertainty, then Hass's poetry has a clarity which puts its language under immense pressure. Through Hass's clarifying lens, we see words as gestures of longing rather than vestiges of truth, as motivated by a sense of their own failure, a sense of lack that no discourse can finally fill. As though always on the threshold of saying what it cannot, Hass's language is both haunted and invigorated by an "immense subterranean" absence, an absence which we imagine nevertheless as a kind of presence, a "counter-pressure" akin to a displaced unconscious. If his view toward language as both the product and producer of desire, as driven by a sense of lack at the core of its being, appears strikingly Lacanian, it may come as small surprise that Hass recalls, in his essay on Robert Creeley [in Twentieth Century Pleasures], the arrival of Jacques Lacan's Ecrits on the Anglo-American shore as revolutionary, full of both astonishing and troubling notions that struck the contemporary nerve.

The distinguishing generosity of Hass's work lies in how he turns the everpresence of lack, both as reflected and created by language, into not only a testament of loss, but also an occasion for praise—that which endears the ephemera of our lives. By way of language, absence eroticizes the world. Despite how we may feel troubled in Hass's poetry by what language cannot accommodate, his is not the austere, archetypal, syntactically pared-down universe we often find in so-called poetry of silence—much of W. S. Merwin's verse, for instance. Hass's world is abundant, expansive, richly textured with unexpected detail, philosophical and intimate, unmistakably anchored in daily life yet appealing to our lust for wonder, astonishing us with, what Hass calls in his description of Yosa Buson's poetry [in Twentieth Century Pleasures], "the fullness and emptiness of things."

Thus language in its failure to tell the whole truth appears in Hass's poetry as nevertheless redemptive, since such failure animates the imagination and inspires its continual revisions. In Hass's later work, we feel the imaginative urge to renew let loose with particular abandon and an especially disjunctive logic. But although desire may cause disjunctions in consciousness, bringing to mind always the next needful thing, there are complicating moments in Hass's verse where desire appears briefly, paradoxically, as a connecting medium, a bridge made of the distance to be bridged. It joins what can-not logically be joined: self and other, past and present, word and the signified world.

Hass's view of words as gestures of longing, as both empty and full, animated by loss, is perhaps most familiar to his readers by way of his second collection of poems, Praise—in particular, the much anthologized poem "Meditation at Lagunitas" with its potently aphoristic claims that yield to an affectionately particularizing language, language which, as Hass makes explicit, can never be particular enough to bridge the gap between word and world:

     All the new thinking is about loss.
     In this it resembles all the old thinking.
     The idea, for example, that each particular erases
     the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the
     clown-faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
     of that black birch is, by his presence,
     some tragic falling off from a first world
     of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
     because there is in this world no one thing
     to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
     a word is elegy to what it signifies.

The word's longing to cross that impermeable Saussurian bar, to embrace the signified world on the other side, resembles a desire to retrieve a lost past, as though that past harbored an original unity of self and other—a paradise lost, "a first world of undivided light."

The paradox of desire characterizes the paradox of language in that each presupposes a distance between opposites—self and other, past and present, signifier and signified—while creating the very basis for their intimacy. In the life of words, a greeting is always a farewell, an elegy. As Lacan claims, "the being of language is the non-being of objects" ("The direction of the treatment …," Ecrits). And this non-being strangely discloses itself as a presence, a yearning, the very conveyance of the abundance of the world:

    Longing, we say, because desire is full
    of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
    But I remember so much, the way her hands
    dismantled
     bread,
    the thing her father said that hurt her, what
    she dreamed. There are moments when the body is
    as
     numinous
    as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
    Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
    saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
    (Praise)

Desire is full, freighted with the stuff of memory, that which seems both immanent and distant. In reciting a text of remembered things, we are thus made up of a world we lack.

The phrase "numinous as words" recalls the Latin word numen ("the spiritual"). Since the numinous world is by definition contradistinguished from the physical, to call the body "numinous as words" is to blur the very concept of numinosity, to confuse so-called inner and outer domains. Such "cross-breeding" is in keeping with a typically Romantic conception of the imagination, that which invests the world with consciousness and consciousness with the world. By way of the image as the point of fusion, the word is made flesh. In his essay "Images" [in Twentieth Century Pleasures], Hass writes, "that confusion of art and life, inner and outer, is the very territory of the image; it is what an image is. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us." Bound up inextricably in its lost presence, the word blackberry is itself sweet and palpable.

The notion of the body as numinous derives the power to astonish from its illogic—the fact that Hass in one stroke asserts and denies a distinction. Even the most intimate relation between inner and outer, present and past, self and nature, signified and signified presupposes a distance—a difference. And it is this difference which drives the imagination forward. In his essay "One Body: Some Notes on Form" [in Twentieth Century Pleasures], Hass claims that he doesn't share Wordsworth's belief that a childlike alliance with nature represents "the first / Poetic spirit of our human life." According to Hass, the urge to create grows rather out of a broken alliance. Hass states, "I have none of [Wordsworth's] assurance, either about the sources of the order of nature or about the absolute continuity between that first nurturing and the form-making activity of the mind. It seems to me, rather, that we make our forms because there is no absolute continuity, because those first assurances are broken. The mind, in the act of recovery, creates."

"Meditation at Lagunitas" pays tribute to memory as such an act, a creative and affectionate response to a fall from the first world of undivided light. Hass's poem "Natural Theology" from his third collection of poems, Human Wishes, offers a similar tribute, though exploring in more detail the evolutionary pattern of a consciousness:

     White daisies against the burnt orange of the windowframe,
     lusterless redwood in the nickel gray of winter,
     in the distance turbulence of water—the green
     regions
     of the morning reflect whatever can be gained,
     normally,
     by light, then give way to the blue regions of the afternoon
     which do not reflect so much as they remember,
     as if the light, one will all morning, yielded to a doubleness
     in things—

In this first world, "the green regions / of the morning," the images, with their precision of coloristic detail, appear designed to dazzle us, not with their symbolic weight, but with their mere presence, their visual sweets. They have a primary potency to them. In his essay "Images," Hass explains:

It seems to me that we all live our lives in the light of primary acts of imagination, images or sets of images that get us up in the morning and move us about our days. I do not think anybody can live without one, for very long, without suffering intensely from deadness or futility.

In "Natural Theology," Hass's way of describing the mode of this world's first appearance works to circumvent the perceiver/perceived distinction associated with "the second world," the world of language and the broken alliances that language presupposes. Not a perceiver, but the green regions themselves "reflect," and the degree to which this reflection implies transformation in the process of emergence is ambiguous. The regions, according to Hass, simply "reflect whatever can be gained, normally, by light." What is clear is that, as time passes, this light and its green regions yield to an increasingly associative consciousness. Once again, Hass's essay enlarges our reading of the poem:

I think that, for most of us, those images are not only essential but dangerous because no one of them feels like the whole truth and they do not last. Either they die of themselves, dry up, are shed; or, if we are lucky they are invisibly transformed into the next needful thing.

Secondary acts of the imagination, being more transformative, are more obviously metaphorical, and thus we find ourselves more obviously in the realm of language.

