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 to him as a poet if he had not had a firm sense of who he was and where he comes from. “I began writing seriously,” he wrote in his mid-twenties for an anthology of young poets, “when I found that I could write about myself and the world I knew, San Francisco and the country around it, in a fairly simple and direct way.” Despite his impressive erudition, Hass has always been, primarily, a poet of direct experience, as much as Whitman, Frost, and so many other American poets are.
Even by the high standards of the Yale series, Field Guide was an amazing volume. Hass is the rare poet whose early poems are as finely crafted as his later ones. Not only that. They have a literary sophistication one doesn’t usually encounter in a beginner’s work. Only someone thoroughly familiar with the feverish activity in poetry and the arts in the last 150 years could have written a poem like this:
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AS A SONG
“How like a well-kept garden is your soul.”
John Gray’s translation of Verlaine
& Baudelaire’s butcher in 1861
shorted him four centimes
on a pound of tripe.
He thought himself a clever man
and, wiping the calves’ blood from his beefy hands,
gazed briefly at what Tennyson called
“the sweet blue sky.”
It was a warm day.
What clouds there were
were made of sugar tinged with blood.
They shed, faintly, amid the clatter of carriages
new settings of the songs
Moravian virgins sang on wedding days.
The poet is a monarch of the clouds
& Swinburne on his northern coast
“trod,” he actually wrote, “by no tropic foot,”
composed that lovely elegy
and then found out Baudelaire was still alive
whom he had lodged dreamily
in a “deep division of prodigious breasts.”
Surely the poet is monarch of the clouds.
He hovers, like a lemon-colored kite,
over spring afternoons in the nineteenth century
while Marx in the library gloom
studies the birth rate of the weavers of Tilsit
and that gentle man Bakunin,
home after fingerfucking the countess,
applies his numb hands
to the making of bombs.
There are even better poems in the book. They range from charming love poems, “Spring” and “Adhesive: For Earlene,” to a tough urban poem, “Bookbuying in the Tenderloin,” a homage to Robinson Jeffers full of dazzling bird imagery, a political poem, “After I Seized Pentagon,” which begins, “Washington was calm, murderous, neo-classical,” a poem about the coast near Sausalito, a strange and touching seven-part poem about the Poles in Buffalo, and several imitations of the great haiku master Issa, one of which reads:
Bright autumn moon;
pond snails crying
in the saucepan.
Not only are the poems stylistically poles apart from one another, but such shifts occasionally occur even within a single poem. If we define metaphor as a trope that describes something as looking like something else, that is pretty much what happens in his poems. Except that for Hass, it’s not just the resemblance of two things that he is concerned with, but several. For an alert intelligence like his, curious about everything, a poem usually is a series of inspired juxtapositions. This jumping from subject to subject is extremely hard to pull off, especially in a short poem. Pound and Eliot tried it with mixed results in their longer poems. When it works, as it does in parts of the Cantos, The Waste Land, and some of Hass’s own poems, it’s as satisfying as listening to a brilliant talker who keeps us spellbound even as he keeps digressing and skirting the subject. When it does not work, it’s as boring as listening to an inebriated professor of literature in a bar who wants to impress us with his vast learning.
Hass’s next book, Praise, which came out in 1979, had fewer poems, but most of them were very good and some like the following one were exceptional:
MEDITATION AT LAGUNITAS
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
“Poetry,” Hass once told an interviewer in the Chicago Review, “is a way of living…a human activity like baking bread or playing basketball.” This is certainly true of him. One of the poems in Praise is called “The Garden of Delight,” and others could be called that too. “Somewhere in the summer dusk is the sound of children setting the table,” he writes in “The Beginning of September.” His poems are full of such ordinary events exquisitely described. Hass looks at a bird or a tree the way a lover looks at his beloved. The here and now are to be savored. After giving us his recipe for onion soup in a poem, he tells the reader, “Surround yourself with friends./Huddle in a warm place./ Ladle. Eat.”
