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 …
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