Although Hass does not explicitly associate the "green regions" with infantile experience, such a world resembles the imaginary order which Lacan claims precedes a child's "mirror stage." The mirror stage marks not only the advent of language, but also the emergence of selfhood, made precarious since images of the self are always "out there," mirrored back from the world. In Lacan's words, the "I" "is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other" ("The Mirror Stage," Ecrits). Hass's poem dramatizes a similar mirror stage, a point at which the dynamics of memory make possible the perception of similitude and difference and thus the tension between the two as language. With an associative consciousness, identification becomes possible, and the narcissistic imagination perceives a mirroring sheen on the surface of the other:

     images not quite left behind rising as an undertow
     of endless transformation against the blurring world
     outside the window where, after the morning clarities,
     the faint reflection of a face appears; among the images
     a road, repetitively, with meadow rue and yarrow
     whitening its edges, and pines shadowing the cranberry
       brush,
     and the fluting of one bird where the road curves
     and
       disappears,
     becoming that gap or lack which is the oldest
       imagination
     of need, defined more sharply by the silver-gray region
     just before the sun goes down …
                                     (Human Wishes)

Though one's literally reflected physical bearing provides a metaphor for the self as discrete, that independence is threatened by the otherness of the reflective surface. In Hass's poem, we feel the dissonance implicit in the emergence of selfhood as the reflected face floats tentatively over a restless flux of images.

Like the self, the other too is characterized by lack—in Hass's poem, that place out there where the road curves and disappears. As Lacan states in his typically elliptical style, "the subject has to find the constituting structure of his desire in the same gap opened up by the effect of the signifiers in those who come to represent the Other for him, insofar as his demand is subject to them" ("The direction of the treatment …"). For Lacan, demand includes more than mere physical need. That margin of demand which stretches beyond need is what he calls desire, and desire is infinite. Those who are subject to one's desire are always perceived as lacking.

The bird at the threshold of lack—what Hass calls, "the oldest imagination of need"—invites a cultural memory of birds that serve as correlatives to the poetic imagination. Keats and Whitman most obviously come to mind, but also Stevens, in part by parallel contrast. In Hass's essay "What Furies," he describes Wallace Stevens's bird in the poem "On Mere Being" as "both an alien being and the one true resident; it sings its song without human meaning at the edge of space, its feathers shining." What is remarkably similar between Hass's and Stevens's birds is how they are both situated spatially at the limits of consciousness, positioned to imagine what no imagination successfully can. Paradoxically, extreme artifice, in the guise of a gilded bird, provides a vocabulary for the real, that which, as a nonhuman realm, spells the death of artifice:

     The palm at the end of the mind
     Beyond the last thought, rises
     In the bronze distance,
 
     A gold-feathered bird
     Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
     Without human feeling, a foreign song.
 
     You know then that it is not the reason
     That makes us happy or unhappy.
     The bird sings. The feathers shine.
                                     (Opus Posthumous)

On its spare, remote threshold, Stevens's bird sits posed like an undying piece of formal glamor. The lines are short; the poem, full of silence. By contrast, Hass's bird appears but briefly, swept into the afternoon's "undertow of endless transformation." In contrast to the quiet posture of Stevens's lines, Hass's poem leads breathlessly down forty-one largely heptameter, cataloging lines before pausing at a period. Hass's expansiveness offers us a hymn to possibility, but possibility as grounded in the thingness of everyday life:

     … dance is defined
     by the body's possibilities arranged, this dance
     belongs to the composures and the running down of things
     in the used sugars of five-thirty: a woman straightening
     a desk turns her calendar to another day, signaling
     that it is another day where the desk is concerned
     and that there is in her days what doesn't belong to the desk;
     a kid turns on TV, flops on the couch to the tinny sound
     of little cartoon parents quarreling; a man in a bar
     orders a drink, watches ice bob in the blond fluid,
     he sighs and looks around; sad at the corners,
     nagged by
     wind,
     others with packages; others dreaming, picking
     their
     noses
     dreamily while they listen to the radio …
                                        (Human Wishes)

Whereas Stevens's poem tends toward paring away the meaningfully charged details of the everyday world, Hass's tends toward including them all. Since neither absolute elimination nor inclusion of such detail is possible in language, both poems create a sense of irresolution.

As in "Meditation at Lagunitas," "Natural Theology" imagines the failure of images to tell the whole truth as potentially redemptive, since such failure sparks the urge to renew. But in "Natural Theology," as in much of Hass's newer work, we feel that urge working forcefully on the syntax itself. Hass's new poems have a particularly disjunctive logic, broad canvas, and rich texture of detail. In "Natural Theology," the poem's syntactic momentum and associative skips create the sense of an unseen pressure causing the verbal ground to shift:

                     The religion
      or region of the dark makes soup and lights a fire,
      plays backgammon with children on the teeth or the
        stilettos
      of the board, reads books, does dishes, listens
      to the wind, listens to the stars imagined to be singing
      invisibly, goes out to be regarded by the moon,
      walks
      dogs, feeds cats, makes love in postures so various,
      with such varying attention and intensity and hope,
      it enacts the dispersion of tongues among the people
      of the earth—compris? versteh'—and sleeps with sticky genitals
                                       (Human Wishes)

Images rapidly displace one another, unpredictable though not entirely unguided, as though we had been dipped into the lively workings of a symbolic unconscious.

In such a world, Hass tells us, it is "the dark" which "enacts the dispersion of tongues." Thus language enjoys a degree of autonomy from conscious control. It is as though language were speaking itself into existence. The autonomous nature of language, its emergence as an alien self, is yet another Lacanian theme which, as Hass points out [in Twentieth Century Pleasures], finds its poetic dramatization in the verse of Robert Creeley:

The system of analogies derived from Levi-Strauss and Lacan and Derrida seems to assert that consciousness carries with it its own displaced and completely symbolic unconscious, that is, the structures of language by which consciousness is constituted…. This is what Creeley's mode and the attractiveness of his mode have to do with, at least much of the time; it is a poetics which addresses the tension between speaking and being spoken through language.

In Lacanian terms, this tension is the tension between the "je" and the "moi," the self that speaks and the self that is spoken, "the object of the other." Most obviously in our dreams, we feel ourselves "being spoken" by an uncontrollable other, the forms of consciousness enjoying a level of abandon but nevertheless informed by some kind of organizing syntax and symbolic logic.

An element of abandon in the forms of consciousness makes possible their seductive play. In Hass's poem, the French question compris? stands posed with a semantic yearning answered by its parallel contrast in German, versteh'. The semantic resolution, albeit temporary, of parallel opposites corresponds to a sexual consummation, a metaphor made explicit as the poem then turns to an image of love's aftermath. It is comically appropriate that the question, like a seductive envoy, is in French whereas the response, offering reassuring closure, is in German:

     -compris? versteh'-and sleeps with sticky genitals
     the erasures and the peace of sleep: exactly the
     half-
     moon
     holds, and the city twinkles in particular windows,
     throbs
     in its accumulated glow which is also and more
     blindingly
     the imagination of need from which the sun keeps
     rising
     into morning light,
     because desires do not split themselves up, there is
     one
     desire
     touching many things, and it is continuous.
                                       (Human Wishes)

Just as erotic desire rises again, so does the craving for understanding since no understanding is complete. The whole truth is always deferred, inhabiting an imaginary realm "out there."

Appropriately, Hass's closure in "Natural Theology" offers us an image dramatizing the permanent revisionism of consciousness: as the ephemeral sense of sexual and semantic resolution, the erasures and the peace of sleep, give way once again to the climbing light of morning, we are reminded that the cycle of desire is infinite. The sun's movement, slow, inevitable, mirrors an inevitable yearning, rising, as Hass states, from "the imagination of need." Much of the power of Hass's final image lies in the tension it creates between closure and irresolution. The rising sun marks the end of a cycle, a completion which signifies the impossibility of completion. We end with a beginning.

