An Evangel for Poetry

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.

In Hass, as in many other poets, there is a natural annoyance when critics and scholars seem to miss precisely that aliveness of literature. Commenting on the reception of The Waste Land, Hass is impatient with scholars:

Everyone who read The Waste Land understood that it was among other things the account of a personal crisis. And so while scholars [apparently not included in the preceding “everyone”] read the footnotes and tracked down the references and studied Eliot’s ruminations on the prospects of Christendom, the young poets understood that both the power and the immense prestige of the poem lay in its sense of personal extremity and in its identification of that personal crisis, the terrible sense of sexual unhappiness and impending madness and exile from a father’s authority, with the predicament of Western civilization.

Professor Dry-as-Dust against the young poets, Casaubon against Will Ladislaw: it is a drama dear to the heart of faction. But were there no scholars who saw the “personal extremity” in the poem? And were there no “young poets” who rejected Eliot’s sort of poetry? (William Carlos Williams notoriously did.) And if the scholars, touched by The Waste Land, wanted to clarify their understanding (and that of fellow readers) by investigating Eliot’s notes and tracking down the references and attempting to deduce the poet’s obsessions, that only proves they were born curious; it doesn’t prove that they were born numb.

Hass’s temperature rises in that gust of language about The Waste Land—immense, extremity, crisis, terrible, unhappiness, madness, exile—because his political passions have been aroused. They are aroused above all, within these pieces, by human unhappiness and by ecological threat. Hass is not naïve: he is well aware of the dangers to poetry of unreflective political commitment. In an essay on Korean poetry he repeats the old warning:

It can be a disaster artistically for a poet to write an explicitly engaged political poetry, however morally admirable the impulse is, and the wariness of poets is well-founded.

Prose, perhaps, can be “explicitly engaged” without running such a risk. But how is poetry to find a role for engagement? Hass lives within the aura of the young Miłosz’s question in “Dedication”: “What is poetry, if it does not save people or nations?” The friction between the ethical and the aesthetic both afflicts and animates Hass.

It is the favoring of one side of that tension that unbalances Hass’s 1987 essay celebrating the centenary of Robinson Jeffers, who was a poet of sublime bathos as often as he was a poet of acrid harshness. The essay begins promisingly, with Hass’s sympathetic tale of the arrival at Carmel of the twenty-seven-year-old poet and his wife Una, and continues with a brisk overview of Jeffers’s relation to modernism (“Jeffers’ contribution to that decisive literary moment was the last to arrive”). With Hass’s first quotation from Jeffers’ early poetry, however, there appears the ineradicable problem of Jeffers’s hyperbolic clichés, as Jeffers writes of “the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger-smitten cities.” Denunciatory language that must have felt prophetic to Jeffers is now dead on the page. He sums up his bleak view of an indifferent universe in which human suffering does not carry religious meaning by commenting on the life of minnows “living in terror to die in torment.”

Hass, pointing out that Jefffers’s father “was a Presbyterian minister and a Calvinist theologian” tends to explain, and almost to justify, Jeffers’s exaggerated rhetoric by rehearsing in his own voice the “horror that rapidly escalated from trench warfare through the invention of aerial bombardment to Guernica, Dachau, Hiroshima, and the gulags.” But events alone, no matter how hideous, do not justify a style that relies only on mounting decibels—a style that was to become in Jeffers’s narrative poems, as Hass remarks, “more strained and violent each year”:

The vision was too dark, the narratives on which his reputation seemed to rest were often repellently violent and hysterical, the sexuality was violent and only violent, and the politics were deeply out of fashion…. The poems are also the work of a man sickened by the war, by political processes so-called, and by the human race. American patriotism sickened him as much as German or Japanese patriotism.

Such a passage assumes that a man “sickened…by the human race” cannot help writing bad poetry. Or that it is an error to expect good poetry from a neurotic writer. Neither assumption is true.

