Last Updated on February 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861
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.”
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.”
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.”
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,...
(The entire section contains 861 words.)
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