Hass's idea that there is one desire that is "continuous" makes explicit the notion that desire is everpresent—continual. But also there is a way in which desire, being singular and touching many things, provides an associative continuity among the contents of a consciousness. In Hass's final lines, desire is credited with creating a sense not only of variety and disjunctiveness but also of coherence and belonging. In its everpresence, desire appears as a connecting medium, a subtle, undying force of contact between signs and what they bring to mind. Desire joins, albeit loosely, the many into a long and singular chain of signs and their displacing transformations, each yielding to and yet to some degree setting into motion "the next needful thing."

As we have seen, Hass's essay "Images" claims that primary acts of the imagination are transformed into "the next needful thing" only "if we are lucky." Throughout Hass's work, feelings of "connectedness," of intimacy between the past and present, signifier and signified, self and other, word and flesh, recur as ephemeral blessings, matters of luck—as when momentarily the body seems "numinous as words" or when words appears as "days which are the good flesh continuing." Naturally, the good flesh dies, as do words, as does the sensation that our words are made flesh. The explicit failure of Hass's claims to tell the whole truth humbles them to being. They gesture affectionately toward the inscrutable nature of things charged by language and thus by our desire to see them always more clearly, to retrieve them, to understand. His opulent catalogs are likewise devotional in tone, expressing an immense affection for the world, a longing to name it all. With a kind of devotional alchemy, Hass's poetry excels at creating out of humility, out of uncertainty and loss, a recovering sense of reverence and reverie.

David Streitfield (essay date 8 May 1995)

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SOURCE: "The Poet of the People," in Washington Post, May 8, 1995, p. D1.

[In the following article, announcing Hass's appointment to the position of U.S. Poet Laureate, Streitfield describes the duties of the post and anticipates how Hass will follow the work of his predecessor, Rita Dove.]

The nation's next official cheerleader for all things verse will be Robert Hass, a 53-year-old Berkeley professor, translator, critic and poet. The eighth person to hold the post of poet laureate, Hass responded with the by-now-traditional trepidation when approached by Library of Congress officials.

"My first reaction was reluctance," Hass admitted by phone from the University of Iowa, where he is teaching in the Writers' Workshop this semester.

"It's a great honor and it seemed like a massive distraction," he said. "But it was also an opportunity to be a spokesperson for the literary community."

As for his duties? "I cannot even say I know what my task is." He'll spend from now until October, when he officially starts at the library, figuring it out.

Rita Dove, the outgoing laureate, has some basic advice for Hass: Don't get overwhelmed. Early in her two-year stint, she was twice hospitalized from exhaustion. "I got kind of used to writing in the front of ambulances," the 42-year-old Dove said lightly during an interview last week at her office in the library.

Both incidents happened in the summer of 1993, after she was selected and had endured the initial onslaught of media attention but before she learned to pace herself.

The first time was at a writers' conference in Squaw Valley, Calif., where the altitude was blamed. The second was at home in Charlottesville, when Dove was trying to answer hundreds of letters from an eager public before traveling to the West Coast.

"I fainted, passed out, and [her husband] Fred couldn't rouse me," she remembered. "I woke up in the morning and then immediately went out again." The first thing she did after coming home from the hospital that afternoon was another interview, propping herself up on the couch.

"What that told me is, don't overextend yourself, because then you aren't any good for anybody," Dove said. "I learned it's better to let the letters sit for three months, to answer them bit by bit."

One thing the outgoing and incoming laureates share is a belief in the power and the popularity of poetry. Said Hass: "I often feel when I'm in the East that people talk about the situation of writing as if it were in trouble. But from my perspective it seems pretty healthy. First of all, there's a lot of urgent and interesting writing being done in a variety of modes. And there are audiences for it among people who don't live in the mass media."

His own poetry fits on a compact shelf: three books. The first, Field Guide, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. The second, Praise, appeared in 1974. The most recent, Human Wishes, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in poetry in 1990. "I never wanted to have, like John Updike said about T. S. Eliot, 'a reluctant oeuvre,' but I do seem to be slow," the poet said. "I tend to write a lot and throw away a lot."

What remains has been praised. "He writes in many shapes, moods, even styles. Yet everywhere one recognizes this reverence for the power of language, words in their full-flight of syntax, what we—or our ancestors—used to call eloquence," wrote Hayden Carruth in Harper's magazine.

Hass, who was born in San Francisco and has lived near there most of his life, is the first laureate from the West Coast. "In some ways I take this as a representative honor—that I'm to stand for a whole bunch of writers and a tradition of writing," he said.

Like everything else in the West, poetry doesn't have much of a past. Robinson Jeffers, issuing his jeremiads against the modern world in the first decades of the century, is the first real California poet. It wasn't until the '50s that a critical mass of poets developed, and almost immediately San Francisco rivaled New York as the poetry capital of the country.

"It was an incredibly lively place to grow up wanting to be a writer," said the new laureate. "And there were people around, audiences, so it didn't feel like a strange vocation."

It also didn't feel like an insular activity. Hass has reached out both to Japan, translating a book of haiku, and to Europe, where he has collaborated with Czeslaw Milosz to render seven of the Nobel laureate's collections into English. "I'm really not very good at any language," he confessed. "Sometimes I say I don't really translate but I 'de-Polandize' other people's poems."

In 1984, Hass won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism for Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. Unlike most poets, he is also a frequent reviewer. "Writing prose is a way of engaging questions about the practice of poetry in the life of readers. It's all part of the same enterprise—trying to live imaginatively in poetry and in my time."

Now, as laureate, he'll be seeking ways to help others live in poetry as well. While Dove has expanded the position, it's still stuck with the sort of vagueness that nearly every previous laureate and, before 1986, what was then termed the "consultant in poetry" has complained about. James Dickey, consultant from 1966 to '68, once said he had finally figured his role: "You walk around so people can point to you and say, 'That's him.'"

Yet why should the poet laureate's task be clearly defined when the very place of verse in our national life has been endlessly debated? It's booming, it's in decline, the audience has never been bigger, the audience has never been smaller, everyone's writing it, no one's reading it, no one cares, everyone should care.

Dove elevated the post of laureate by bringing a new level of energy to the chronically underfunded and largely ceremonial position. In return for a $35,000 annual stipend—a sum that hasn't changed in a decade—the laureate is required only to give one reading, deliver one lecture and organize a reading series.

But Dove went far beyond this in being intensely visible, at least for a poet. She appeared on "Sesame Street" and with Garrison Keillor, read at the White House and worked with schoolchildren on closed-circuit TV, and wrote and delivered a poem for a ceremony commemorating the restoration of the Freedom Statue on the Capitol.

This happened partly because Dove, as a black woman, was a symbol in ways that Hass, a white man, cannot be, but it was also due to her enormous energy. She figures she did more than 200 interviews and personally answered more than 2,000 letters about poetry.

She did this without much institutional support. While the Library of Congress gives great lip service to the program, in recent years the laureate's staff has been cut in half—from two people to one. (Dove also had help from her secretary at the University of Virginia, as well as considerable assistance of all sorts from her husband Fred, a novelist.)

Unlike some of her predecessors, however, Dove declined to blame the library's management for a failure to offer more assistance. Instead, she wondered if the media had fully done their job. While a tremendous amount of coverage was focused on her, there was relatively little on her programs. A poetry and jazz festival that drew 200 people, a ceremony involving eight young Crow Indian poets from Montana reciting their verse in full regalia—these received minimal or no attention.

