Robert Hass Hass, Robert (Vol. 99) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Hass United States Poet Laureate

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)

Anthony Libby (review date 3 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)

Dick Davis (review date 15 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7063 words.)

Carolyn Kizer (review date 12 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

David Barber (review date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)

Don Bogen (review date 11 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1536 words.)

John Ash (review date 31 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Darcy Aldan (review date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Bruce Bond (essay date Fall 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3478 words.)

David Streitfield (essay date 8 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 1316 words.)

William Grimes (essay date 8 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Kurt Shillinger (essay date 12 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."...

(The entire section is 1658 words.)

Kurt Shillinger (essay date 12 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

Linton Weeks (review date 14 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 1117 words.)

Donna Seaman (review date 15 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 30 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Fred Muratori (review date 1 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Michael Coffey (essay date 28 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2089 words.)

Francis X. Clines (essay date 9 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1143 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary 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.

(The entire section is 68 words.)