There are poets who wish to tell us everything about themselves, others who keep their lives a secret; poets who believe poetry is the voice of solitude, others who aspire to speak for their race, gender, and ethnic group; poets who believe they follow what tradition prescribes, others who seek a poetry freed from any definition of poetry or prose; poets who seek God, the sublime, the simultaneous vision of One and Many, while for others there is only the here and now. Then there’s Robert Hass, who doesn’t quite fit in any of these categories. As his marvelous new book of poems shows, there are still other ways to be an American poet.
Hass made his debut in 1973 when his first book, Field Guide, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by Stanley Kunitz. He was thirty-one years old. Born in San Francisco and having grown up in Marin County, he attended nearby St. Mary’s College and after graduating in 1963, he went on to receive both his MA in 1965 and his Ph.D. in 1971 in English from Stanford University.
These were exciting times for poetry in San Francisco and Berkeley. The Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Philip Whalen were at the height of their fame and so were Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer, poets very different from one another who were either older or not associated with the Beat movement. They, and a number of others, were known to every student and grownup who cared about literature through their countless poetry readings in the area, some attracting hundreds of people. There were also a few bookstores where one could find hard-to-get small-edition books and little magazines brought out by the various avant-garde movements flourishing at the time in the United States. Between attending readings, browsing in bookstores, and meeting others with similar interests, one was likely to get a better education in contemporary writing than in any university then or now.
Hass appears to have taken full advantage of the opportunities. “My masters were the poets that I read,” he said later. Unlike most beginning poets, who tend to worship one master, one type of poetry to the exclusion of everything else, he was curious about different and often conflicting traditions. There are traces of his vast reading in his first book. Williams, Pound, Stevens, Roethke, and Lowell are there, but so are the old Chinese and Japanese, and even the Spanish and French Surrealist poets. This aesthetic and intellectual inquisitiveness and willingness to learn what he can wherever he finds it is unusual and it has not lessened as he has grown older. What other American poet would say that in his opinion the five most important poets of the last fifty years were the Chilean Pablo Neruda, the Peruvian Cesar Vallejo, and Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, and Czeslaw Milosz?
Hass’s eclecticism would have been of little use …