"It seems to me that interest in a lot of things is created by focusing attention on them," Dove said. "I felt that if you give people half a chance to like poetry, they will."

William Grimes (essay date 8 May 1995)

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SOURCE: "Robert Hass Is Named Poet Laureate," in The New York Times, May 8, 1995, pp. C11, C15.

[In the following article, Grimes announces Hass's appointment as Poet Laureate and comments on Hass's career.]

Robert Hass has been named the poet laureate of the United States by James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. Mr. Hass, the author of the poetry collections Field Guide, Praise and Human Wishes, succeeds Rita Dove, whose second one-year term as poet laureate ends this month.

"It's a daunting honor," said Mr. Hass (whose name rhymes with grass), in a telephone interview from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he is teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop for the spring semester. "On the one hand, I'm quite pleased, and on the other I'm fearful of the distraction. I think Joseph Brodsky said that the job is ill-paid, ill-defined and irresistible." Mr. Brodsky was the poet laureate in 1991.

The post of poet laureate was created in 1937 to provide the Librarian of Congress with advice on the library's poetry collection, but in recent years it has come to be regarded as a platform for raising national awareness of the importance of poetry and the written word. Laureates receive a salary of $35,000. By design, their duties are loosely defined except for the requirement that they give a reading of their work at the Library of Congress upon assuming the job, deliver an address upon stepping down and organize literary programs at the library. Mr. Hass will open the library's annual literary series on Oct. 12.

Mr. Hass's poetry reflects what he once described in an essay as "the pure activity of being alive." He is deeply concerned with the nuances of perception and the potential for language to adequately describe the sensory and emotional landscape. His subjects tend to be humble and close to home: the landscape of northern California, the routines of family life, the love between men and women.

Carolyn Kizer, writing about Mr. Hass in The New York Times Book Review, called him the master of the "reticule poem," alluding to his gift for weaving together seemingly unrelated objects, events and images. He once wrote in an essay on poetic images that in the best poetry, "what perishes and what lasts forever have been brought into conjunction, and accompanying that sensation is a feeling of release from the self."

Mr. Hass, who is 54, was born in San Francisco and earned a bachelor's degree from St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., and a master's and a doctorate from Stanford University. He taught at the State University at Buffalo from 1967 to 1971, and at St. Mary's College from 1971 to 1989, when he joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. Hass attracted notice with his first book, Field Guide, a collection of lyric encounters with the California landscape. The book was published the year after he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. His two other poetry collections, Praise (1979) and Human Wishes, which also includes a section of short prose meditations (1989), where published to wide acclaim. His essay collection, Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1985), won the National Book Critics Award for criticism.

For the last decade he has devoted much of his time to translating the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, working closely with the author. He has also published The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa (1994).

"I don't know how much you can do in a year," Mr. Hass said. "I hope I can intensify people's sense of the vitality and importance of American writing of all kinds."

Kurt Shillinger (essay date 12 October 1995)

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SOURCE: "New Laureate Wields Bully Pen for Poetry," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, No. 222, October 12, 1995, pp. 1, 16.

[In the following essay, Shillinger presents a profile of Hass on the occasion of his appointment as Poet Laureate.]

Perhaps everyone is at the football game nearby. At any rate, the cafe is unhurried. Robert Hass bites a sandwich, crunching its wedges of green-skinned apple. He pauses, then recalls the heroes of his youth, none of whom wore cleats.

"One thing about growing up in the Bay Area in the 1950s was the Beat thing in San Francisco," he says. "There were poets around. It seemed like something you could be."

Today's youths may feel differently. In a culture where heroes are increasingly defined by their shoe contracts, poetry may seem out of place, a quaint art from the days before MTV.

Mr. Hass, who today becomes the nation's eighth poet laureate, hopes to change that perception. He wants to make his art more accessible—via everything from poets in schools to more verse in newspapers.

An English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hass is considered a skillful translator of classical haiku and, more recently, the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. As a poet, his influences range from Beat to bebop to Bob Dylan.

He has long found art in the distractions of the ordinary. From neglected apple trees along the Pacific Coast, to couples eating drowsily in museum cafes, to the simple act of picking up his children after school, it is day-to-day detail that drives Hass's poems.

"Hass is able to talk in a conversational way about everything from the mushrooms he's picking one minute to heavy philosophical subjects the next," says Dan Halpern, an editor at Ecco Press, which publishes the poet's works.

As poet laureate, he may be able to bring to a wider audience the joy he finds in language. From his earliest days of discovery, when he and his brother would stay up late on summer nights reading Robert Lowell and Rudyard Kipling to each other, Hass was captivated by the musical aspect of verse.

Poetry "has a feeling of true things being said in powerful ways that are very measured," he says in an emery-board voice. If it hits home, he says, "something happens to you and you say, 'Oh, it would be great to make other people feel it.'"

Hass's central theme is his perception of the coincidence of pleasure and pain in the human experience, a mixture he calls "bewildering."

Admirers, such as Lee Briccetti of Poet's House in New York, call Hass's works "nourishment for the soul and mind." They count him among the leading influences for young poets.

Critics say he is too sentimental, prosaic, and self-conscious. "Hass thinks about Jacques Lacan while picking blackberries," notes Boston poet William Corbett. "He's reaching there. I don't think all poets mull over things like that."

But few who are familiar with either his work or the man himself doubt that Hass, in his capacity as laureate, will make an eloquent spokesman for his art. The American poetry community is vibrant, spreading through the Internet and urban cafes in as many different directions as there are political and social interest groups.

Following African-American poet Rita Dove, Hass's selection as the first laureate from the West Coast continues a celebration of that diversity. Yet the poetry community remains, in large part, a community of participants, overshadowed by Brad Pitt and Hootie & the Blowfish.

"There's lots of activity in American poetry," Mr. Corbett says. "But it's an art in search of an audience outside itself. The energy and vitality that used to go into poetry is now going into movies and rock-and-roll."

With a demeanor as easy as well-worn jeans, Hass has a gentle, witty way of making poetry accessible. "He is a great thinker on American culture," Ms. Briccetti says, "one of the best essayists on the art. He reaches out to a broad audience."

As laureate, Hass has four ideas about how to make poetry more accessible. One involves giving inner-city students in Washington the same kind of models he found in the Beat poets.

"It would be great to get interesting young black poets and some of this sensational emerging generation of jazz musicians together in Washington over a stretch of time to do concerts for the schools," he says.

One performance, for example, might team artists such as poet Rita Dove and saxophonist Joshua Redman. Students would be encouraged to mingle with the performers during rehearsals. The shows would be taped for a video archive.

"It's often the situation with the American kid who wants to be a poet that he comes from a place where his father would think he was a flower-sniffer if he wanted to do that," Hass says. "There are no models."

Hass also hopes to recapture a role poets played in the 19th century and again in the 1950s: major influences on public-political thought. He wants to organize a week of readings and seminars in Washington next spring with the best environmental writers in the United States.

"Everybody's getting to hear what the lobbyists have to say about Alaska," Hass says, "but nobody's talking about how mountains and rivers and bays fit into community values—about what we preserve when we talk about preserving."

To encourage the structures of American poetry, Hass wants to establish a series of annual awards for publishers, critics, and community figures who promote the art.

Finally, he would like to see poetry reemerge in newspapers and is trying to find a format for syndicating poems "reflecting the whole range of writing that is going on—Asian American, Chicano, African American, Latino."

