Blesok no. 58, January-February, 2008
Weighty truths, lightly
All morality is banal. To write that war is bad, honesty is the best policy, death imminent for us all is to court cliché. It’s all true, but to make it felt? The art of poetry is making the obvious become lovely and new again, coaxing it into memorable speech. Robert Hass’s poems, especially in his long-awaited fifth collection, Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005, can have just that effect.
“Art and Life,” for instance, an extended riff on Vermeer’s Woman Pouring Milk, explores art, restoration, light, paint, and rebirth—almost in one long, miraculous breath. Hass, who teaches at UC Berkeley, resists the quick quote or easy quip: the wonder of this remarkable poem is how it quietly circles round and round back into itself over three-plus pages.
What’s rarer still is the quiet moral authority that speaks through the new poems, the assuredness of a voice that can take on the horrors of war and the huckleberries of Inverness in the same measured way, without hysteria or hyperbole. Each poem resists the obvious showstopper line, instead incorporating slow effects that build momentum over the whole collection, measuring our actions and choices against a backdrop of silence and death. Hass has always attempted to link the historical moment with the intimate, but here the fusion is close to perfect. The voice that speaks through these poems is wiser, more seasoned, more certain of itself and its terrain.
These poems extend Hass’s lifelong meditation on loss, on memory, on grief and wonder, on the various glitches “through which chance / And terror enter on the world,” as he says in one of the poems, and, increasingly, on what he has called our moral responsibility to history.
In a sense, such musings began with a personal vision in Hass’s landmark early poem “Meditation at Lagunitas,” with its near epigrammatic opening lines—“All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking”—and gradually embraced the world. In Hass’s relaxed, Californian, thinking-out-loud voice, the poems usually sound like an extended discussion with himself. A voice this unstrident can tackle subject matter that would, in less skilled hands, simply be heavy-handed and tendentious.
Take “Ezra Pound’s Proposition,” which begins by noting Pound’s contention that, in Hass’s words, “Beauty is sexual, and sexuality / Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility / Of the earth is economics.” In 22 lines that are already surfacing on blogs and websites, the World Bank arranges the funds for a dam that floods 300 villages, sending displaced villagers into Bangkok, where their daughters turn to prostitution. The epiphanic connection sparks like lightning between Pound’s aesthetics, the Thai dam, and the teenage prostitute who confronts the poet and says, “in plausible English, / ‘How about a party, big guy?’”.
Hass was born in San Francisco in 1941; in a state full of émigrés and Johnny-come-latelies, that in itself makes him something of an anomaly. He earned his doctorate in English at Stanford, where he studied with the university’s ensconced curmudgeon, the iconoclastic and prescient poet-critic Yvor Winters. Eminent poet and poetry kingmaker Stanley Kunitz anointed Hass a Yale Younger Poet, the best launch this country provides for its emerging poets; through the award, Hass saw his first collection, Field Guide, published in 1973. Hass received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1984. He was the West Coast’s first U.S. poet laureate, serving from 1995 to 1997. He’s taught at UC Berkeley since 1989.
His books of poetry, however, have been few and far between: Field Guide in 1973, Praise in 1979, Human Wishes in 1989, Sun Under Wood in 1996—this in an era when poets are prized for productivity and pump out a volume every few years. Hass confesses that he is slow and painstaking; his publisher says he has to pry manuscripts from Hass’s hands, and fans are begging for more poems by the time a volume appears.
No one can claim that Hass is anything but productive, though. He’s one of our most tireless translators, anthologists, and essayists. His Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1984) won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and even as Time and Materials was being prepared for publication, East Bay publishers Shoemaker & Hoard issued Now and Then: The Poet’s Choice Columns, 1997–2000, the weekly columns Hass started in the Washington Post Book World during his stint as poet laureate.
Hass is one of the small cadre of poets who also have public prominence for nonliterary reasons. He’s on the Board of Directors of the International Rivers Network, which opposes destructive dams, and he cofounded River of Words, a perfectly named organization that promotes literacy, the arts, and environmental awareness among young people.
Not many poets have given so generously of themselves. Hass spent years of his writing life translating the late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, his neighbor in Berkeley, who died in 2004. At an age when most poets of his heft prepare to make a bed on their laurels, Hass became an apprentice again—this time to a Polish poet who had survived the worst of the 20th century and wrote poems of unforgettable witness. (Hass collaborated with Milosz in translating six books of poetry and prose and issued a posthumous Selected Poems last year.)
Hass’s generosity is significant, for self-absorption has been a hallmark of poets in this country. Like the rest of us, they have been insulated from the historical cataclysms that turned others, such as the celebrated poets of Eastern Europe, outward. American poets often seem mired in their personal observations and lives. Lacking Hass’s moral urgency, they avoid asking the big questions and making broader statements about the world—yet so often that’s exactly what readers turn to poetry for. That’s why Milosz bagged a Nobel in 1980. The Hass of Time and Materials, one suspects, would be much to Milosz’s liking; his influence, above all in its sobriety, a trait that Milosz valued highly, whispers through the new collection.
But while the Polish poet compulsively retrieved memory from annihilation as the world around him dissolved or was destroyed, Hass often dwells on the fallibility of memory—the things that didn’t happen but are remembered as solidly, as tangibly, as if they had. One autobiographical poem in the new collection, however, does seem very clearly recollected. In “The World as Will and Representation,” Hass describes his father’s daily ritual of making sure his alcoholic wife took her Antabuse pills. While Hass resists the term confessional, few other words can describe his preoccupation with, say, his mother’s alcoholism, a major theme in his 1996 collection. But here he links the intimate moment with the ongoing world and one’s place in it. He moves to an image from The Aeneid
(“The man / Who leaves the burning city with his father / On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand”) and concludes, “We get our first moral idea / About the world—about justice and power, / Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.”
Hass’s latest poems remind us that to be fully human is itself an act of political subversion. What could be more Californian?