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An Evangel for Poetry

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Karl Kirchwey
Robert Hass at the American Academy in Rome, May 2012

Poets’ prose—a category all its own—enlarges our idea of a writer’s mind and demonstrates aspects of his character. To a reader knowing only the poetry, there are surprises in Emerson’s aphoristic journals, Whitman’s fact-filled memoranda of the Civil War, or Thoreau’s memories of his dead brother in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Poets’ prose can be formal and reticent—Eliot—or intimately painful—Lowell’s account of his time in Payne Whitney (“From the Unbalanced Aquarium”). What Light Can Do collects the poet Robert Hass’s essays of the last twenty years, in which we hear a disarming voice speaking as if to friends. His prose has an unusually wide range: he has written not only on other poets but also on photographers (Robert Adams, Robert Buelteman, Laura McPhee) and fiction writers (Jack London, Chekhov, Cormac McCarthy, Maxine Hong Kingston).

Hass’s first instinct in writing prose is to take on the manner of a born storyteller, transporting us to a well-described setting—biographical, ecological, or personal—and naturalizing us, so to speak, into an imaginative atmosphere. In other hands, an essay called “Wallace Stevens in the World” might not begin: “My nineteenth birthday was also the birthday of one of my college friends.” Nor might a piece on the First Epistle of Saint John open with: “In my grade-school classroom in Northern California, there were pictures pinned to the bulletin boards representing the Last Supper.” Other essays begin more straightforwardly, but not without a deliberate will to surprise. The intriguing “Chekhov’s Anger” invites us in with a blunt and unsettling opening: “In his journals Chekhov notes two reasons why he doesn’t like a lawyer of his acquaintance. One is that he is very stupid; the other is that he is a reptile.”

Literature is the chief subject of these essays—the poetry of Stevens, the Epistle of John, Chekhov’s works—but often we are well into one of Hass’s seductive stories before realizing that it is becoming a study of some form of art. Most of the essays, one way or another, concern poetry—American, yes, but also Polish, Nicaraguan, Korean, Slovenian, and Chinese. The poets of protest, including Allen Ginsberg, Robert Dale Scott, Ernesto Cardenal, George Oppen, and Robinson Jeffers, take pride of place: Hass (born in 1941) came of age, after all, in the Sixties. Last year—as he related in a November 19 Op-Ed piece in The New York Times—he was beaten by the Berkeley police for participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Hass’s publisher disingenuously refers to What Light Can Do as “a collection of more than thirty new essays.” This is not a volume of “new” essays; Hass himself says straightforwardly that it is “a collection of twenty or so years of incidental practice in the form [of the essay],” and adds thanks to “the editors in whose journals, reviews, and newspapers these pieces appeared.” There is no need to claim a false “newness” in reprinting published but uncollected work; it is enough that these are pieces written by a former poet laureate (1995–1997) whose poems have been awarded almost every prize on offer, including the Pulitzer.

Poets can speak about poetry with a special authority because they live within what Stevens called its “radiant and productive atmosphere.” Their prose, like their poetry, originates in the senses, the perceptions, and the imagination as well as the intellect. They defend poetry against being taken as a set of ideas, because they know that it originates outside of, and even against, “ideas” and “statements.” Hass remarks that while “implicit and explicit ideas in the poem…seem to organize the feeling,” he adds immediately “I am not sure they ever do, entirely, in any poem.”

Hass sets out to establish his sense of the field from which poetry arises. For him, that field is neither primarily intellectual nor primarily solitary; rather, the poem stems from the social setting of its era, and is important for the intensity of life perceptible in it. When addressing students or the general public, Hass would rather not spend too much time on technique or genre. In an interesting essay on the teaching of poetry, he explicitly distinguishes critical writing from classroom teaching:

Writing criticism, I would want to make the fullest account that I could of my own understanding of these lines. As a teacher, I don’t necessarily want to do that. Or I don’t always want to do it. I am inclined to do it sometimes…. But in teaching I think I am often more concerned with bringing [students] to the poem, to the intensity of life in the poem in a way that will make them want to do their own thinking about it.

The informality here, and elsewhere in this collection, suggests an origin in talk, and many of Hass’s essays still bear the winning colloquiality of audience address: “Let me read it to you,” he says. It is not that Hass can’t offer criticism giving “the fullest account” of his own understanding: he has included here an original and entertaining essay on Edward Taylor, the early American clergyman-poet (1642–1729), whose imagination was decidedly bizarre. In Hass’s lively description, we see Taylor at work composing his poems:

His famous lines…come not from precision and purity of diction but from the sense of an unpredictable imagination taking delight in its own inventions…. It is certainly not rational understanding to which doctrine is submitted, but a wild, playful florescence of imagination. He makes poems as vigorous, strange, dreamy, and sometimes comic as any Joseph Cornell box, and like Cornell he makes them out of the smallest oddments and particulars of his culture.

