Hass, Robert

views updated

HASS, Robert

Nationality: American. Born: San Francisco, California, 1 March 1941. Education: St. Mary's College, Moraga, California, B.A. 1963; Stanford University, California (Woodrow Wilson Fellow; Danforth Fellow), 1964–67, M.A. 1965, Ph.D. 1976. Family: Married Earlene Leif in 1962; three children. Career: Has taught at the State University of New York, Buffalo, 1967–71, St. Mary's College, Moraga, California, 1971–74, 1975–89, and University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1974. Since 1989 professor of English, University of California, Berkeley. Poet-in-residence, The Frost Place, Franconia, New Hampshire, 1978. U.S. Poet Laureate/Consultant in Poetry, Library of Congress, 1995–97. Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1972; US-UK Bicentennial Exchange fellowship, 1976; William Carlos Williams award, 1979; Guggenheim fellowship, 1980; American Academy award, 1984; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1984–89; NBCC award, for criticism, 1985; P.E.N./B.A.B.R.A. award, for translation, 1986. U.S. Poet Laureate/Consultant in Poetry, Library of Congress, 1995–97. Address: c/o Ecco Press, 100 West Broad Street, Hopewell, New Jersey 08525, U.S.A.



Field Guide. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1973.

Winter Morning in Charlottesville. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1977.

Praise. New York, Ecco Press, 1979; Manchester, Carcanet, 1981.

Five American Poets, with others. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.

Spring Drawing. New York, Dia Art Foundation, 1988.

Human Wishes. New York, Ecco Press, 1989.

Sun under Wood: New Poems. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1996.

Recording: A Story about the Body, Watershed, 1988; Sounding Lines the Art of Translating Poetry, University of California Office of Media Services, 1999.


Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. New York, Ecco Press, 1984.

Poet's Choice: Poems for Everyday Life. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1998.

An Unnamed Flowing: The Cultures of American Poetry. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 2000.

Editor, Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems, by Robinson Jeffers. New York, Random House, 1987.

Editor, Selected Poems 1954–1986, by Tomas Tranströmer. New York, Ecco Press, 1987.

Editor, with Stephen Mitchell, Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology: Poetry and Prose on Love and Marriage. New York, Harper Collins, 1993.

Editor, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1994.

Editor, with others, Back Roads to Far Towns: Basho's Oku-nohosomichi. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1996.

Translator, with Robert Pinsky, The Separate Notebooks, by Czeslaw Milosz. New York, Ecco Press, 1984.

Translator, with Czeslaw Milosz, Unattainable Earth, by Milosz. New York, Ecco Press, 1986.

Translator, with others, Collected Poems, by Czeslaw Milosz. New York, Ecco Press, 1988.

Translator, with Czeslaw Milosz, Provinces by Milosz. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1993.

Translator, Facing the River: New Poems, by Czeslaw Milosz. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, and Manchester, Carcanet, 1995.

Translator, Road-Side Dog, by Czeslaw Milosz. New York, Farrar Straus, 1998.


Critical Studies: "Praise: The Poetry of Robert Hass" by Robert Miklitsch, in The Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), 17 (1), 1980; "The Letter-Poem" by Hank Lazer, in Northwest Review (Eugene, Oregon), 19 (1–2), 1981; "I and Ideology: Demystifying the Self of Contemporary Poetry" by Gary Waller, in Denver Quarterly (Denver), 18 (3), autumn 1983; "'"And There Are Always Melons,' Some Thoughts on Robert Hass" by Alan Shapiro, in Chicago Review (Chicago), 33 (3), winter 1983; "Poetry Chronicle: Don Pagis and Robert Hass" by Charles Berger, in Raritan (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 10 (1), summer 1990; "Opposed Sensibilities: Hass and Gluck" by Lee Upton, in Northwest Review (Eugene, Oregon), 28–29 (3), 1990; "Holding Out against Loss and Jacques Lacan: Some Reflections on Robert Hass's 'Sensuous Line"'" by Gunilla Florby, in Studia Neophilologica (Oslo, Norway), 63 (2), 1991; "Robert Hass: Bard on the National Stage" by Michael Coffey, in Publishers Weekly, 243 (44), 28 October 1996; by Grace Cavalieri, and "From Image to Sentence: The Spiritual Development of Robert Hass" by Terrence Doody, both in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 26 (2), March-April 1997; "Poetry and Masculinity on the Anglo/Chicano Border: Gary Soto, Robert Frost, and Robert Hass" by Michael Tomasek Manson, in The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, edited by Manson, Aliki Barnstone, and Carol J. Singley, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1997; by Gerald Haslam, in Updating the Literary West, Forth Worth, Texas, Western Literature Association, 1997.