Such catalogs of earthly delights do not leave out the complications, the way our intellect subverts what we see. Hass may start with what Stevens called “the plain sense of things,” but no sooner has he noted down his observation than he begins to question it, to probe its meaning until what at first seemed a simple act of looking at something is no longer so. For both Stevens and Hass, no idea of reality is final. Every new experience, every new formulation of that experience changes our understanding. As we just saw in “Meditation at Lagunitas,” a poem for Hass is a place where one’s self-knowledge is deepened. On one hand, the seductive clarity of abstract ideas, and on the other hand the inability of language to fully convey the reality of a woman whose naked body is more numinous than words. No wonder he says that both the new thinking and the old thinking are all about loss.
Hass’s next two books, Human Wishes (1989) and Sun Under Wood (1996), are uneven. The poems are more autobiographical, more concerned with narrative, and less lyrical. The life of the family predominates, specifically the story of his alcoholic mother and the complicated relationship of his parents to each other and their children.
A number of prose poems read like entries from journals or fragments from essays and memoirs. Hass said in an interview that he was interested in boundaries: “what the prose poem wasn’t supposed to sound like.” He succeeded. Some of the longer poems that alternate between passages of poetry and prose often sound annoyingly the same. We read them for their content and are moved by their stories and sharply observed details, rather than for their poetry.
What works in these two collections is the shorter poems and a few self-contained sections of longer ones, like this beautiful lyric fragment from a poem called “Cuttings”:
Desire lies down with the day
and the night birds wake
to their fast heartbeats
in the trees. The woman beside you
is breathing evenly. All day
you were in a body. Now
you are in a skull. Wind,
streetlights, trees flicker
on the ceiling in the dark.
Writing about Robert Lowell in Twentieth Century Pleasures (1984), his enjoyable and supremely intelligent book of essays on poetry, Hass commends the older poet for having found a way to accommodate realistic detail and narrative structures out of Chekhov and the short story tradition, while admitting that the practice had engendered a lot of slack narrative verse. This, with all its risks, is Hass’s goal too. He wants a poem to be able to include the many things he’s interested in without sacrificing emotional intensity. He praises Milosz in another essay for his “great inclusiveness,” his steady attention to every aspect of life, whether it’s the history of injustice and suffering, the look of some animal or bird, or the misery and splendor of love. In “English: An Ode,” from Sun Under Wood, Hass writes:
There are those who think it’s in fairly bad taste
to make habitual reference to social and political problems
in poems. To these people it seems a form of melodrama
or self-aggrandizement, which it no doubt partly is.
And there’s no doubt either that these same people also tend
to feel that it ruins a perfectly good party
to be constantly making references to the poor or oppressed
and their misfortunes in poems which don’t,
after all, lift a finger to help them. Please
help yourself to the curried chicken….
Wouldn’t you like just another splash of chardonnay?
“It is common procedure in our times to live in a welter of contradictions without giving the matter much thought—or, worse still, hypocritically concealing the truth,” wrote the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado in a book published in 1936. Neither intellectually nor politically are we in better shape today. Anyone who pays attention to such things knows that everything from the nature of the universe to the behavior of human beings and the functioning of our societies is still hotly debated.
Poets usually avoid such public issues, preferring to write about their own experiences, though a few, like Hass, feel an obligation to give voice to our bewilderment. This has been his ambition from the start, and never more so than in his new book. In a poem written for the fiftieth anniversary of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory just north of New York City, audaciously entitled “State of the Planet” and included in Time and Materials, he addresses the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose epic poem On the Nature of Things sought to explain the diverse phenomena that preoccupied human reflection in his own time. As he does so, Hass spells out what he himself believes:
Poetry should be able to comprehend the earth,
To set aside from time to time its natural idioms
Of ardor and revulsion, and say, in a style as sober
As the Latin of Lucretius, who reported to Venus
On the state of things two thousand years ago—
“It’s your doing that under the wheeling constellations
Of the sky,” he wrote, “all nature teems with life—“
Something of the earth beyond our human dramas.