Such sentences come straight from a delighted mind living in the atmosphere of Taylor’s eccentric and energetic poetry. This carefully composed essay was originally published in a collection on contemporary poets’ views of Renaissance poets, and in its general sobriety it is a relief from some rather adamantly folksy moments in other pieces. Hass has, for instance, just seen two Caravaggios in Rome, the second a painting of the crucifixion of Saint Peter. The next paragraph begins “Afterward I had a beer and a sandwich…. First crucifixion, then crostini.” A reader may wince at that.

And even when introducing one of his favorite poems—Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light”—Hass unaccountably feels that he is helping his audience to understand the poem by bringing in “life,” saying, “This is after all a poem whose only starting point seems to be low blood sugar in late afternoon in wintertime and a slant of light like that.” That comparison might draw a laugh in a classroom, but it causes discomfort on the page, as does his remark on Dickinson’s good fortune by comparison to the unpublished Taylor: “She, at least, sent her poems to Thomas Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson, and a few to magazines, and got to enjoy the reputation of a poet, recluse, and snob.” Did she really “enjoy” her reputation as a “snob”?

Such infelicities are not common in Hass’s work, but a striking, and very American, misunderstanding turns up in the essay on Edward Taylor. Like George Herbert, Taylor expressed praise of God in metaphors: these suggest, says Hass (once again bringing in “real life”), “the feel of a plain man’s idea of high life: precious stones, the finest linen, the best wine, rare sugars, ointments and perfumes…. The terms of [Taylor’s] praise give the impression that God existed—as Brenda Hillman has remarked—in a sort of eternal duty-free shop.”

But the material elements listed by Hass appear everywhere in the Bible as offerings to God or analogies for him. Precious stones appear in Revelation; in Proverbs 27, “Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart”; according to Leviticus 6, “the priest shall put on his linen garment”; there should be “an offering made by fire unto the Lord for a sweet savour” (Exodus 29:18): “and the drink offering thereof shall be of wine” (Leviticus 23:13); “Out of strength came forth sweetness” (Samson’s riddle: honey in the jawbone of an ass, in Judges 14:14). Is it helpful to deduce “a plain man’s idea of high life” from Taylor’s biblical allusions, or to place God in an eternal duty-free shop, that place of mercantile excess? Such “updating” is a coarse attempt to make past poetry “relevant” to modern life: but—as Hass knows and says—the universality of poetry lies in its appeal to human feeling, not in any point-for-point correspondence of material realities of the past with those of the present.

Hass is a hospitable and enthusiastic critic, writing generously of many twentieth-century poets, with a taste that runs from Stein to Zukofsky, from Miłosz to Peter Dale Scott. He perhaps scatters the word “great” more widely than is deserved, but his evangelistic zeal in showing his readers what there is to be seen in a poet is part of his persuasiveness. And when the praise is warranted, it is powerfully expressed: there is nobody in America better qualified to praise Miłosz than Hass, who has selflessly devoted a very large part of his life to translating Miłosz with expertise, care, and understanding. The two beautiful pieces here on Miłosz—one praising the poet at eighty, the other an elegy commemorating the poet’s death at ninety-three—are samples of Hass at his best. As he often does, Hass draws us in with an anecdote, here a joyous rendition of Miłosz’s humor:

Last summer when we were in the office of his Grizzly Peak home working on the galleys of one of the new books…I remarked on his industry and pointed out that, if he kept writing at the present rate, he had a very good chance of getting tenure. He frowned at the joke, looked momentarily rueful, even sad, and then exploded into laughter, the wild eyebrows that artists and caricaturists like to draw leaping high. “It is true,” he said, “I did not perish.”

The anecdote leads to one of the swift and graceful biographical summaries at which Hass excels, in which facts and impressions arrive side by side. “He was born before World War I”—the fact—leads directly into a quick sketch placing us in Miłosz’s moment:

He was born before World War I…when grandfathers wore thick mustaches and grandmothers received their journals of fashion from Berlin and Paris, delivered by a postman with a dog cart in which he also carried the latest French novels with pale yellow covers and uncut pages.

It is this quality that I envy in Hass—the intimate sense, congruent with Miłosz’s own, of what men and women in the world might be doing at a given moment. The quick flick of history animating Hass’s accounts of poets and poetry, the streak of life flashing against the line of verse, the glimpses of social circumstances dark or absurd, the storyteller’s pace—these are the accomplishments of a mind open to sensual and imaginative reality on a large scale.

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