The constraints, of course, are time and money. The poet laureate receives some private funding, but traditionally has had to raise additional funds to implement the kind of programs Hass has in mind. With Republicans swinging their budget ax at arts and humanities programs, Hass says, fund-raising has taken on a political dimension.

"I don't have any illusions about how much good any of this is going to do," he says. "But the question is, do you do something or nothing? If you ever did have this dream of a literate electorate that could entertain complicated ideas because it knew how to read complicated books … we haven't done so well."

A melody played on strings floats down from the cafe stereo, and the discussion shifts course. "Not only is the San Francisco tradition full of Western images and our more intense personal relationship with the natural life," Hass says, commenting on the shaping of himself as an artist, "but it has always been more friendly to international, experimental impulses."

He is talking, in a manner, about the Beats again.

Growing up in Marin County in the years right after World War II, Hass felt displacement at the swift pace of development. The principle of the shortest distance paved over the logic of roads that followed the contours of valleys. Dusty Italian-style gardens with fig trees and fennel started disappearing, and it didn't make sense to the young Hass.

But poetry did. At the same time development was remaking the Bay area, Beat poets like Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth, in addition to writing their own pieces, were translating Asian and Eastern European poetry. As early as high school, Hass was struck by the clarity of such verse.

"There's a tremendous tendency, especially in our hurried-up society, to abstract, to not see, not notice," Hass says. "I was attracted to Japanese poetry because it was the poetry of ordinary attention. And it was hugely arresting … for me, the way to anchor and clarify is with a poem—my so-called Zen-clear way of noting detail."

If there is a mythology in Hass's poetry, its central point may be that numbness is the worst kind of pain. In his pieces, details arouse feelings—some pleasant, some discomforting. Sometimes a single image provokes both.

There is a verse by the 18th century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa that Hass translates as "In this world we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers."

It is close to Hass's central themes. Gazing at flowers implies a slowing down, as if the simple pleasures of deliberate living are an antidote to painful experiences.

Hass's poem "Museum" hints at the same problem.

A young couple sits in a museum cafe having breakfast. She cradles a sleeping infant; he reads the Sunday paper and eats fresh fruit. Then he holds the child and she finds a section of the paper and butters a roll. They are drowsy, almost automated.

All around them, Hass writes, is an exhibit of carved wooden faces "of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kind of pain: hunger, helpless terror.

"But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible."

They are oblivious to the contorted images around them. They also seem unaware of the pleasures of the moment: atmosphere, sunlight on their table, release from the workday schedule. They seem incapable of feeling.

Now that he is in the midstream of his career, Hass hopes a shape is emerging to the body of his work.

His poetry chronicles the phases of a man trying to make sense out of the world: a youth sifting through the rigidity of a Roman Catholic education and the bustle of Western society; a father seeing the world through the eyes of his children; a man in midlife dealing with "the accumulation of rues and woes and mistakes and damaged icons."

"Either you wrestle and cope with friction and pain, or you just go straight ahead," he says, drinking the last swallows from a steaming mug. "And it's a question of what do you praise."

Kurt Shillinger (essay date 12 October 1995)

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SOURCE: "The Legacy of Poet Laureates," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, No. 222, October 12, 1995, p. 17.

[In the following essay, Shillinger describes the Poet Laureate position.]

To call Robert Hass the eighth poet laureate of the United States is somewhat misleading. The office has existed in one form or another since 1937. Prior to 1986, when Robert Penn Warren returned to the office after 40 years and first accepted its current title, his predecessors were known more blandly as "consultants in poetry."

The poet laureate is a spokesperson for his or her craft, a custodian of poetry in American culture. The job is fairly and deliberately unstructured. The office, which is privately funded, requires the holder to act as a consultant to the Library of Congress, advising the institution in regard to the forces and trends in American literature.

Each year, the laureate helps select new poets to read in the Library's series and to be added to the archives of artists reading their own work.

Beyond that, the officeholder is free to pursue special projects—limited, of course, by the funds he or she can raise.

Rita Dove, the outgoing laureate, conducted a special symposium entitled "The Black Diaspora" and a reading by Crow Indian poets. Allen Tate, consultant from 1943 to 1944, edited an anthology of American poetry of the early 20th century. Joseph Brodsky, laureate from 1991 to 1992, tried to spread poetry in supermarkets, hotels, and airports. His funds—and tenure—expired before he caught up with the Gideons.

Among those appointed to the office have been Robert Lowell (1947 to 1948); William Carlos Williams (who was named in 1952, but did not serve); Robert Frost (1958 to 1959); Howard Nemerov (1963 to 1964); Stanley Kunitz (1974 to 1976); and Maxine Kumin (1981 to 1982).

Term of office lasts one year. That few have served a second term may have something to do with the intense demands of the position. From the day he was chosen last May, Professor Hass has received floods of mail, manuscripts, requests for interviews, and invitations to speak. Lately, his answering machine has been logging more than 30 calls a day.

"All my predecessors warned me that you'll be immediately deluged with millions of letters and requests to do all sorts of things," he says. "And that's been the case."

Linton Weeks (review date 14 October 1995)

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SOURCE: "Something Ode, Something New," in Washington Post, October 14, 1995, p. D1.

[In the following essay, Weeks recounts Hass's first public reading as U.S. Poet Laureate.]

When the tall man in the black suit stood to introduce Robert Hass, the new poet laureate of the United States, the tall man said, "Welcome to another year of poetry at the Library of Congress."

In the back of the room someone whispered, "This reading's going to last longer than I thought."

But in truth, Hass's first public appearance in Washington revealed a witty, provocative, to-the-point guy whose conversation is poetic and whose poetry is conversational.

More than 250 people—lots of bearded, ponytailed men, and women in black sweaters—gathered in the mundane Montpelier Room on the sixth floor of the library's James Madison Memorial Building Thursday night to hear Hass read for 1 1/2 hours.

Some of the poems were written by Hass, others by two poets Hass has translated—the Japanese haiku master Basho and Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who has written of poetry as an expedition "as necessary as love."

Dressed in a dark shirt, dark coat and dark tie, Hass stood behind a blond-wood lectern flanked by towering Yamaha speakers, and in a thin, lilting voice led the audience through an expedition of longing and lust, of nature and shame.

     Two Basho haikus:
 
     What voice,
     what song, spider,
     in the autumn wind?
     and
     Teeth sensitive to the sand
     in salad greens—
     I'm getting old.

The reading fulfilled one of the poet laureate's official obligations. During his tenure, Hass, who will also be poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, must mount a reading series. This fall he will bring nine poets to town, beginning with Karen Alkalay-Gut of Israel and Iowa poet Jorie Graham on Thursday. In the spring he will usher in another batch, to include poet, critic, playwright and novelist Ishmael Reed. Then, before he leaves, Hass must deliver a closing lecture. For services rendered, he'll receive a $35,000 stipend. The appointment is for one year. Some poets stay two.

As poet laureate, Hass may occasionally be given the opportunity to commemorate a historic event with a bit of verse. But the official duties are minimal, and that's fortunate. He will continue to teach two courses this fall at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has been on the faculty since 1989.

Hass has a hard act to follow. His predecessor, Rita Dove, who served as poet laureate for two years, not only fulfilled her requisite duties, but she also led a crusade to make poetry more visible and more vital. She showed up on "Sesame Street" and on Garrison Keillor's radio program. She organized a poetry reading by District schoolchildren. She did everything but recite the national anthem at the World Series. She stretched herself so thin, she was hospitalized twice for exhaustion.