At first, Lucretius seems like an odd model for a contemporary poet to emulate, until we learn something about him. The intellectual tumult and political violence of his times resemble our own. The Roman poet was attracted to Epicurean philosophy, with its emphasis on sense perception as the foundation of knowledge and its speculations about what might constitute the good life, which is what Hass is concerned with too. Finally, Lucretius made no distinctions between the philosopher, the scientist, and the poet. The idea of separating the world of metaphysical ideas, the knowledge of physical reality, and myth would have seemed to him unnecessary.
This split, which has widened over the centuries, is something Hass wishes to do away with. “Imagination cannot be without intelligence, any more than it can be without feeling,” he writes. In his new book, he takes another crack at it. Of course, he knows the dangers of such poetry. Years ago, studying Japanese and Chinese poets, he noted with approval that their poems do not comment on themselves, interpret themselves, but simply present and by presenting assert the adequacy and completeness of our physical experience of the world. Still, now and then in a poem, he can’t resist being in seven places at once:
FUTURES IN LILACS
“Tender little Buddha,” she said
Of my least Buddha-like member.
She was probably quoting Allen Ginsberg,
Who was probably paraphrasing Walt Whitman.
After the Civil War, after the death of Lincoln,
That was a good time to own railroad stocks,
But Whitman was in the Library of Congress,
Researching alternative Americas,
Reading up on the curiosities of Hindoo philosophy,
Studying the etchings of stone carvings
Of strange couplings in a book.
She was taking off a blouse,
Almost transparent, the color of a silky tangerine.
From Capitol Hill Walt Whitman must have been able to see
Willows gathering the river haze
In the cooling and still-humid twilight.
He was in love with a trolley conductor
In the summer of—what was it?—1867? 1868?
Some of these random thoughts occur as the narrator stands naked waiting for his lover to take her blouse off, while others occur, presumably, as he recalls the experience later on. They strike me as both plausible in their crazy logic (the business about the railroad stocks, for example) and hard to believe (how likely is it that anyone would be remembering at that intensely erotic moment Whitman looking at “etchings of stone carvings/Of strange couplings in a book”?). In other words, how much of this was true to experience and how much of it was added afterward by this very learned and very clever man?
Hass is aware of the problem. The tricks memory plays, the way we remember things that didn’t happen as if they did, is a recurrent theme for him. A moving poem from the new book, “The Dry Mountain Air,” in which Hass recalls his grandmother in loving detail, has an astonishing ending. This is how it begins:
Our Grandma Dahling arrived from the train station
In a limousine: an old Lincoln touring car
With immense, black, shiny, rounded fenders
And a silver ornament of Nike on the hood.
She wore a long black coat and pearl-grey gloves.
White hair, very soft white, and carefully curled.
Also rimless glasses with thin gold frames.
Once in the house, having presented ourselves
To be hugged completely, the important thing
Was to watch her take off her large, black,
Squarish, thatched, and feathered confection of a hat.
She raised both hands above her head, elbows akimbo,
Lifting the black scrim of a veil in the process,
Removed a pin from either side, and lifted it,
Gingerly, straight up, as if it were a saucer of water
That I must not spill, and then set it down,
Carefully, solicitously even, as if it were a nest
Of fledgling birds (which it somehow resembled),
And then there arrived, after she had looked at the hat
For a moment to see that it wasn’t going to move,
The important thing. Well, she would say, well, now…
His brother, who is four years older, told Hass that this never happened, that grandma never visited the house on Jackson Street. Everything about those visits, including the chocolate Christmas cookies she brought and other presents for the boys, was a fantasy. “I thought it might help to write it down,” he says at the end of the poem. The truth of things is complicated. What Hass is true to in his memory is his feelings for his grandmother. It’s another love poem, this one about a cherished memory of something that didn’t happen—which may be a fit description for many a poem we read and admire, believing every word of it, not aware that it may be invented.
