Twentieth Century Pleasures

by Robert Hass

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Robert Lowell

In the first essay of Twentieth Century Pleasures, “Lowell’s Graveyard,” Hass discusses Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” Lowell was born in 1917 to two prominent and long-standing New England families, and “his Puritan forebears would figure largely in his poetry.” Lowell later converted to Roman Catholicism, and Hass focuses on his conversion. He indicates that when he was younger, he “didn’t know that Lowell was a convert to Catholicism or that this [poem] was a momentous rejection of his heritage.” Lowell also served five months in jail as a conscientious objector, after having refused to go into the army.

“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” portrays the mortal wounding of a whale in imagery that Hass regards as “very peculiar Christianity,” including what he terms the “sexual wounding” of the whale. Hass remarks, “I finally got to hear Robert Lowell read a couple of years ago… and when he began by murmuring an apology for the earlier poems… I found myself on the poems’ side.”

James Wright

Hass devotes an essay to James Wright, an American poet born in 1927. Throughout his writing life, Wright constantly experimented with style, and his body of work can arguably be seen as a record of the many stylistic features of contemporary American verse. Hass begins his essay on James Wright by criticizing the general view of Wright’s signature volume of verse, The Branch Will Not Break. He says that he did not respond, as other critics had, to the poet’s “translating [of] the imagery of surrealist and expressionist poetics into American verse.” What he responded to in Wright was that the poems “lean, clear, plain language had the absolute freshness of sensibility.” Hass also weaves some element of religious analysis, discussing the influence of American Puritanism on Wright’s work and noting that “many of Wright’s poems end with a prayer.”

Tomas Tranströmer

In the chapter titled “Tranströmer’s Baltics: Making a Form of Time,” Hass analyzes Tomas Tranströmer, a leading Swedish poet who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in literature. In particular, Hass focuses on Tranströmer’s long poem “Baltics,” discussing the impact the poem has on him. Hass writes, “this poem feels like it is about the social man waking up to the fact of his being. It feels very austere.” The poem conveys a feeling of the long Swedish winter, a fact which Hass considers in the light of his own history. Hass writes: “I had hardly seen snow until I was eighteen… Because it does not belong to childhood, it calls up no longing.” Hass calls the work “powerful” in English, despite its being translated from the original Swedish. Hass holds Tranströmer in high regard, going so far as to say that “Tranströmer is one of the most remarkable European poets of his generation.”

Stanley Kunitz

Hass opens the essay dedicated to Stanley Kunitz with an evocative statement: “A wonderful thing about the trajectory of Stanley Kunitz’s work is the way the poems alter without changing.” Kunitz was born in 1905 in New England and continued publishing poetry well into his 90s. Kunitz was, like Hass, a US Poet Laureate, a position that he attained in 2000. Kunitz is quoted as saying about poetry, “Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.” Kunitz was a founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Poets House in New York City. Hass compares him to...

(This entire section contains 861 words.)

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the poet Wallace Stevens in his essay on Kunitz, saying, “Stevens was a meditative poet. Kunitz has practiced the dramatic lyric all his life.”

Joseph Brodsky

In an essay discussing poets whose works are originally written in other languages, particularly Slavic ones, Hass writes about several Russian poets. He describes Joseph Brodsky as the “spiritual heir to the tradition of Mandelstam and Akhmatova, [who] has also inherited their difficult passage. He came to the attention of the Americans in 1964 when, at the age of twenty-four, he was arrested by the soviet government for ‘parasitism.’ Eight years later he was expelled from the Soviet Union and settled in the United States.” Hass discusses the difficulties of translating Brodsky’s work from its original Russian and capturing the tone, meter, rhyme and cadence.

Czesław Miłosz

Czesław Miłosz was a Polish poet and diplomat. Specifically, he became a cultural attaché for Poland following World War II, but he felt threatened by his nation’s communist regime and defected to France in 1951. Although he wanted to go to the United States, he was originally denied entry. However, he ultimately was able to immigrate to the United States and took a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1980, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Miłosz and Hass were colleagues at Berkeley for several years, and Hass helped produce many of the first English translations of Miłosz’s poems, thereby expanding Miłosz’s audience in the English-language community.