posted Sep 13, 2011
Globalism, ecology, the human body, the human psyche— these are just some of the deep narrative veins running through the keen, highly accessible work of Robert Hass. Poet, translator, academic, as well as an activist for literary and non-literary causes, the California native explores both the exterior and interior aspects of our world with a rare sensitivity and honesty. Through his long time editorship and friendship with Nobel-Prize winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, he helped introduce English language readers to works of profound humanity born out of the violence and chaos of World War II. And while Hass’s own writing shares an emotional simpatico with the socially-engaged poetry of 20th-century Europe, its subject matter is grounded in a post-Vietnam War America. His book of new and selected work The Apple Trees at Olema recently came out in paperback, and we were privileged to ask him about the direction of his latest work as well as the various influences on his poetry over time.
Several of the new poems in this collection are in a quilt-like form. While you’ve written multipart poems in the past that jumped between style and topic and from verse to prose (i.e. “January” from Human Wishes and “My Mother’s Nipples” from Sun Under Wood), these current poems have, at times, the casual, honest feel of journal entries, of “notebooks” as you call them (“July Notebook, “August Notebook,” “September Notebook”). What inspired you to undertake this style and what ties the parts together?
Among the new poems in Apple Trees are the notebook sequences, and they are still in process for me. I began with the idea of keeping monthly journals over a period of years, thinking that the practice might make a long poem or series of poems (and that it might not, in which case I could print some of the parts later as separate poems.) One of the things that was appealing to me about the notebook form—I partly had in mind Milosz's "The Separate Notebooks"—was that it could accommodate drafts of poems, notebook jottings, etc.—textural variety. Another was that themes might emerge from the months (from the California seasons) that I could return to over time. “September Notebook,” for example, seems to want to be an ongoing meditation on the telling of stories.
Is it important for you, as a poet, to experiment with new content and styles?
It is. But I understand that most poets—most artists—think they are restlessly experimenting even when their work looks quite repetitive to many readers. An icon painter can feel she's made a revolution by moving the arm of an archangel an eighth of an inch.
Nature is one of your major subjects, and you seem very immersed in the natural world. Do you feel that living close to nature benefits your writing discipline, in terms of focus or mindfulness, in a way that city or suburban living may not? Do you feel that Henry David Thoreau's going to the woods to "live more deliberately" rings true?
I must say I don't, in my own case, understand very well where "focus" comes from. For me it is more a matter of my being able to pay attention to the natural world when I am focused, meaning not distracted, not running the repetitive movies of daily obligation with its sound track of brain roof chatter in my head.
Yes. I guess so. I must say I don't, in my own case, understand very well where "focus" comes from. For me it is more a matter of my being able to pay attention to the natural world when I am focused, meaning not distracted, not running the repetitive movies of daily obligation with its sound track of brain roof chatter in my head. My wife and I walk in our part of the natural world a lot, walk and talk. Sometimes I am awake to the world—awake in Wallace Stevens's sense when he said that the greatest poverty was not to live in a physical world—and sometimes not. And it seems not usually to be the world that wakes me up. This week late in a cold spring a two-mile walk we often take along a small creek is, from one end to the other, bordered thickly with wildflowers. It looks like the path to a bridal bower or like a Botticellian Persephone has just walked through it, strewing mimulus and forget-me-nots. It's not exactly "nature" that is amazing, it's free beauty, the way the fecundity of the earth (in some ways a predictable process) seems like happiness. And I can be awake to it or dead to it, and usually it doesn't wake me up. I have to be awake to see it.
You've said that bird-watching is one of your favorite hobbies, and birds make frequent appearances in your poems. Do they carry a special emotional or metaphorical significance for you?
Probably many. Birds and flight. Birds and the soul. Birds as messengers. Etc. At the conscious level, for me, I think what I experience is some happiness and amazement that I live among completely other kinds of creatures. I have a new grandson and one of his first words is "duck." He lives near a lake and passes them in his stroller, and they excite him. Hard to say exactly why. "Biophilia," E. O. Wilson called it.
In another new poem “Song of the Border Guard,” a birdsong refrain at the end of each stanza (“Boat-tailed grackles and white-winged doves”) interrupts portraits of human life and history in various Texan and Mexican towns. What do you see as the relationship between the natural world and humanity?
I've had that line "Boat-tailed grackles and white-winged doves" in my head for years. And a memory of the different places where I'd heard the distinctive medley-ing of those songs. And that something might be made of it in relation to our current hysteria over the U.S.-Mexican border. I'm pretty sure the birds have been here longer than U.S. people of European, African, and Asian ancestry and Mexican people of European and African and Asian ancestry, and they may have been here longer than Olmecs and Aztecs and the Kiowa or Cheyenne people or they migrated in with them at the end of the last ice age. It's another way of thinking about claims to the land. The poem probably isn't that satisfactory, but it gestures, cheerfully, I hope, toward the separate and intertwined worlds of humans and these particular animals.
Which literary theme came first for you and when—nature or politics?
