The poet laureate of the United States, dressed in jeans and an open-neck shirt, is gently guiding a large group of undergraduates up the steep face of that Everest of modern poetry: “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot.
The climb is joyously eclectic.
The laureate talks of Eliot’s mix of biblical and Buddhist images and his nightmarish take on modernity (“bats with baby faces”) that seems straight from an MTV video. He suggests that the poem’s vision of rot and desiccation is the mirror opposite of another classic the students have read this semester: Walt Whitman’s exuberant, life-affirming “Song of Myself.”
And he stops for a moment to ponder Eliot’s mentor, Ezra Pound. Yes, the laureate says, Pound’s poetry requires effort. But it’s worth it.
“If you read it,” he says, “it opens worlds.”
If you read it, it opens worlds.
When Robert Hass, the much-lauded poet, literary critic and translator, was offered the lofty-sounding but ill-defined post as poet laureate of the United States in the spring of 1995, he was dubious.
He thought of Henry David Thoreau’s warning: Beware of ventures that require new clothing. He was reluctant to be away from his students or his beloved retreat at Point Reyes on the Northern California coast. Still, the chance to be “an advocate for poetry” tantalized.
“I thought this was going to be like being class monitor, a very mixed blessing,” says Hass, 55, a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. “Finally, I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to do it.”
And he has.
This soft-spoken poet of nature and love and sex and other human entanglements is possibly the most activist laureate--and certainly the most heavily traveled--in the 50 years since the Library of Congress began retaining poets to provide literary advice to the nation.
By statute, the only duties required of the poet laureate--who is named to a one-year term, renewable for a second--are one reading and one lecture per year at the Library of Congress. With a stipend of $35,000 a year plus expenses, the poet is free to take the job wherever his or her interests lead.
Rita Dove, Hass’ predecessor, campaigned for a greater appreciation of African American poetry and for recognizing the link between jazz and poetry. She worked with children and did a bravura turn on “Sesame Street.”
Hass (rhymes with “grass”) has significantly broadened the role of poet laureate to include not only his love for poetry but also his concern for literacy programs and his passion for environmentalism.
“I wanted to go places that poets don’t usually go,” he says.
He spoke in favor of continued funding of the arts at
governors conferences in New Jersey and Nebraska. His traveling and speaking schedule has resembled that of a political candidate searching for a fresh audience.
He did a fund-raiser for his high school alma mater. He lectures and reads at college campuses wherever they beckon. At 7 p.m. Tuesday, he will give a reading in USC’s Annenberg Auditorium.
And in a first for any American poet laureate, he has crisscrossed the country attending meetings of Rotary, Kiwanis and other service groups and business round tables to read his poetry and talk about public support of the arts.
“My attitude toward those groups had always been they were just babbittry,” Hass says at his campus office. “That was ignorance on my part. A lot of business groups are doing stuff to promote literacy and to help their communities, and they need to be commended and praised for it.”
He also decided that poetry needs to be a greater part of everyday American life. What better way than to return poetry to newspapers, where it flourished in the 19th century?
“I went to the Washington Post and said, ‘I think poetry should be syndicated like comics and advice columns,’ ” he said. “To my surprise, the book editor said, ‘Great, when can you start?’ ”
His weekly column, in which he writes a brief introduction to a short poem of topical significance, runs in a scattering of papers from Miami to San Francisco. For a midsummer column, for example, he quoted from the Japanese haiku poet Basho:
all that’s left
of warrior dreams.
Hass’ selection as poet laureate marked a cultural shift for the Library of Congress, official keeper of the nation’s literary and intellectual values. He is the first poet laureate whose poetry is rooted in the landscape west of the Mississippi River.
As Prosser Gifford, director of scholarly programs at the Library of Congress, likes to point out, Hass is “a Californian by birth, by training and by preference.” His appointment as laureate, Gifford said, is “a recognition by the library of the tremendous poetic vitality in California, the tremendous number of new poetic voices.”
In a lecture earlier this month at the Library of Congress, Hass called for greater attention for those new poetic voices: Native American, Asian American, African American, Yiddish, immigrant and much more.
That may seem a noncontroversial proposition to some, but it bears remembering that powerful arbiters in the Yale-Harvard-New York literary establishment regard much of modern poetry as formless blather, mere undisciplined self-expression masquerading as art.
“That’s the classic East Coast-West Coast literary split,” Hass says. “The East Coast aesthetic still prefers the well-made object and still has a lot of old Ivy League attitudes. But a lot of that kind of poetry is calcified ----.”
Which doesn’t mean Hass thinks all modern poetry is good either.
“Out of this stuff, some of it might be good and a lot of it isn’t particularly good,” he says. “But I’m attracted to energy, and to me there is more energy in this and more promise than in the typical alliteration, the standard poetic form.”
