The Limits of Influence
The poet laureate Robert Hass
has gone back to private life!
By: Stephen Burt
S OME WRITERS SEEM DESTINED TO SERVE AS POETS LAUREATE; OTHERS WOULD PROBABLY HATE THE JOB. ROBERT HASS WON FAME IN THE 1970s FOR SELF- EFFACING VERSE ABOUT CALIFORNIA TRAILS AND HILLS, ABOUT THE EVERYDAY PLEASURES OF OUR FIVE SENSES AND ABOUT THE CALM HUMILITY IN EAST ASIAN CLASSICAL WRITING AND ART.
Such topics appear to belong far from the halls of government. Yet Hass did serve, responsibly and diligently, as poet laureate from 1995 to 1997: he has remained visible ever since, writing newspaper columns, compiling popular anthologies, teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and keeping up his collabor-ation of decades with the Polish Nobel Prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz (who died in 2004) on translations of Milosz’s verse and prose. All that service seems to have strengthened Hass’s powers: this first book of poems since his term as laureate ended shows the worth of playing against type, the survival of his private talent and the artistic uses of his public life.
Hass’s title doubles as a warning about his own book: poets who become public figures may lose both the hours (time) in which to write their own poems and the introspective energies (materials) that inspire them.
Thwarted hopes become recurrent themes: Hass invokes, with a nod to Buddhist doctrine, “Desire that hollows us out ... That kills us and kills us and raises us up.” Crisp adaptations of the Roman poet Horace (and less effective prose poems against war) show Hass’s frustration at the limits of his own influence: “If you are going to speak truth in public places’ Hass’s version of Horace says, “You may as well take wing from the earth.”
The title suggests more hopefully that poetry is a craft, like carpentry: this book contains Hass’s best and most careful verse in almost 30 years. A sense of his large (by poetry standards) audience, and of responsibility to America and the American language, has perhaps helped him 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.
Poems about paintings and painters, in particular, let Hass set his ruminative temperament, his wish to consider art as an open-ended process, against our wish to see works of art as finished things. Some painters, like Gerhard Richter (the subject of the title poem), make the opposition between process and product, “gesture” and “object:’ their theme: in Richter’s version of “Action painting:’ “The painter gets to behave like time.”
This new book includes both very short and very long poems, just as it covers urgent international topics (global warming, in “State of the Planet”) and fleeting, small-scale, personal delights (“the flesh of a cucumber! When you peel it carefully”).
Sometimes Hass leaves the page mostly empty, approximating watercolor or haiku. One of his “Three Dawn Songs” reads, entire: “The light in summer is very young and wholly unsupervised. No one has made it sit down to breakfast. It’s the first one up, the first one out.”
Yet Hass can also fill pages with detailed arguments about politics, ethics, sex, science and memory: one “law of human nature,” Hass asserts, “is that human beings Will do anything they see someone else do and someone! Will do almost anything.” This law, he continues, explains both the habits of the American teenager and the emergence of the suicide bomb.
Poets who write for a nation — whether appointed laureates or self-designated bards — must notice the literary history of their art, the social and political history of their country and their own personal histories, their private lives. They may even feel forced to choose among them. “Futures in Lilacs,” for example, portrays Walt Whitman first in literary history, as a posthumous inspiration to Allen Ginsberg; second, Whitman “After the Civil War ... in the Library of Congress,! Researching alternative Americas”; finally, Whitman pursuing an unrequited love for the “trolley conductor” Pete Doyle in “the summer of — what was it? —1867? 1868?” Hass ends the poem there, with a sudden question, as if to ask when a poet’s hidden passion can matter more than the life of his times.
Sometimes those histories all point the same way. The strongest poem here is public and private at once: it is also harrowingly confessional. “The World as Will and Representation” depicts one episode from the unhappy life of Hass’s mother, when she was made to take “a drug called antabuse,” which “makes you sick if you drink alcohol.” Hass’s father gave his mother “little yellow pills” each morning, then bid young Robert, “Keep an eye on Mama.” He did: “Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,! My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,! Drank and gagged.”
Against that memory Hass’s blank verse sets a scene from Virgil’s “Aeneid7 the ancient epic whose hero, Aeneas, is destined to found the Roman empire . In this scene Aeneas flees his burning city “with his father! On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand”: “We get our first moral idea .....About justice and power,” Hass concludes sparely, “from somewhere.” The helplessness of a child and the peril of a parent can dictate the way we see the larger world: public and private, personal and national, now seem to Hass — as they did to Aeneas — sadly impossible to keep apart.
-----Stephen Burt’s new book
of criticism is “The Forms of Youth.”
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993