Twentieth Century Pleasures
To write about poetry in an intelligent and engaging way is no simple matter. Much of what is published in academic journals is certainly intelligent, but such essays are engaging only to specialists—and then only occasionally. Moreover, academic writing about poetry tends to distance poetry from the business of daily life. Review criticism, on the other hand, often suffers from an amateurism that is unable to educate readers. Of opinion there is no shortage, but real knowledge and sensitivity are hard to find. Furthermore, most review criticism is either too brief or too partisan or both. Before a reader can be intelligently engaged, a subject must be given sufficient space for the mind of the critic to reveal itself in the process of engagement. Robert Hass may not be the most important critic writing today. He is certainly not the most learned. Still, the intensity and scope of his engagement with poetry, the relaxed yet purposeful shapes of his essays, and the clarity of his style make him among the most rewarding. He has found an angle of approach and a manner which will reward specialist critics, poets, and the general reader for whom poetry is a genuine interest.
Because Hass is an accomplished poet, his observations have a built-in authority. He is successful, however, far beyond the measure of other poets of his generation who have set out along similar paths. Few have made good sense, in prose, on the very subject that they supposedly know so much about and cherish. Among those few are Robert Pinsky, Jonathan Holden, and Robert Hass. Writing of Hass’s second collection of poems, Praise (1979), Peter Davison commented on the “architectural grandeur” of the whole and the severe discipline (“limitsas stern as gravity”) of the individual poems. The uncanny thing about Hass’s work, whether it be in poetry or the prose essay, is how formal discipline and spontaneity coexist. Few writers seem so relaxed within the limits they have set for themselves.
Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry includes assessments of major American moderns such as Robert Lowell and James Wright; living Continental masters such as Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Transtromer, and Czesaw Miosz; more distant but more imposing figures such as Rainer Maria Rilke; and such forceful critical and poetical personalities as Yvor Winters, Robert Creeley, and James McMichael. Hass treats individual works, books, or entire careers of these varied talents, and he pays a very special homage to Stanley Kunitz—a poet whose work has not received the attention it deserves. In all of these essays and reviews, Hass manages a fine balance between the general and the particular. He is always patient with his evidence, knowing when and what and how much to quote. The tone is warm, even friendly; the penetration is deep and sharp.
Surprisingly, Hass has much to say about form. Not only does he treat formal issues in dealing with most of the poets named above, but he also sets aside special investigations of formal problems. Hass’s sense of form is catholic; he is at home dealing with metrical issues, but he does not tie form to metrics in a narrow sense. He can write about rhythm and meter without ending up seeming to write about mathematics. Better yet, Hass writes about such matters without connecting them to the repressed, the anal, or the archaic. Hass’s projection of a healthy, relaxed, committed, celebrative, and alert sensibility allows him to be successful (again, “engaging”) where so many others fail. He is at home in these essays. The clothes of his language and his ideas fit. Knowing who he is, he knows what to wear.
Representative of Hass’s method is the pleasantly meandering meditation “One Body: Some Notes on Form.” He begins by telling how thinking about form in poetry led him to remember some episodes in the lives of his children which exemplified the power of daily patterns and the freshness of perception. “Wonder and repetition,” Hass observes, comingle in one’s experience of life, and their interaction “is the psychological basis for the power and the necessity of artistic form.” Hass sidles past references to or quotations from R. D. Laing, Arthur Rimbaud, Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, Randall Jarrell, and the anonymous poet of “Western Wind,” all the time pursuing an argument about form in poetry. Each poem and passage which Hass quotes is illuminated by his response, and each illumination adds to the others like so many small...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)