On Thursday night, Hass looked pretty relaxed. He said he was excited about being in Washington. He looked out the window toward the Capitol dome twinkling in the night sky. "I get to lobby for the mind and the heart. I don't think they're in danger, but I think the country is in danger in relation to them."

He read a poem about the free-market system. "Markets don't make communities," Hass said. "Imagination makes communities. Markets make networks of self-interested individuals."

There were times when Hass's observations and his poems ran together and the audience couldn't really tell the difference. He spoke of eavesdropping on a fragmented conversation that wound up in his poem "The Beginning of September." The line he used was, "He didn't think she ought to and she thought she should."

Glasses low on his nose, a wisp of blond hair pasted on his forehead, Hass read poem after poem from his several books, including Field Guide, Praise and Human Wishes. He paused now and then for an aside or to pat his heart Cal Ripkenstyle. During his longer poems, he sometimes looked up from his text and continued reciting the verse by memory, rapt in his own words.

Many of his poems are autobiographical. He was born in San Francisco in 1941 and has spent most of his life there. He went to St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., and Stanford University. Besides writing poetry, he has penned essays, reviews and literary criticism. He has won a bunch of awards including the Yale Younger Poets Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. He's received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.

One of the poems that especially appealed to the Thursday audience was the unpublished "Forty Something." Hass prefaced his reading by saying, "This poem is not about me and these words were not spoken by my wife."

She says to him, musing, "If you ever leave me, and marry a younger woman and have another baby, I'll put a knife in your heart." They are in bed, so she climbs onto his chest, and looks directly down into his eyes. "You understand? Your heart."

Hass's wife, poet Brenda Hillman, was with him on his first official visit to Washington. At a luncheon yesterday she stood across the room and watched folks swarm around her husband. She explained that Hass will fly to town every other week, "and he'll do his own laundry." She has written four collections. The latest is "Bright Existence." She teaches creative writing at Hass's alma mater, St. Mary's.

The luncheon was a sunny affair. Former librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin and his wife, Ruth, were there. The current librarian, James Billington, and his wife, Marjorie, were there. So was Jack Shoemaker, associate publisher and editor in chief of the newly created Counterpoint publishing house, and Reed Whittemore, who was a poetry consultant to the library in 1984.

Over baked chicken and steamed vegetables, Hass and Whittemore moved from a discussion of mythology to personal childhood stories of dressing in capes and dashing about. Hass said he often appropriated a baby diaper and so his brother called him "Diaper Boy."

After lunch, Billington rose and said he hated to interrupt the sparkling conversation that was going on over the pumpkin tarts—"the desserts, not the people"—but he wanted Hass to say a few words about the art of translation.

Hass told of sitting down with another translator and trying to capture the excitement of a Polish poem in English. "The great truth about translation," he said, "is that foot doesn't rhyme with grass."

Hass spoke for a few more minutes, answered a few more questions, and then in conclusion said he hoped as poet laureate to do some more translation, to translate the excitement of American literature into something everyone can understand.

Donna Seaman (review date 15 September 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Sun under Wood, in Booklist, September 15, 1996, p. 205.

[In the following review, Seaman describes Hass's focus on "the most ordinary aspects of life."]

Poet laureate Hass is continuing the effort of his predecessors, Rita Dove and Joseph Brodsky, to bring poetry back into the realm of everyday life by writing a weekly column for the Washington Post and sponsoring many programs and projects. A true democrat, Hass values education, the power of language, and the most ordinary aspects of life: the warmth of the sun, the call of a bird, love and even its loss, and all the oddities of consciousness. Hass' firm grounding in life is expressed in his unusually anecdotal, conversational, and stylistically prosy poetry. He weaves in dialogue, comments on his activities during the writing of a poem, and even offers variations on two poems in the form of "Notes," but make no mistake, each and every word counts as it must in poetry, and Hass' perceptions into the nature of emotions are at once as fine as gossamer and as resilient as vines. He is a giving, honest, sensual, moody, and plainspoken poet, a tireless bard who sings of our sorrows and joys, our perversities and strengths.

Publishers Weekly (review date 30 September 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Sun under Wood, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 40, September 30, 1996, p. 82.

[In the following review, the critic praises Hass's "quirky, imaginative incarnaitons of grace."]

Hass is Poet Laureate of the United States, a position through which he has worked to enlarge the cultural presence of poetry. Much the same ends are served in his new collection, which contains a remarkable range of themes and styles, all of them generous-hearted and friendly of access. Although Hass's work can be positioned somewhere between the rural lyricism of William Stafford and the precise, Zen-like economies of Gary Snyder, he seems, most of all, a California poet. There is a distinctive ease and optimism in his poetic attentions, and his voice is as comfortable musing about ethnicity as it is detailing marital peccadilloes or extolling the allure of "my mother's nipples." In this, his first volume since 1989's Human Wishes, Hass shows that he can write a perfect sonnet ("Sonnet"), but seems to revel more in an idiosyncratic free-form of blank verse broken by sharp apercus. Hass is careful not to allow his poems to be reducible or predictable. Most remarkable in this collection is "Faint Music," in which the poet attempts "a poem about grace," and then wanders through a meditation on self-love, an anecdote about a failed suicide, an infidelity and porch sounds at night. In the end, the poet concludes, "the sequence helps, as much as order helps—/ First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing." Such quirky, imaginative incarnations of grace are all we need ask of a poet or a laureate.

Fred Muratori (review date 1 October 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Sun under Wood, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 16, October 1, 1996, p. 82.

[In the following review, Muratori describes Sun under Wood as "a disarming, disturbing, memorable book of poems."]

Like Robert Frost, Gary Snyder, and the haiku masters before them, current U.S. Poet Laureate Hass (The Essential Haiku, Ecco, 1995) discerns in nature's random blossomings and processes a "beauty unconscious of itself," all the more attractive for its autonomy. Combining an almost Zen tranquility of expression with a naturalist's eye ("Creekstones practicing the mild yoga of becoming smooth."), Hass seems engaged in "an activity of incessant discovery" whether he's meditating on a surprised raccoon, the circumstances surrounding a divorce, or a parent's debilitating alcoholism. "It is good sometimes," he writes coyly, "that poetry should disenchant us," an ironic observation given his special—and subversive—talent for disenchanting the reader at the moment of deepest enchantment, knowing that "We live half our lives / in fantasy, and words." Though he often strives for a lyricist's concision, Hass will let his poems wash widely into prose ("My Mother's Nipples") if necessary, as if the urgency of his thought refuses containment. For the fourth time, he has given us a disarming, disturbing, memorable book of poems. Recommended for all collections.

Michael Coffey (essay date 28 October 1996)

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SOURCE: "Robert Hass: Bard on the National Stage," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 44, October 28, 1996, pp. 51-2.

[In the following essay, drawn from an interview with Hass during his second year as Poet Laureate, Coffey relates the author's views on the current state of poetry in the United States.]

As Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Hass's mandate is to raise national awareness of the importance of poetry and the written word. Such a task, at a time when most households have 70 TV channels and many others are plugged into the global village prophesied 30 years ago by McLuhan, surely is daunting. But being the frontman for a quaint art that barely has a profession tied to it—unless it's called teaching—does not faze Hass. Rather, it is a task to which he has taken naturally. In fact, there may not be a better poet today working with such catholic tastes, boundless energy and open aesthetics as Hass.