*  *  *

Robert Hass, as he puts it in an essay in his Twentieth Century Pleasures, is a poet concerned with "the pure activity of being consciously alive." Convinced that it is possible to turn outward, away from "our inner emptiness … which mutilates the world and turns it into badly handled objects" ("Looking for Rilke"), Hass has throughout his career worked out a number of important approaches to the problem of creating a poetry that simply says of the world, "this is." The goal is most forcefully presented in another essay from the collection, in which Hass describes the way certain images "marry the world, but … do not claim to possess it, and in this they have the power and the limitations of intimate knowledge. As someone can own a piece of land and have the power to change it or dispose of it as he pleases, and someone else can use that land, walk on it, work it, know the color of it changed in gray light, when the wild radish flowers, where the deer leave imprints of their bedding down, and not own it, have no external claim to it." Such images—using the world but relinquishing any guarantee of ownership—become for Hass "figures for that clear, deep act of acceptance and relinquishment which human beings are capable of" ("Images").

Hass's Field Guide, as its title suggests, is a book about "the sudden feel of life" ("On the Coast near Sausalito") involved in the act of naming. Its poems consistently contrast two different ways of handling language—an often brutal confidence in its ability to possess the world and a more tentative awareness of limits—in order to put into play a tension within Hass himself. As he puts it in "Fall," a poem about gathering mushrooms, Hass would place himself on the side of linguistic "amateurs"—gathering and naming and using the "aromatic fungi" of the world with a constant awareness of tension and limits:

   Death shook us more than once
   those days and floating back
   it felt like life. Earth-wet, slithery,
   we drifted toward the names of things.

Such amateurs, Hass suggests in "Spring," might agree with Wittgenstein that "the limits of my language /are the limits of my world," but they would also go on from there to explore the sense of flexibility and intimacy generated by speaking a language that may not hold: "We spoke all night in tongues, /in fingertips, in teeth." At the same time, however, Hass makes it clear how often his words would have it otherwise, calling him away from life and back to that drive to possess and perfect, what one poem calls "the lobotomy of description" ("Palo Alto: The Marshes").

Hass's collection Praise not only sets this tension going but also addresses it forcefully. This can be seen most clearly in "Meditation at Lagunitas," in which he confronts our contemporary awareness of the "loss" built into all language use: the "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." Focusing on such a failure to master the world, Hass realizes, rightly means that "everything dissolves: justice, /pine, hair, woman, you, and I." Though he acknowledges giving into that inevitably frustrated desire himself, Hass counters this sense of dissolution by also remembering another, a more "tender" and limited, use of words that involves itself with the world without ever raising the question of mastery. Other poems in the book propose examples of what such a use of language might look like. "Weed," for example, notices the way the common name of a plant, absurdly "marrying the words" horse and parsnips, creates not a version of desire but something "durable and unimaginative." A drifting letter to a friend about "an odd terror in my memory" ("Not Going to New York: A Letter") suggests that its merely explanatory limits—it is a letter, "not poetry where decay and a created /radiance lie hidden inside words"—"make life seem more commonplace and—at a certain angle— /more intense." "Songs to Survive the Summer" offers his grief-stricken daughter a series of "curiously shaped" images and stories, none of which will "save" her but all of which touch the dying world "casually /… lustered /by the steady thoughtlessness /of human use."

In the collection Human Wishes Hass continues to search for ways to present by relinquishing but adds to that task an acute awareness that our "lustered," commonplace gatherings are often not as durable as we let ourselves think. "Things change," one poem wryly admits: marriages break apart, children grow up, readers gather and then splinter, a man is of two minds about something. Hass's later poems, then, realize that there are "many visions /intersecting at what we call the crystal /of a common world, all the growing and shearing, /all the violent breaks" ("Santa Barbara Road"). Though he continues to search out common rather than poetic ways of shaping and praising the world, his forms in this book also strive to incorporate a sense of breaking and scattering. The description in "Late Spring," for example, is presented in a series of peeled-apart clauses, each of which touches some aspect of the season's shifting, intensifying rhythm but none of which holds it. A paragraph about a couple in a museum restaurant juxtaposes Hass's response to their sleepy but sure rhythms ("I have fallen in love with this equitable arrangement, and with the baby who cooperates by sleeping") with the carved faces ("suffering the numbest kind of pain") exhibited around them. The durable, commonplace gesture still remains for Hass, but now it drifts in a more broken, violent realm:

   And the man is not hurt exactly,
   he understands that life has limits, that people
   die young, fail at love,
   fail of their ambitions. He runs beside her, he thinks
   of the sadness they have gasped and crooned their way out of
   coming, clutching each other with odd, invented
   forms of grace and clumsy gratitude, ready
   to be alone again, or dissatisfied, or merely

Hass also has occupied himself with translation. His longtime collaboration with Czeslaw Milosz has resulted in several volumes, including portions of Milosz's Collected Poems and all of Provinces. If Milosz seems more determinedly political than his American translator, they meet in their concern with the problem of language and referentiality. "In Milan," from Milosz's Collected Poems, demonstrates the crucial difference. Accused by a friend of being "too politicized," Milosz concludes an eloquent response with

   Yes, I would like to be a poet of the five senses,
   That's why I don't allow myself to become one.
   Yes, thought has less weight than the word lemon
   That's why in my words I do not reach for fruit.

