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Despite Robert Hass’s success as a translator and critic, it is for his own musical, descriptive, meditative poetry that he is primarily recognized: Hass has served two terms as U.S. poet laureate. Following the example of former laureate Rita Dove, Hass took the opportunity afforded by the position to play an active role in raising awareness of the importance of literacy. As a result, one critic observes, ”He has shaped [the poet laureate position] to become more like a missionary drummer in the provinces of commerce than as a performing bard in celebrity coffeehouses.” Because of these efforts, ”Robert Hass is the most active Poet Laureate of the United States we’ve ever had,” believes Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Frances Mayes, ”and he sets a standard for those who follow.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up with the Beat Generation
Born in San Francisco on March 1, 1941, Hass grew up in the suburbs of San Rafael, California, and attended private Catholic school. He came to identify at a young age with the literary culture of the West Coast, with its affinities for the local landscape, radical politics, alternative religions, Asian influences, and experimentalism. Widely recognized for his attachment to the northern California coastal region, he is, as Alan Williamson observed in American Poetry Review, the poet ”who has made California landscape most memorably symbolic.” His immediate family comprised his father, Fred Hass, a businessman; his mother, Helen Dahling Hass, whose alcoholism is a major subject in Sun Under Wood: New Poems (1996); an older brother, who encouraged him to become a writer; and a sister.
From an early age Hass embraced poetry as a vocation. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay area at a time when the poetry community there was the focus of national attention: the Beat Generation, led by such writers and poets as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and centered around the legendary bookstore City Lights. Growing up in the 1950s in San Francisco, a young writer could get the sense that poetry was relevant to the lives people actually lead. Consequently, Hass’s poems have an intimacy that is grounded in lived experience and the natural world, with frequent references to art, literature, politics, and history.
Hass earned his undergraduate degree at Saint Mary’s College of California in 1963. While a student, he married his first wife, Earlene Leif. Hass went on to earn a Masters and PhD at Stanford. His three children with Earlene—Leif, Kristin, and Luke—were born while both parents attended graduate school. At Stanford, Hass studied with the poet and critic Yvor Winters, a proponent of New Criticism, a school of thought influential from the 1920s through the 1960s that held that, in analyzing literature, nothing but the words on the page mattered, not the author’s life, nor the circumstances under which the work was created. Other poets with whom he associated included John Matthias, James McMichael, John Peck, and Robert Pinsky.
While working on his PhD, Hass took a teaching position at the State University of New York, Buffalo. When he graduated, in 1971, he returned to California to teach at his alma mater, St. Mary’s. In 1989, he was offered a position at the University of California, Berkeley, where he still teaches. The same year, he and Earlene divorced. Hass married fellow poet Brenda Hillman in 1995.
Becoming a Poet
Hass’s first volume of poetry, Field Guide, was the winning collection in the 1973 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. Metrically regular and thematically unified throughout most of the collection, the poems convey a striking sense of place and Hass’s deep imaginative connections to place: the book is divided into three sections, with each section arranged as a kind of map or guide to natural and historical landscapes. His sharp perceptions and penetrating descriptions of the natural and the artificial reveal an attachment to this world that is both sensuous and spiritual.
Hass confirmed his ability with Praise (1979), his second volume of poems, which won the William Carlos Williams Award. The twenty-four poems question the possibility of mapping raised in Field Guide, as Hass’s intense scrutiny of the act of writing imaginatively makes his relationship to his material more complicated. Throughout Praise, Hass takes up the problems of poetic representation and pushes on the pressure points of the imagination, revealing its limitations, which seem, in the end, to be its true source of power. Hass’s next volume of poetry, Human Wishes (1989), sees the poet taking a meditative turn, focusing on earthly pleasure, catalogues of the everyday, and the social reality that surrounds people. In a departure from his previous work, Human Wishes contains a section of short prose pieces in addition to the more formal poetry.
Even while garnering accolades for his poetry, Hass had not abandoned his training as a critic. In 1984, he came out with Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, a collection of previously published essays and reviews. In the volume, the author examines American writers (including Robert Lowell and James Wright) as well as European and Japanese poets. The essays are often conversational, blending personal response with critical insight. Hass’s essays and reviews attempt more than objective analysis: they explore his own relationship as a poet to the poetry he analyzes. Many of Hass’s fellow literary critics appreciated the book, honoring it with the 1984 National Book Critics Circle award, among others.