Perhaps this sense of openness is grounded in Hass's California roots. Born in San Francisco of German and Irish stock, he grew up mingling with kids of myriad backgrounds and then found himself in his impressionable teens living in the suburb of San Rafael, reading Kerouac and watching the rise of the Beat movement nearby. Having attended graduate school at Stanford in the heady 1960s, Hass emerged with a sensibility that is pan-poetic and insatiably curious, at once as alive to the poetry of Japan as to that of Eastern Europe, as much a devotee of the California poetries of Rexroth and Jeffers as to the austere wintering of Robert Frost.

Acclaim came early for Hass. His first book, Field Guide, won the Yale Younger Poets competition in 1973 and was lauded by one reviewer "as a means of naming things, of establishing an identity through one's surroundings, of translating the natural world into one's poetry." Since then, he has built upon that early promise, prompting Carolyn Kizer to observe in the New York Times Book Review that "to read his poetry or prose, or hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure."

Hass, despite the peripatetic nature of his poetic interests, has stayed close to his roots. The father of three children from a first marriage, he still lives in the Bay-Area, with his second wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, and her daughter.

Somehow, Hass manages to write and to think deeply about his craft despite his Laureate obligations in the nation's capital, his full-time teaching position at Berkeley and his participation in poetry and literacy events all over the country. When PW catches up to Hass, whose latest book, Sun Under Wood, just out from Ecco Press, is an NBA finalist in poetry, he is lecturing to hundreds of poetry teachers and would-be poets under a large tent in New Jersey. The venue is the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and Hass's gentle, impassioned presentation lays out the depths of his engagement with the questions of poetry and what he sees as its place not only in the culture but in the development of self.

"History," he says, "can be reclaimed in the rhythms of a poem." As a person who has thought deeply about such issues, Hass offers a wonderfully winding exposition of the idea: "In the history of writing in the European tradition, as I understand it, what happened is that, up until the 1780s, the idea was that truth and knowledge came from reason or revelation and poetry was an attractive way to say those truths. But with romanticism the idea that poetic knowledge precedes reason came to the fore. Now, if the source of all knowledge is poetic insight, where does it come from? Inside or outside? The mind or the world? And why does the question matter?"

The audience stirs, perhaps a bit unaccustomed to pondering such elemental questions, perhaps more accustomed to seeing poetry as simply heightened self-expression.

"The issue," Hass continues, "is literally a matter of life and death to poets like Czeslaw Milosz," one of Hass's mentors at Stanford and with whom, in true mentor-student fashion, Hass still jousts. For Milosz, "the only purpose of poetry is a perfect description of reality. The adequacy and presence of the physical world is something I wanted to believe in," Hass confesses. He takes a long sip of coffee standing at the podium. "But is this just mere record-keeping?" he asks, more of himself than of the audience.

Hass will continue for another hour, discussing his beloved haiku poets—Basho, Buson, Issa—who, like Milosz, describe only the real (or as Hass puts it, "the frog, the hyacinth, the pond"), eschewing metaphor and interpretation, the reach for a meaning beyond the images. But Hass will give equal time to poets in the romantic tradition who seek out metaphors in order to transform reality, like Wordsworth, or create something to stand in its place, like the modernist romantic Wallace Stevens. Hass would have it that the movement away from the "realism" of William Carlos Williams ("no ideas but in things") is dangerous if it leads merely to a solipsism. He wows the audience with an anecdote about a Stevens poem: "The palm at the end of the mind / beyond the last thought / rises in the bronze distances," pointing out that when Stevens crossed out "bronze distances" and replaced it with "bronze decor," he entered a troublingly hermetic impressionism. Hass concludes by wondering at the extremes of a poetry bent upon transforming rather than describing, asking, somewhat on Milosz's behalf (whose work was censored in his native Poland): "Why did so many surrealists become communists?" Metaphor, in this instance, has taken up arms as revolution.

The talk is a brilliant performance, but delivered in such a humble, self-effacing manner by the lean, tanned man in a pony tail that some teachers in the crowd may not remember the disquisition on Roman Jakobsen, or that Hass, in the course of extolling the relevance of figures like Whitman and Frost, also praised Language poet Lyn Hejinian and young Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee. Hass, whose essay collection, Twentieth Century Pleasures, won the NBCC award for criticism in 1984, represents the best in literary intelligence, blending an ecstatic tolerance with discriminating judgment. Sitting at a picnic table over black coffee and a cigarette, Hass would clearly be happy to talk about the intricacies of his chosen craft all day; but when asked about literacy and poetry, he musters his characteristic enthusiasm and does not speak in vague generalities or without passion.

"When I got the [Laureate] job," he says, "I did a lot of reading about literacy and I went to a lot of places poets don't normally go, speaking to corporations, for example. And one of the things that struck me was just how powerful a presence poetry has had in the culture.

"You have to remember that, at the beginning of the 19th century, less than 60% of American males could write their name, and that was far higher than in most of Europe. If you were black, you could get killed for reading. Once the ideals of puritanism transferred to the ideology of democracy, the engines of literacy geared up. Capitalist investment in printing presses led to the widespread agitation for the establishment of public schools and public libraries, just as now we have similar forces pushing for computer literacy and access to cyberspace. And the goal of advocating literacy was to expand audiences, to expand markets."

And poetry, says Hass, was very much a part of this push. "It was everywhere: in newspapers, magazines; businesses did poetry pamphlets. You can see Burma Shave signs as a relic of a public poetry, leading people down the road with the promise of soap. To have access to the culture, to get the jokes, you had to be able to read."

Although one can sniff beneath this analysis a certain anti-corporatism, Hass believes that, in the end, "as a democratic experiment in building literacy, there is no equivalent to the U.S."

He notes, however, that the landscape appears to be changing. "At the beginning of this century, the new media began to break the hold of the publishing business as the monopoly purveyor of information and entertainment and celebrity creation. Today, there are so many faces in other media that there is little room for a culture of writerly celebrity."

Even if poets aren't among America's celebrities, issues of fame and main-streaming have always riven the poetic community. Jealousies, turf mentality and a sense of privilege in marginality enliven discussions wherever poetry lovers meet. At the moment, there is, if not a poetry war, at least a lively skirmish, with one side being the American Academy of Poets and their new formalism, and the other being those poets who see themselves as inheritors of a tradition that overthrew the constrictions of form years ago. Hass has alliances in both camps, and for good reason, he says: the conflict rages within. When PW asks him where the poetry wars are being fought, Hass responds: "In the guts of the living," quoting Eliot, but declines to say more.

"I don't have too much interest in choosing up sides" Hass says, careful to steer clear of poetry politics. "But something I am very concerned about is what's happening with bookselling. Everyone is getting clobbered right now," he says of publishers large and small, "with all the expansion on the retail level. Clearly, the bet is that the superstores aren't just poaching on the small stores—some independents have been hurt badly—but expanding the readership. However, it seems they have expanded before the market did. And the danger is that, after this ordeal, we'll just return to the mall-store model. I just hope everyone can be patient, and, of course, I hope they are right: I hope the creation of attractive, book-lovers' bookstores does expand readership and that bookselling remains healthy."

Hass, who is 55, describes his childhood in Northern California as a battle against the "ferocious anti-intellectualism" of the time as well as the Catholic grade school he attended. If not for the encouragement of his older brother, Hass says, he would not have been able to pursue his fantasy of being a writer. "I started out imagining myself as a novelist or essayist, but then Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg came along; and poetry, imbued with the whole lifestyle of the Beats, was so much more exciting." Hass could go down to the Surf the-ater and see Ginsberg standing in line for a Kurosawa film; the poetry community in San Francisco was national news, and as an aspiring writer, Hass wanted to be part of it.

