Readings in Contemporary Poetry

Robert Hass

Introduction by Brighde Mullins

"A man choosing the words he lives by" is James Merrill's description of a poet -- and it is a fitting description of Robert Hass, whose words are active and suggest not only a way of composing but also a way of experiencing reality. His three books of poems open zones of contemplation and revelation. The grand scale of his native Northern California is made visible through his precise and highly musical sensibility, as he capitulates to the rhythm of pure relationships, of description, of naming, of saying.

Walking, I recite the hard 
explosive names of birds:
egret, killdeer, bittern, tern.
Dull in the wind and early morning light
the striped shadows of the cattails 
twitch like nerves.
This act of recitation is an act of submission to the world, to its intrinsic wonders, terrible and beautiful, naming, as Yeats says -- as a mother names her child -- it is that tender agility that yields such pleasure in Hass' first book, FIELD GUIDE. "If you're going to write you better have somewhere to come from," Flannery O'Connor has said, and Hass does homage to his home in passages like this:
In California in the early Spring
There are pale yellow mornings,
when the mist burns slowly into day
The air stings like Autumn
clarifies like pain--
Well, I have dreamed this coast myself. 
After encountering Hass' world through his soliloquies, eclogues, letters and meditations, we are returned to our own world with the force of fresh looking, with the catalytic resonance of a conversion -- a conversion of the seen to the said Hass' subjects, besides being the words themselves, and the natural world is the made world -- including food and wine, film and painting, all capable of holding secular inscapes, each seeming indulgence an enunciation that suggests the connections between the Spirit and the Body, the Senses and the Soul.

His contemplations explore loss, and are elegies to fleeting moments, passing experience, "All the new thinking is about loss/In this it resembles all the old thinking." So Hass begins "Meditation at Lagunitas," which is to one generation what "Howl" was to another, and is carried around in many a head by many a poet, consigned to memory, it has the scale of a summation and the pleasing accessibility of colloquial speech.

The cover of Hass' most recent book of poems, a Bonnard painting, is an apt linkage to the Impressionists, not only because of the velocity of his encounter with the world of appearances, but in his painterly use of light. He is, to my mind, a plein air poet, he "dreams in front of nature" rendering the fluid fixed, he renders the caprices of light, desire and nature into perfect cadences and our world re-crystallizes around the strength of his vision. He sharpens our senses on the whetstone of his noticing, and reminds us that the true metier of poetry is what is in our path.

Relationships among people, family and friends, are also documented in his poems; he seems to be always asking the question "What can one person be to another?" And, as in his love for his surroundings, which is as fine and as balanced as a Naturalist's, his affinity for the inherent rightnesses of creatures and plants, so in his accounts, his parables, his scenarios of life among people, he displays a dramatist's reserve and ability to hold the beauty of a gesture apart from the terror of its consequence, to separate motivation from desire -- I don't know whether to laugh or to cry when I read some of these short pieces, they are that mysterious and that irreduceable -- and as in the work of great theatre artists, they are acts of generosity that preserve hope in the act of their saying.

As Emerson says, and as Hass demonstrates: Perception is not whimsical but fatal -- and hard looking, persistent naming, becomes luminous-- these are what make the poems sublime.

And so we entreat Mr. Hass, as Cleopatra entreated Antony, to "Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, that long time have been barren." We are lucky to have him among us, because he reminds us that language is more extraordinary than anything.