Last Updated on September 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361
Robert Hass is primarily known as one of America's most celebrated poets, though he has also gained renown as a translator and as a critic. In Twentieth Century Pleasures, he writes both as a critic and a practicing poet in a series of essays and reviews of other poets' work. Hass goes back as far as Rainer Maria Rilke and includes a wide selection of European poets, such as Tomas Tranströmer and Czesław Miłosz (whose work he has translated into English), as well as such major American poets at Robert Creeley, Robert Lowell, Gary Snyder, and James Wright. He also includes more general discussions of poetic form illustrated with copious examples from an even wider range of poets (geographically and historically) than are discussed in the individually-focused essays.
This is a collection of previously published book reviews and and reflective essays, so it is not to be expected that a single unified theme will necessarily develop. Nevertheless, one concern which does emerge again and again—in treatments of poets as different as Creeley and Snyder—is that of poetic form. In his essay on Snyder, Hass writes about the way in which the openness and unpredictability of free verse (as opposed to the predictability of rhymed, metered poetry) compels readers' attention and forces them to approach the poem with more vigilance. Hass also builds up a painstaking case that free verse, a form of verse which might seem quite random (which, indeed, appears not to be a form at all), in fact rigorously takes in a plethora of influences from centuries of reading.
As a poet himself, Hass is also concerned throughout the essays with the process of writing poetry and the different ways influence can operate upon a poet. He generally provides an account, even in a relatively brief book review, of a poet's particular influences (William Carlos Williams, for instance, in the case of Robert Creeley) and how this influence has developed and matured over time. In these descriptions, as well as in the particular poets he has selected as "pleasures," we can trace the poetic development of Hass's own work and identify his major influences.