After earning an undergraduate degree at St. Mary's College, he got his doctorate in English at Stanford in 1971, where he audited courses given by haughty and exacting Yvor Winters. Hass then went on to a teaching job in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo, where Robert Creeley was laying out a counter-cultural poetics with an enchanting metrical music and an austere precision. There, someone told Hass about the Yale Younger Poets competition; he sent in his manuscript for Field Guide. Stanley Kunitz selected it as winner.

Since then, Hass has published exclusively with Daniel Halpern's Ecco Press. Praise came out in 1979, Human Wishes in 1989. Sun Under Wood is his first collection in seven years. Halpern has also published four Hass-edited volumes on Milosz, the classic Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa, as well as the award-winning Twenlleth Century Pleasures. "I've been lucky," says Hass. "New Directions was my model of what a publisher should be and Dan has stepped right in."

As to how poetry, or good literature, will fare as we enter the 21st century, Hass is hopeful, or perhaps trusting is the word. "For all the talk of the time of the 'gentleman publisher' of yore, what I have learned is that publishing has always been predominantly an urban phenomenon clustered around cities and capitalists and entrepreneurial places; the spread of literature as well as literacy has been market-driven. As these things go, that makes sense. I'd love to see a comparison of how 'literary' the publishing was in economies that weren't market-driven. Did they publish only the best literary work, being free of the market? Or is it the market that in some ways tells us what is important to people?"

It's a good question. As a poet skeptical of how truths are formulated, Hass leaves the answering to the reader.

Francis X. Clines (essay date 9 December 1996)

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SOURCE: "A Poet's Road Trip along Main Street, U.S.A.," in The New York Times, December 9, 1996, pp. A1, B8.

[In the following article, Clines relates Hass's observations on his two years in the post of U.S. Poet Laureate and its impact on his poetry writing.]

Sometimes he hits upon a lyrical scrap of haiku amid the hum of the crosstown subway. But essentially the Poet Laureate of the United States has put aside consulting his muse in favor of proselytizing Rotarians.

"I thought an interesting thing to do would be to go where poets don't go," explained Robert Hass, heading into his final four months in one of the odder capital jobs, one that he has shaped to become more like a missionary drummer in the provinces of commerce than as a performing bard in celebrity coffeehouses.

"I thought the thing to talk about is not poetic 'uplift,'" he said, "but the fact that basic literacy in this country is in a serious crisis."

With that, Mr. Hass, a celebrated 55-year-old poet and critic, offered a vivid scholarly synopsis of the decline of American literacy as he paid a rare visit to his office at the Library of Congress. He celebrated the "heroic" literacy levels of a century ago, when there was a national hunger to read and general literacy was at 95 percent. He deplored the bleak evidence of current life that finds half the eighth graders in Texas reading at the fourth-grade level.

"This is the Office of Poetry and Literature; this has to stop," Mr. Hass said, in a desperate emphasis of his concern as he sat in solitude in his attic office overlooking the Capitol dome and described his atternpt to be an activist laureate.

Ostensibly, he is one of the more powerless loners among the legions of appointees in Washington. But Mr. Hass chose to resort to the basic stuff of his art, mere words, and to spend much of the last two years in the laureate's post traveling to business and civic meetings across the nation with a straight-prose alarum that literacy standards have been plummeting.

"One thing I found out about this country was that there are thousands of business and service organizations that have to come up with a speaker every week," said Mr. Hass, who opted to exploit the mundane curiosity out there about this figure dubbed Poet Laureate to shop his warning.

In this, he has been politely citing as a most obvious factor the tax-cutting mania so popular with American candidates and voters alike. He is asking community leaders what they intend to do, beyond freezing property taxes, to see that their children can read paragraphs or poems. How well, he asks, will they be able to use their imagination, which, in this poet's outlook and his years of work, is the very taproot of community?

"I had never been to a Rotary Club in my life, but now I've been to dozens," the poet said, recounting those and assorted other civic gatherings. "And, you know, I had the prejudice they're all Babbitts. But I discovered they're downtown business people who raise money for schools, most of them, and I made some friends."

The personal price for that has been that Mr. Hass has mostly stopped creating poems and can barely wait to resume "writing and dreaming" in May, after his tour ends. His new book of poetry, Sun Under Wood by the Ecco Press, is a result of 5-year-old labors. "The life I've led is the opposite of a writer's life," he said. "I've been on the road more or less constantly."

On the other hand, Mr. Hass now counts doubly poetic his new friendship with mid-America moguls like Gordon West, chief of the Bon Ami company, which historically sold its turn-of-the-century laundry goods by offering patriotic "readers," or pamphlets, to an avidly literate America.

"He's a friend of Newt," the poet said, smiling in amazement at how far afield a laureate can roam.

"The guy put up money to bring kids to Washington to read their poems, and he was excited," Mr. Hass said gratefully, referring to a well-attended conference in the spring called Watershed, when the Poet Laureate gathered writers, environmentalists and students to focus on the nation's deep literary tradition of nature writing.

Admitting to "terror" at not writing much, Mr. Hass has made himself jot down something, anything, however light, whenever he rides public transportation here. On long airport rides, he writes 14-line taxicab sonnets. On the Metro subway, the poet—a recognized haiku scholar and translator—concocts "Metro haikus." He declines to sing the results thus far.

He prefers another genre he calls "found haiku," random snatches of overheard dialogue from life that serendipitously ring with the 17-syllable haiku formula.

"Two guys in $500 overcoats get on at the Farragut North Station," he recounted, merry-eyed at one gem. "And one says to the other, 'Well, if he had been focused, he wouldn't even have considered it.' Seventeen syllables!"

The poet sounds more like a lepidopterist in offering narrative glimpses of what he sees and hears in Washington life.

"Flying here, I see whole planefuls of guys with laptops coming in, furiously writing these arguments about, you know, why they should keep letting the whole in the ozone get bigger for five more years," he said. "I see what the business is here. It's the hustle, the business of lobbying."

The poet has had scant contact with the city's politicians, but when they inevitably pump his hand and croak, "Nice to see you!" Mr. Hass thinks that he has fathomed their art. "They shine on each person they meet."

He was touched when one senator suddenly admitted envy, taking the poet aside, Mr. Hass recalled, to confess: "I don't have time to think, to read. I'm just responding all the time. I would love to have your life."

As a roving missionary for literacy, Mr. Hass can still flash the striking phrase. As a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, he cites reams of statistics on the fall of his state's public school standards after the freezing of property taxes a generation ago.

"They put a lot of disposable income in peoples' pockets," he said.

"They generated a restaurant boom. California cuisine was created, smoked salmon and arugula," he continued in mock exultation, then starkly drove his point home: "It's perfectly clear what happened. People were eating their children."

Summarizing this blunt laureate's song, Mr. Hass said, "My mantra was, capitalism makes networks. It doesn't make communities. Imagination makes communities."

The poet will spread this word into the spring and then quit his Rotarian rounds. "Did it do any good?" he has to ask. "Was I wasting my life? Should I have been home writing poems? It's like teaching. You have no idea."

Further Reading

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Criticism

Ford, Mark. "Reality Bites." The New Republic (31 October 1994): 48-51.

Reviews Hass's Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa.

Perry, Tony. "Poetry Man." Los Angeles Times (20 October 1996): E1.

Personal profile of Hass.

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Hass, Robert (Vol. 18)