Wearing the Crown of Laurels
From 1995 to 1997, Hass set aside his personal role as poet to take up the mantle of the nation’s poet, serving as U.S. poet laureate and poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Long a largely ceremonial position, the poet laureate has recently become far more of a public advocate for poets and their work, a potentially thankless task. But, Hass exerted great energy as a political activist, using his position as national poetry advocate to launch discussions on general literacy, education spending, and environmental protection. Prior to becoming poet laureate, Hass had frequently cited and identified with Oscar Wilde’s line about politics taking up too many of one’s evenings, but during his two years in the position, Hass regularly forfeited the time he normally devoted to his own work. He traveled extensively, giving speeches to business and community groups around the country.
Sun Under Wood (1996) won for Hass his second National Book Critics Circle Award, this time for poetry. Much of the work in Sun Under Wood was completed before Hass became poet laureate, and it is possible to sense in this collection a building ambivalence about the place of poetry in a world desperately in need of the kind of purposeful political and social action Hass would take on during his laureateship. Hass’s poetic work since then has been collected in Time and Materials: Poems 19972005 (2007).
Works in Literary Context
Connecting Poetry to the Natural and Personal World
Hass’s first inspiration as a young writer was the Beat Generation. In a Publishers Weekly interview in 1996, Hass explained to Michael Coffey, ”I started out imagining myself as a novelist or essayist, but then Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg came along; and poetry, imbued with the whole lifestyle of the Beats, was much more exciting.” The free, jazzy, musical style of the Beat poets eventually made way for a more technical, controlled style, influenced by the theories of literature Hass was exposed to in graduate school. Ivor Winters’s New Critical influence is evident, particularly in Hass’s early work, which tends toward a less spontaneous, more concentrated formal artistry; embedded in Hass’s work are subtle traces of his deliberate and extensive poetic preparation. In ”Some Notes on the San Francisco Bay Area As a Culture Region: A Memoir,” collected in his Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1984), Hass acknowledges the early influence of Kenneth Rexroth, who was, he explains, ”the first one to teach me that there could be an active connection between poetry and my own world.” The work of Snyder is also evident in Hass’s affinity for haiku and his propensity for locating and naming the natural world in his poems. Hass has cited William Wordsworth and Ezra Pound as favorite poets, but the subtlest influence on his poetry may well be Wallace Stevens, whose later poems in particular seem to inform Hass’s meditative disposition.
Field Guide and Praise
Even among the limited audience for poetry in twentieth-century America, Hass was a hit from day one. ”He is a fine poet,” Michael Waters relates in Southwest Review regarding Field Guide, ”and his book is one of the very best to appear in a long time.” Waters also notes that the primary focus of the book is naming things, of establishing an identity through one’s surroundings, of translating the natural world into one’s private history. This is a lot to accomplish, yet Robert Hass manages it with clarity and compassion.” In the Ontario Review, Linda W. Wagner agrees that “Field Guide is an impressive first collection. . . . Hass’s view of knowledge is convincing. . . . One can be reminded only of the best of Hemingway.” According to William Scammell in the Times Literary Supplement, the poems in Praise, Hass’s second book, unite freshness and wonder with a tough, inventive imagination.” Writing in the Chicago Review, Ira Sadoff remarks that Praise might even be the strongest collection of poems to come out in the late seventies.” Sadoff also notes that Field Guide ”was intelligent and well-crafted; it tapped Hass’s power of observation carefully and engagingly.” Nevertheless, the reviewer had reservations” about Field Guide that ”stemmed from some sense of chilliness that seemed to pervade a number of poems, as if the poems were wrought by an intellect distant from its subject matter.” Sadoff continued: I have no such problems with Praise.. ..[It] marks Hass’s arrival as an important, even pivotal, young poet.”
- Altieri, Charles. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
- Clines, Francis X. ”A Poet’s Road Trip Along Main Street, U.S.A.” The New York Times (December 9,1996).
- Coffey, Michael. Interview with Robert Hass. Publishers Weekly (October 28, 1996).
- Cavalieri, Grace. ”Robert Hass: An Interview.” American Poetry Review (January/February 1994): 35-39.
- Mayes, Frances. Review of Sun Under Wood. Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 13, 1997.
- Pollock, Sarah. ”Robert Hass.” Mother Jones (March/April 1997): 18-20.
- Sadoff, Ira. Review of Praise. Chicago Review (Winter 1980).
- Scammell, William. Review of Praise. Times Literary Supplement (May 28, 1982).
- Wagner, Linda. Review of Field Guide. Ontario Review (Fall 1974).
- Waters, Michael. Review of Field Guide. Southwest Review (June 1975).
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