Hass, like Milosz—with whom he collaborated in translating six books of poetry and prose—keeps his eyes open. “The world is glimpses, moment by moment, in our experience,” he wrote in an essay on poetic images. His poems are full of such “eternal” moments. They are eternal because they are gone in no time and one is left with the mystery and the astonishment of having been here rather than somewhere else, of seeing that rather than something else:
MOUTH SLIGHTLY OPEN
The body a yellow brilliance and a head
Some orange color from a Chinese painting
Dipped in sunset by the summer gods
Who are also producing that twitchy shiver
In the cottonwoods, less wind than river,
Where the bird you thought you saw
Was, whether you believe what you thought
You saw or not, and then was not, had
Absconded, leaving behind the emptiness
That hums a little in you now, and is not bad
Or sad, and only just resembles awe or fear.
The bird is elsewhere now, and you are here.
Time and Materials has several poems that deal with politics. One of them is called “Bush’s War.” Written in Berlin, or rather begun in that city, it juxtaposes the beauties of northern spring with its flowering trees, the racket of birdsong, the scent of flowers, students holding hands, to the speaker’s recollections of World War II, the German concentration camps, the fifty thousand who died in the firebombing of Hamburg, the hundred thousand who died in the firebombing of Tokyo in one night, the two million Russian prisoners of war murdered by the Nazis, the slaughter of forty-five thousand Polish officers by the Russian army in Katyn Forest, and much more.
The poem shifts between lyrical passages and didactic ones that recall not only such past atrocities but also the innocent dead lying in the rubble of Baghdad more recently. “Bush’s War” is meant to shock the reader, have him complain, as our officials usually do when confronted with indisputable evidence of our own murderousness, that we don’t target civilians deliberately and that, therefore, there is no equivalence between us and them since we only wage war for noble reasons. Hass doesn’t buy it. “It’s hard to say which is worse, the moral/Sloth of it or the intellectual disgrace,” he writes toward the end of the poem.
Is “Bush’s War” a good poem, or merely an eloquent editorial against the war with some fairly predictable sentiments and language? Could it have been shorter than 126 lines? As it is, the historical statistics and the explanation of our love of blowing things up outweigh the gorgeous description of Berlin spring. Clearly, what Hass wants is a poem that can incorporate all that and still remain whole aesthetically. Despite its flaws, in my view, this is a gutsy poem with many powerful images and some passages of genuine eloquence.
I like much less Hass’s poems about painters and paintings in this book, including the title poem about Gerhard Richter in which Hass compares the German painter adding layers of paint to a canvas each day to the small, ordinary happenings in Hass’s life out of which the materials for his poems come. How to “render time and stand outside/The horizontal rush of it” is what the artist and the poet confront in their work. What they hope for, Hass says, is some “vertical gesture,” some “anger or desire,” some “wound of color” to stop that rush. As an argument, the poem is persuasive, but there are finer poems in the book. Here is one:
Tomales Bay is flat blue in the Indian summer heat.
This is the time when hikers on Inverness Ridge
Stand on tiptoe to pick ripe huckleberries
That the deer can’t reach. This is the season of lulls—
Egrets hunting in the tidal shallows, a ribbon
Of sandpipers fluttering over mudflats, white,
Then not. A drift of mist wisping off the bay.
This is the moment when bliss is what you glimpse
From the corner of your eye, as you drive past
Running errands, and the wind comes up,
And the surface of the water glitters hard against it.
“The poet must be continually watching the moods of his mind, as the astronomer watches the aspects of the heavens,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. For him every description of what we do and what we see was a meteorological update of our inner weather. This habit of close observation, in which from time to time both what is being observed and the observer himself are laid bare, is what is most appealing, and, I’m tempted to say, what is most enduring in Hass’s poetry. The weight of a life fully lived, both in the senses and in the mind, is what he celebrates and what comes through in his best poems. When he does that as well as he does in this little poem, we are reminded what a magnificent poet he has been all these many years and still continues to be.
May 15, 2008