In April, Hass sponsored a weeklong festival, “Watershed: Writers, Nature & Community,” which brought a passel of noted poets, including Hass’ friend Gary Snyder, the “Zen lumberjack,” to Washington. More than 7,000 people attended, the largest gathering ever seen at the Library of Congress.
Hass is an active supporter of the Berkeley-based International Rivers Network. He raises funds for the populist-oriented environmental group, and served as a sponsor for its “River of Words” poetry and art contest for children.
“He knows how to use the office of poet laureate,” says Pam Michael, IRN’s director of education and outreach. “He knows that a letter from the poet laureate to a governor, an arts board or a board of education means more than one from just us. He’s our spiritual mainstay.”
Hass becoming a part of official Washington is not without irony.
A dedicated opponent of the Vietnam War, he went to Washington for the first time to join the 1969 march on the Pentagon that included Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell and a half-million others. He turned his fury into poetry in “After I Seized the Pentagon” (“Field Guide,” Yale University Press, 1973):
Washington was calm, murderous, neo-classical.
More lies than cherry trees and nothing changed.
And drowsing home through northern Pennsylvania
the dawn light fooled me. Dreams. We talked
and, half-asleep, my body hummed. We were too excited.
After dark searchlights had cast troopers
in huge shadow on penitential stone. I saw
two shadows raising clubs to beat a girl,
a sickness in my stomach and worse one in my head,
a pleased sense of historical drama, of the aesthetics
“The first time I went to Washington was to levitate the Pentagon as a way of protesting the war,” Hass says. “I thought of that as an act of citizenship. I think of this [the poet laureateship] as an act of citizenship.”
He pauses to think a moment, then decides that maybe the two acts are not contradictory.
“I’ve gone from trying to levitate the Pentagon to trying to levitate the Pentagon,” he says with a smile, “just in a different way.”
To know the poetry of Robert Hass is to know the places and people of his life.
Titles of early poems were often taken from his favored sites in the Bay Area, spots in danger of despoliation: “On the Coast Near Sausalito,” “Black Mountain, Los Altos,” “At Stinson Beach, “San Pedro Road,” “Meditation at Lagunitas,” “On Squaw Peak” and more.
From “Palo Alto: The Marshes”:
In California in the early spring
there are pale yellow mornings
when the mist burns slowly into day.
The air stings
like autumn, clarifies
Born in San Francisco, Hass grew up in San Rafael and attended Catholic schools. His father was an insurance lawyer; his mother, a homemaker and alcoholic. Only in his most recent poetry, particularly the poems in “Sun Under Wood” (The Ecco Press), published this month, has Hass confronted the pain caused by an alcoholic parent, such as in the poem “My Mother’s Nipples”:
We used to laugh, my brother and I in college
about the chocolate cake. Tears in our eyes laughing
In grammar school, whenever she’d start to drink,
she panicked and made amends by baking chocolate cake.
And, of course, when we got home, we’d smell the strong, sweet smell
of the absolute darkness of chocolate,
and be too sick to eat it.
In high school, Hass played basketball and was entranced by the essays of Baldwin, Camus and Mailer.
“I knew I wanted to be a writer,” he says. “I didn’t know what kind. I just wanted to write.”
He attended St. Mary’s College in Moraga and, after being suspended briefly for chaffing at the rules, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1963. He enrolled in graduate school at Stanford where he led protests against the university’s war-related research and started an alternative newspaper, Commitment: A Journal of Asylum.
In 1967, he joined the English faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The university was undergoing rapid growth to accommodate baby boomers and the English department was opening up the literary canon and experimenting with a more democratic form of governance.
“Every loose pistol in the country was there,” Hass remembers. Among the faculty were novelist John Barth, literary critic Leslie Fiedler, essayist and critic Susan Sontag and poets Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, John Wieners and Gregory Corso.
At one faculty meeting, a debate broke out whether Wieners, a Beat poet and dedicated iconoclast, should be allowed to wear large pink hair rollers while teaching a night-school class for the public. Barth argued no, Fiedler thundered yes.
“This really serious, interesting, funny, principled argument went on,” Hass recalls. “Finally a guy sitting next to me whispered, ‘Now I really know I’m not at Yale.’ It was great.”
Fiedler, one of the nation’s leading literary and cultural critics, says that Hass showed enormous promise as a poet and teacher during his years in Buffalo, but “I always had the strange sense that, in his heart, he never really left California.”
He is not surprised at Hass’ efforts as poet laureate to take poetry outside academia and into mainstream America: “He has always had that kind of interest--to reach out to the worlds of everyday life and politics, and not just live in the world of poetry and where people are mainly interested in reading other people’s books. I was always impressed with his energy.”