Well, I started writing poems around the time of the escalation of the Vietnam War, so I was thinking about politics early. When (Czeslaw) Milosz was putting together an anthology some years ago, he first divided it into topics—travel, nature, injustice, divinity, death, etc.. One of the subjects was "women's skin." Probably for me, rhythms of words came before any theme and then among themes something like "women's skin" and something like "wonder at movement" and then around the same time politics and nature.
You are known for writing about a combination of nature, politics, and human relationships, and all with great empathy, but your work also emphasizes process and often engages in a stream of consciousness style. Did any particularly poets inspire you to call attention to the act of writing itself?
I was raised on modernism (in literature, painting, music, theater, film), which meant I was exposed to the particular intelligence (thrilling to me) of an art that is always, or often and intermittently, calling attention to the ground or the process of its own making.
I was raised on modernism (in literature, painting, music, theater, film), which meant I was exposed to the particular intelligence (thrilling to me) of an art that is always, or often and intermittently, calling attention to the ground or the process of its own making. Pound's poems in Personae, the end of Bergman's “Persona” when all that's left is flickering light and the sound of the whirring of a projector.
Though the language in your work is fairly direct, it is always fresh and never boring. In the poem “Interrupted Meditation” an older intellectual bluntly tells you that you don’t excel at metaphor. But how would you define metaphor? (You studied and translated the great haiku masters Basho, Buson, and Issa, and your new poem “Variations on a Passage in Edward Abbey” consists of a single extended metaphor for grief).
Thank you for that. I hope so. I would define metaphor as the perception of a likeness, of a transitive similarity that almost marries two (or more) unlike objects, and sometimes, spectacularly, makes a new, third thing. For that I think about Hart Crane—"in these poinsettia meadows of her tides," "where her undinal vast belly moonward bends." I don't necessarily endorse that speaker's idea that I am not "good at" metaphor, but there are poets—my wife Brenda Hillman, Charles Simic—in whom quick metaphorical seeing is a primary intelligence. I don't often have that. I think about the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. Metonymy is the trope of the realist eye—"Old pond, a frog jumps in, the sound of water—or the passage in the Iliad when a warrior is struck in the heart with a spear and Homer says that the heart is still beating so the tip of the spear quivers. I'm drawn to that kind of eye, but I love and envy the other. If I ask my wife about a birdsong, she'll say, "You mean the one that sounds like an orange scribble?" Or she'll say, "Third grade, Sunday school. It seemed interminable like Jesus carrying that big addition sign." I love that kind of seeing. It's like lightning.
There is a down-to-earth eroticism in some of your work that feels less like shock or titillation than an affirmation of humanity (e.g. “The Privilege Being”). Do you think this aspect of human life is largely ignored in contemporary poetry?
I don't think so. It's hard to find the right place to stand to write about sexuality as a part of life rather than as this either dark or numinous thing outside it altogether. See Denis De Rougemont’s Love in the Western World and Octavio Paz’s The Double Flame—as opposed to, say, Georges Bataille, who is about sexuality and a dark otherness. My favorite poem of this kind, at the moment, is Gertrude Stein's “Lifting Belly.”
You write a great deal about politics, history, the human condition, particularly in your book Time and Materials. (If any reader feels apathetic about the world’s problems, he/she should pick up your book right now and read it cover to cover.) Do you feel a responsibility to address the political, or, to quote from your long poem “The State of the Planet,” “Something of the earth beyond our dramas”?
I don't feel obligated to address political or environmental issues in my poems, but I have felt that I would like to be able to.
I've seen lots of writers in interviews respond to this question by quoting Robert Duncan, who said that responsibility "is keeping the ability to respond." I don't feel obligated to address political or environmental issues in my poems, but I have felt that I would like to be able to.
You called your acceptance of the position of poet laureate, which you held from 1995-1997, an “act of citizenship.” And during those years, you worked to promote issues like literacy, the arts, and ecological awareness. How have you carried on this work outside of writing? (For instance, I know you’re involved in watershed conservation issues from your poem “Ezra Pound’s Proposition.”)
Yes, I have to some extent carried this work on, particularly the work on the environment and the arts. I helped found an organization called River of Words that encourages environmental literacy, and I'm on the board of a non-profit called International Rivers that addresses global watershed issues. This is ordinary citizen work, evening meetings, helping with fundraising, etc. that I do a little of. I didn't do much of this kind of work in the years that I was raising a family and trying to write. George Oppen says in a poem that one must not imagine he can hold many threads in his hand.
And lastly, your work is typically meditative and philosophical in tone. I was wondering what great thinkers, living or dead, have influenced you? Or maybe a better question is, what figures from history would you most like to sit around the dinner table with discussing the state of the world?
I like the phrase "from history." I would probably choose selfishly and pick friends who are gone fairly recently and whom I miss. If I chose Catullus or Du Fu or Spinoza or some really sane person like Hannah Arendt or some great observer like Rachel Carson, I'd have to spend an awful lot of time just explaining what's going on. But imagine walking through the Metropolitan Museum with Cezanne. That would be something worth doing.
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