Poet’s landscape of the personal and the public
Bay AREA poet Robert Hass resembles a West Coast cross between William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. Hass sees with the eyes of the English romantic but speaks in the sensuous, philosophical tones of the burgher of Hartford.
And he sets his poems neither in the Lake District nor wintry New England but alongside the rugged coastline and golden landscape of Northern California.
Hass’ patented combination has drawn acclaim in the past -- he served, for instance, as U.S. poet laureate in the mid-'90s. But Hass, 66, who won the National Book Award recently for his latest volume, “Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005,” wrote many of these recent poems in a different state of mind than his earlier collections.
“I was kind of determined to continue to have an inner life,” Hass said from his home outside Berkeley, where he teaches, referring to a period that began in his poet laureate appointment in 1995 and involved not only two years at the post but several environmental, journalistic and public art projects. He had to work, he said, to protect the side of himself that wrote poetry.
“While I was trying to find my way back to the rhythms of daily life and to the private themes that were given me to figure out,” he said, “George Bush got elected. In my mind the Republicans seized on the bombing of the twin towers to try to re-create a Cold War atmosphere around the terrorism and to launch these wars. I had to figure out a way to deal with that.”
The resulting book begins with very private concerns, then moves into public poems such as “State of the Planet” and “Bush’s War” before moving back to personal territory.
Along the way are poems about the painters Gerhard Richter and Johannes Vermeer, a translation of Swedish surrealist Tomas Transtromer and a lyric in which Homer’s sirens do not sing, “so Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed / By a music that he didn’t hear. . . .” There’s also a scorching poem about being left at home at age 10 to supervise his alcoholic mother.
Even before the National Book Award, the collection drew strong praise. “Time and Materials,” wrote Stephen Burt in the New York Times, shows “the survival of his private talent and the artistic uses of his public life.” The book “contains Hass’s best and most careful verse in almost 30 years. A sense of his large (by poetry standards) audience, and of the responsibility to America and the American language, has perhaps helped him to escape the self-satisfied chattiness that disfigured his poems of the 1980s; what he has lost in Californian ease he has gained in sterner self-restraint.”
Hass’ first book of verse, 1973’s “Field Guide,” contained what’s still probably his most famous poem, “Meditations at Lagunitas.” Typical of his early work, the poem begins with barbed elegy -- “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking” -- and moves through linguistic theory, natural ardor and recollection into a deeply emotional conclusion.
Admirers were struck by Hass’ grounding in West Coast soil and in a California literary tradition marked by Robinson Jeffers, the Beats and the serenity of traditional East Asian verse.
Hass was also celebrated for his essays: In 1984 he published “Twentieth Century Pleasures,” which includes essays on Rainer Maria Rilke, Transtromer, Stanley Kunitz and others and was soon recognized as one of the best books about contemporary poetry.
In the Rilke essay, Hass -- who will appear at L.A.'s Central Library on Dec. 3 -- wrote about the German poet’s extreme inwardness and attraction to heightened states of being. “Rilke had argued that the life we live everyday,” he wrote, “is not life ... he does not seem to speak from the middle of life.” Instead, “he is always calling us away from it.”
It was a funny line coming from a writer whose work was often so grounded in the everyday and in the real trees and flowers and birds around him. As poet and critic Dan Chiasson noted in the New Yorker, “An entire zone of ‘ordinary’ emotion -- where most of us spend most of our time -- has not been represented in American poetry.” Hass, along with Mark Strand, he wrote, is one of a few contemporary poets who address it.
“If you could try to write from places as deep as from where Rilke does,” Hass said now, “but situate it where we all live our lives, that would be the way to go about it. Maybe you can’t have it both ways, but you can certainly try.”
Over the years Hass has also maintained, parallel and sometimes overlapping with his poetry, a strong commitment to the environment. Sometimes he’s struck by how much the two subjects have in common, as when he realized that part of respecting the Earth and its creatures involved “coming to an understanding of how much we don’t understand.”
And poetry, of course, is driven by “metaphors of singing birds and caressing sunsets: It tells us that each species lives in its own sensory world, that we don’t know what’s going on.”
It’s especially clear, he said, in the work of Stevens -- an insurance executive and linguistic dandy who’s hard to imagine as a forebear to today’s “green” movement and whom Hass resisted in a sort of Oedipal way early in his career.
Hass points to Stevens poems such as “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “The Snow Man” and “Of Mere Being,” which includes the line: “A gold-feathered bird / Sings in the palm, without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song.”
It’s enough to make Hass forgive what he sees as Stevens’ sometimes “overrefined, wedding cake baroque” verse. “Some words of wisdom, for our environmental behavior,” he said, “lie in understanding that the world wasn’t created to make Homo sapiens feel good.”
Foreign poets among favorites
Hass is of a generation of American poets that opened up to the influence of poetry in translation, and he himself has made a career-spanning dedication to translating and interpreting the work of the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, a friend and fellow Berkeley professor.
In fact, he’s listed among his favorite poets two Latin Americans -- Chilean Pablo Neruda and Peruvian Cesar Vallejo, and the Polish poets Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska.
“I think hybrids have great strength,” Hass said of the Latin Americans. “There was this certain moment, connected to surrealism I think, when Latin American literature, across the board, exploded. For whatever reason, the ‘30s and ‘40s produced Octavio Paz, Drummond Andrade in Brazil, Neruda and Vallejo. I don’t know why it was, but it seems to have something to do with figuring out how to use native materials and the Spanish heritage, and it happened in painting at the same time.”
And while the standard explanation for the strength of Polish poetry -- both Milosz and Szymborska have won the Nobel Prize -- is that it springs from the turmoil of this nation of shifting borders, Hass isn’t so sure.
“Terrible political repression isn’t a formula for producing amazing poetry,” he said. “But because Poland was colonized and divided up in so many ways for so long, poetry always mattered tremendously to them. They could hang onto it as their nationality when they weren’t a state, and they had a sense of a grand history: They had a country, from 1921 to 1939, with a flourishing culture, that encouraged so much.”
It reminds him, he said, of literature and music in the Reconstruction South, and poetry and theater in Ireland during and after the independence movement. Each place had “an overweening culture that despised it -- and then, a breakthrough.”
A responsibility of writing
Hass’ poetry is more of the reflective and musing and praising kind; he’s rarely programmatic. So the line “It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us” from “The Problem of Describing Trees,” sticks out.
“I think it came from the sensibility of the Polish poets, in a way,” Hass said. “The Stevens idea was that the imagination just vivifies life, so that the business of disillusioning people doesn’t belong to poetry; poetry should create magic.
“But that would take away from poetry one of the powerful responsibilities of any writing, which is to face facts.”