In contrast, in "Meditation at Lagunitas" Hass tries, despite awareness that language "is elegy to what it signifies," desperately to reach for fruit through words. The poem concludes,

   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.

In what is in many ways a more obvious meshing of sensibilities, Hass's translations in The Essential Haiku of the three masters of the Japanese form—Basho, Buson, and Issa—are the culmination of twenty years of slow and steady work. Basho, in particular, with his closely seen and compassionate but somewhat detached sense of the world, seems to be a poetic soul mate. Apart from the value of gathering so many able and thoughtful versions of haiku in a single volume, The Essential Haiku also provides samplings of longer works by the three poets and some of Basho's pithy insights on poetry, as well as an informative apparatus that includes introductions for each of the poets, notes on individual pieces, and Hass's useful essay clarifying elements of haiku. The breadth of his scholarship evident in these translations, coupled with his intelligent essays on poetry and his own poems, made him one of the most exemplary choices for U.S. poet laureate and consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, a position he held in 1995–97.

In Sun under Wood, published in 1996, Hass confronts his personal life with greater honesty and openness than in earlier collections. For all the naming of names in earlier poems, the reader is left with little sense, other than generally, of the turbulence of the life out of which those forcibly moderated poems emerged. Two of the personal circumstances brought into poetic light represent conflicts from childhood and from his adult life, the first with his mother's alcoholism and the second with his separation and divorce. Both experiences are traumatic enough that indirection and nondisclosure are understandable strategies, but the force they exert also seems to require release, the shapes of which are long, mixed formal sequences occurring toward the beginning and the end of the volume. The earlier conflict is first raised in the second poem, "Our Lady of the Snows," in which the speaker recalls "slip[ping]" into church "when [his] mother was in a hospital drying out" to light a candle "and bargain for [them] both." She appears again and is seen more directly in the next poem, "Dragonflies Mating," in which the poet confesses his humiliation when she appeared at basketball practice

   with her bright, confident eyes,
   and slurred, though carefully pronounced words, and the appalling
   impromptu sets of mismatched clothes she was given to
   when she had the dim idea of making a good impression in that state.

Hass explores this painful topic more directly and at even greater length in the following sequence, "My Mother's Nipples." Writing about this poem, Hass comments that, when the topic was first proposed to a friend, "My first idea was to make fun of the idea, my second was the painfulness of it. These suggested a form." The "form" includes long-lined, meditative poetry; brief, parodic lyrics; and prose passages that circle the subject at times and that at other times narrow it to a harrowing directness. From its opening lines the poem announces the tendency against which it will struggle:

   They're where all displacement begins.
   They bulldozed the upper meadow at Squaw Valley,
   where horses from the stable, two chestnuts, one white,
   grazed in the mist and the scent of wet grass on summer mornings
   and moonrise threw the owl's shadow on voles and wood rats
   crouched in the sage scent the earth gave back after dark
   with the day's heat to the night air.

We may wonder what all of this has to with the theme announced by the poem's title until we realize that the lyricism demonstrates the very evasiveness of displacement. Not until the first of the prose sections does the poem approach the pain more directly, with two memories of the mother's institutionalization. Evasion and approach represent the poles between which Hass struggles with this demonic angel.

Hass seems more than passingly acquainted with his shortfalls as elaborated in the volume's final poem, the tellingly titled "Interrupted Meditation." The poem opens with the kind of lyrical description of nature at which he excels:

   Little green involute fronds of fern at creek side.
   And the sinewy clear water rushing over creek stone
   of the palest amber, veined with a darker gold,
   thinnest lines of gold rivering through the amber
   like—ah, now we come to it.

Just what "we come to" will take another two pages of dialogue between the poet and an unnamed Polish survivor of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw that treats the relation between experience and language in the context of extreme suffering. This leads to the remembered referent of the opening, in which the unnamed interlocutor speaks:

   Of course, here, gesturing out the window, pines,
   ragged green
   of a winter lawn, the bay, you can express what you like,
   enumerate the vegetation. And you! you have to, I'm afraid,
   since you don't excel at metaphor
. A shrewd, quick glance
   to see how I have taken this thrust. You write well, clearly.
   You are an intelligent man. But—finger in the air—
   silence is waiting. Milosz believes there is a Word
   at the end that explains. There is silence at the end,
   and it doesn't explain, it doesn't even ask.

Notice how what could be taken as self-congratulation on Hass's part—praise of his skill at writing, his intelligence—is rendered as a left-handed compliment, the way in which it was offered. If Hass cannot completely rise above his flaws, he at least can recognize the truth when it is articulated. The exponential growth in self-awareness evidenced in Sun under Wood, along with Hass's demonstrable lyrical skill and intelligence, mark his movement from one of the best poets of his generation to one of the best poets working in America today. We could all afford to learn from his penetrating self-criticism, doubtless a consequence of his refusal to publish too much and too soon, and follow as he continues this slow but sure growth to poetic majority.

—Thomas Gardner and

Allen Hoey