Much of Hass’s essay on Jeffers surveys the poet’s life: his shy childhood, his marriage, the death of the first child, the birth of twins, a family life culminating in Jeffers’s building, stone by stone, Tor House in Carmel, and adding, later, a Yeatsian tower complete with “a lookout in the top, and a dungeon, and a secret passageway for the boys to play in.” In spite of the interest of the life, very congenially related, one could wish that Hass had scrutinized more closely the flaws in Jeffers’s defensive poetics. He quotes Jeffers as saying, “It is right that a man’s views be expressed, though the poetry suffer for it. Poetry should represent the whole mind; if part of the mind is occupied unhappily, so much the worse.” Hass might have asked whether any poem can represent “the whole mind,” and whether unhappiness in the mind precludes the creation of authentic poetry. In a preface to a reissue of his volume Roan Stallion, Jeffers wrote:

As I…meditated the direction of modern poetry, my discouragement blackened. It seemed to me that Mallarme and his followers, renouncing intelligibility in order to concentrate the music of poetry, had turned off the road into a narrowing lane…. Idea had gone, now meter had gone, imagery would have to go; then recognizable emotions would have to go; perhaps at last words might have to go or give up their meaning, nothing be left but musical syllables…. I was standing there like a God-forsaken man-of-letters, making my final decision not to become a “modern.” I did not want to become slight and fantastic, abstract and unintelligible.

These polar choices—to become “modern” and consequently unintelligible, or to remain bound to idea, meter, imagery, emotion, and meaning, thereby becoming “a God-forsaken man-of-letters”—are false ones, as we can see from the proliferation of the many varieties of modern verse after Mallarmé, from Moore to Stevens, from Eliot to Larkin. Jeffers’s choice is the extreme choice against style; Mallarmé’s choice is the extreme choice for style.

As Hass’s essay proceeds, his vocabulary (torment, anguish, catastrophe, bitter truths, terrible and tormenting violence, deeply sick, nightmarish and misanthropic, brutal) echoes more and more Jeffers’s own rhetoric of “inhumanism,” until his citing of Jeffers’s views almost obliterates any views of his own. There could have been, in this lengthy essay, less echoing and more investigation, more debating of the cost to poetry of aiming at “intelligibility” (or, as we say these days, “accessibility”). Even while conceding the worst that can be said of Jeffers, Hass—who is, granted, celebrating a centenary—ends without the astringency the subject needs. It is finally too easy to say of Jeffers, “It is as a feeler, not a thinker, that he matters.” Can feeling and thinking be so easily detached? And does “feeling” not suffer if there is no acute “thinking” exploring the “feeling”?

In his peroration, Hass becomes exaggerated in tone, as if Jeffers’s overloaded rhetoric had become contagious:

We have lived in a catastrophic time. The redundancy of violence and suffering, the sheer immensity of the danger, always threatens to wither the imagination…. The effort to think about the fate of the planet, about what man is that he has done to himself all the terrible things that he has in this century, comes to us mostly as dark and private musings…. Jeffers sought in the verse of his short poems an art to speak those musings largely, to claim for poetry the clarity and largeness of mind needed to compass the madness.

But poetry needs more than “clarity and largeness of mind,” more than attempts to “think of the fate of the planet.” It needs, above all, the thing that goes beyond statement, that achieves all that philosophy cannot, a style. A style is what keeps a poem honest. It is what fuses all the words in a poem into a single Dickinsonian “word made Flesh”—an integral object never repeatable by another hand, never correctable into another form, never paraphrasable into prose. Jeffers’s poems, even the short ones, are dangerously paraphrasable; and their rhythms (from Whitman and Swinburne, as Hass notes) do not engrave themselves on the mind as unique.

When Hass takes on ecological questions, he is on stronger ground than when he lapses into moralizing; his poet’s gift for the quick glance and the telling phrase sharpens his lament in such passages and strengthens his credibility. On a trip to Shanghai, he had been watching the crowds on the Bund, and realized only later, he says,

what I had seen. Or not seen: I turned abruptly around and traced my way back to the river, leaned against the embankment, and stared a long time. There were no birds. Not a single gull…not even sparrows or songbirds…. And there was not a fisherman in sight. The river, for all its human vitality, was dead.

At such moments, Hass’s rhetoric of deprivation becomes focused and telling. In the Sixties, the poetry of protest seemed the only kind devoted to making a difference in public life, and, as this collection suggests, that decade formed not only Hass’s moral character, but also his taste in poetry and his very notion of what poetry is.