Tired of the cold winters, homesick for California and annoyed at a grand jury investigation into his involvement with Students for a Democratic Society, Hass left Buffalo in 1971 for a teaching job at St. Mary’s.
“I wanted to be rooted in a place, not just a profession,” Hass explains. “I wanted to live in a place where I know what happened to the people I knew in high school. That’s a good thing for a writer.”
Hass’ first book of poems, “Field Guide,” won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1973 and a year later he finished his doctorate at Stanford. In 1979, he published his second book of poems, “Praise” (Ecco), and in 1984, his collection of critical essays, “Twentieth-Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry” (Ecco), won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
In one essay, “Lowell’s Graveyard,” Hass wrestled with the dilemma of defining what makes one poem better than another:
“It’s probably a hopeless matter, writing about favorite poems. I came across ‘The Lost Son,’ ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ and ‘Howl’ at about the same time. Some of the lines are still married in my head and they still have talismanic power: snail, snail, glister me forward; Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated; this is the end of running on the waves. “I see now that they are all three lost son poems, but at the time I didn’t see much of anything. I heard, and it was the incantatory power of the poems that moved me. Enchantment, literally. I wandered around San Francisco demolishing the 20th century. . . . You can analyze the music of poetry, but it’s difficult to conduct an argument about its value, especially when it’s gotten into the blood. It becomes autobiography there.”
Hass’ own poetry has oscillated between the joy in nature and the frustration of human relationships.
“From the beginning, Hass has shown a tremendously creative delicacy of feeling: very thoughtful, very philosophic,” says Stephen Berg, a poet and co-editor of the American Poetry Review. “He tries to see the more affirmative side of life, even though he’s aware of the tragic.”
Carolyn Kizer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who knows Hass and has critiqued his work, credits him with “a distinctly metaphysical turn of mind supported by a close and loving observation of the natural world.”
Hass received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980, a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called genius grant) in 1984, and a medal for poetry in 1989 from the Commonwealth Club of California for his collection “Human Wishes” (Ecco). For a decade he has translated the work of Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz and in 1989 he joined Milosz on the Berkeley faculty.
From the beginning, Hass’ poetry has had a streak of domesticity, with references, sometimes loving, sometimes confused, to his first wife, Earlene, and their three children. His newest volume, “Sun Under Wood,” which has been nominated for a National Book Award, is dedicated to his present wife, Brenda Hillman, a poet and teacher at St. Mary’s. From that volume, comes the poem “Regalia For A Black Hat Dancer”:
Odd how families
live in houses. At first a lot marked out with string.
Then levels, rooms, that lift it off the ground,
arrange it, and then inside that intricate dance
of need and habit and routine. Children’s crayon drawings
on the wall. Messages on the refrigerator. Or altars
for the household gods. At night the dreaming bodies,
little gene pool echoes passing back and forth among them,
earlobe, the lap of an eyelid, and the dreams.
Under sorrow, what? I’d think. Under
the animal sense of loss?
As his two-year term as poet laureate winds down to its final eight or so months, Hass says he’s had fun but is weary of the travel and feeling slightly guilty at having to cadge time away from his teaching.
He remembers talking to yet another group in the Midwest about poetry and the importance of nourishing the imagination, and then flying back to Berkeley and returning to class:
“Here was a group of very bright students having a passionate discussion about Emily Dickinson. It was heaven.”
Hass’ class on modern poetry meets Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 6:30 p.m., a torporific time when many students would prefer to be elsewhere. The hour notwithstanding, the class is packed, 125 strong, in a steeply stepped lecture hall.
Where Hass goes, students are sure to follow. When he gave a poetry writing seminar limited to 15 students, 148 students applied, and some who were rejected left in tears.
After the T.S. Eliot lecture and a give-and-take session, a reporter asks students about Hass’ popularity on campus.
Replies Sumana Kaipa, 20, a poetry lover: “He’s huge.”
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Background: Born in San Francisco, raised in San Rafael and educated at Catholic schools and St. Mary’s College and Stanford. A teacher at State University of New York at Buffalo, St. Mary’s and, since 1989, the University of California, Berkeley.
Family: Married two years ago to poet Brenda Hillman. Lives with Hillman and her daughter, Louisa, 18, in Kensington near the Berkeley campus. Three children with his first wife, Earlene, a psychotherapist: Leif, 32, a doctor in San Francisco; Kristin, 30, a lecturer in American studies at the University of Michigan; and Luke, 25, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Influences on his poetry: The teachings of Catholicism, John Dunne, Kenneth Rexroth, Wallace Stevens, Buddhism and the Japanese haiku poets.
On why he became a poet: “It was genetic.”
From Kristin Hass, on having a poet as a father: “When we were children, he taught us to see the world as a puzzle to be unpacked, pulled apart, to be understood and maybe solved. He shared with us his abiding curiosity about the world.”