Robert Hass: US poet laureate from 1996 to 1997, professor, poet, environmentalist, and he’s not afraid to write about sex. Hass is by far my favourite poet. This is partially for the way he balances sentimentality with a self deprecating awareness; he never goes too far, or when he does he looks wryly back on his words. But it is also because I find his poems so easy to love. In saying this, not everyone is a fan. The review, “Are you smeared with the juice of cherries?” by Michael Robbins in Poetry Magazine, which I found on The Poetry Foundation website, slammed Hass’ work and elicited a series of responses that eventually turned into name calling in the comments (and thanks to Joan Fleming for putting me onto the debate).
Hass is the second poet I am studying for my doctorate, and I am currently reading Field Guide (1973), Hass’ first book that was written during the Vietnam War. Although the poems dwell on marriage and the Californian landscape, they also touch on violence. In the forward to Field Guide, editor Stanley Kunitz said: “Reading a poem by Robert Hass is like stepping into the ocean when the temperature of the water is not much different from that of the air. You scarcely know, until you feel the undertow tug at you, that you have entered another element” (xi). Instead of posting a poem by Hass as my Tuesday Poem, I want to talk about some lines from Field Guide that show the effortless that Kunitz’s suggests.
Of the sea, in “On the Coast near Sausalito” Hass says: “I won’t say much for the sea / except that it was, almost, / the color of sour milk.” In “Palo Alto: The Marshes” he opens with “She dreamed along the beaches of this coast. / Here where the tide rides in to desolate / the sluggish margins of the bay, sea grass sheens copper into distances.” Hass uses simple language to create his images – the sea is the colour of “sour milk”; the grass “sheens copper.” For me, his descriptions rarely feel over-written.
I think that Hass manages to write about love and sex in the same way. In “Adhesive: For Earlene” he opens: “How often we overslept / those grey enormous mornings / in the first year of marriage.” He goes on to say “By spring your belly was immense / and your coloring a high rosy almond.” In “At Stinson Beach” Hass describes his wife: “How the flower of her body / Danced her dresses into light.” There is nothing overly striking about a large pregnant woman, but the words “spring”, “immense”, “belly” (compared to the more clinical stomach), and “rosy” create an innocent and almost wondrous tone. The “enormous mornings” at the start of the poem pair with the “immense” belly to suggest the possibility the poet feels.
I think my favourite lines are from “The Pornographer, Melancholy”, a poem that is part of a series about a pornographer. The poem concludes: “His friends are gone and he is reflective. / The essence of seasons is repetition. / The die and shine, die and shine.” The repetition in the last line might feel cliché had Hass not warned the reader it was coming: “The essence of seasons is repetition.” The pornographer’s emotions are quietly tied to the seasons — he is “reflective” just as the seasons “shine.” It is a clever and understated ending.
That’s all from me this fortnight. For more poems check out the Tuesday Poem blog.