Robert Hass born in 1941 in San Francisco is a contemporary American poet and has more often been referred to as a California poet; because sometimes his poems tend to have a West Coast based aura and theme. This poet has been recognized as the most celebrated and widely read contemporary English poet. His works don’t only include original writings, but he is also known as a critic and translator for the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and the Japanese haiku experts Issa, Buson and lastly Basho. His translation of Czeslaw Milosz from “Hymn” goes on to say: “There is no one between you and me, neither a plant drawing sap from the depths of the earth, nor an animal, nor a man, nor wind walking between clouds.” . The depth of his translations has been appreciated by many and is seen as him giving life to them hymns and poems. His poetry has been lauded by several notable critics stating that it has clarity of expression, conciseness and everyday imagery with adds to the appeal and is therefore, identifiable. Another modern poet, Forest Gander, whose work is commendable, said: “Hass has noted his own affinity for Japanese Haiku and his work similarly attends to the details of quotidian life with remarkable clarity and his poetry is musical, descriptive and meditative to say the least.” .
Robert Hass’s achievements don’t circulate mainly around the poetry he wrote, but also the widespread recognition he received alongside. Hass was highly educated and after pursuing a graduate degree in English from Stanford University he spent his time writing until he got his first break and that too from the Yale Younger Poet Series. Moreover, Hass has even worked as a Literature professor and twice as the Poet Laureate of the United States. His expressive poetry was so remarkable that it helped him win the National Book Award in 2007 and a winning share in the Pulitzer Prize for the collection of poems titled Time and Materials 1997-2005. That is one of the deciding reasons why Carolyn Kizer in the New York Times Book Review has stated: “Robert Hass is so intelligent that to read his poetry, or to hear him speak , gives one an almost visceral pleasure.” .
Hass’s first collection of poems was titled Field Guide and it got published in 1973. Field Guide is filled with reminiscing and the imagery was based upon his native homeland California and has a link to its background in Slavic studies. This collection includes several references to plant and animal via the use of metaphors and this enhanced Robert Hass’s writing expertise. Robert Hass’s second poetry collection titled Praise, published in 1979, received the William Carlos Williams Award. According Robert Gander the second collection focused more on implicit issues that were not discussed openly in the first one. Basically, these comprised of bearing grief, handling and accepting death and lastly naming the world to separate oneself from it. Ira Sadoff wrote in the Chicago Review about Praise, saying: “It might even be the strongest collection of poems to come out in the late seventies.” . Next in 1984 Robert Hass published Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, which contained mainly unpublished essays and reviews.
This was more focused on works by other American Writers and their analysis rather than n his own work, but after this publication Robert Hass also started to lay ground in prose as well. Hass’s third collection of poetry was titled Human Wishes and came out in 1989, covering the topics he has previously wrote on, only this time with longer lines and more extensive images. Human Wishes is rather powerful in its essence because not only does it capture the brightness of the world, but also its fading. Sun Under Wood was also a very recognized poem collection of his, receiving, the National Book Critics Circle Award and this time he seems more enthusiastic , open and rather ironic at times. The poems in this collection are heavily based upon his childhood, which comprised of an alcoholic mother. Poetry contributor David Baker stated that: “Sun Under Wood shows Hass’s ability to convert the comedic to sublime, the anecdotal to the metaphysical and ethical, the personal to the social and is rather remarkable.” .
Currently, Robert Hass is residing with his wife Brenda Hillman, and teaching in University of California, Berkeley. His various works however, continue to be an influence and a subject of discussion to date and this paper will bring attention to three of his most notable poems, “Dragonflies Mating” from Sun Under Wood, “The Privilege of Being” and “Museum” from Human Wishes and to conclude “Meditation at Lagutinas” from Praise. Hass’s style shift from being realistic and portraying everyday life to a more ethereal feel while discussing angels and that will be further discussed.
“Dragonflies Mating” primarily has its roots set out in reality and the theme circulates around the complexity of love for the mother figure. It has been reported that Robert Hass was severely neglected because his mother was an alcoholic and therefore failed to give in due attention and time. The poem starts out by highlighting general scenes and terms, but midway through the attention shifts to author himself and his own deeply buried feelings, with regards to his mother. The poem starts out by mentioning old widely believed myths that can be seen as a symbol for the myth of “true love” for one’s mother according to Robert Hass. It progresses towards a story of sorts, and midway through reaches meditation eventually turning into a biography . The swiftness with which Robert Hass seems to achieve this without disturbing the flow of the poem is laudable. Mixed thoughts are the essence of this poem in particular because Hass shifts from repulsion towards his mother, to intense love when she comes to pick him up from his basketball practice. The power basketball held over his life is also mentioned in other poems which show the love he held for it. The poem gets its tile from the presence of dragonflies that are by nature hovering above and fluctuating in the appearance. Dragonflies are symbols for briefness, strangeness and even suddenness. Hass carries out a dispassionate analysis of his thoughts as towards the end he has murderous feelings for his mother, wanting to shoot. The image of the mother painted in love is deconstructed and left rather barren.
Where “Dragonflies Mating” experimented with different lengths of verses, “The Privilege of Being ” is rather the opposite and constructs larger and longer verses to captivate the reader. This poem in its essence is majorly about the inability of humans to create the perfect form, or move towards perfection. There is a contrast between ethereal and satisfying concepts like love making, angels and the philosophical aspect of the poem with love, its associated isolation and mundane activities like reading articles on lover’s intimacy . A rather ironic basis is established by seemingly stating that there can never be complete connection between these two separated aspects representing longing and a wish for the desirable. A realistic theme is established here as well, speaking about the mundane features of life and the impact that they have on people and it’s obvious that meter and contrast are one of Robert Hass’s strong points.
The poem “Museum” is rather fascinating because it also features a very necessary realistic problem faced by today’s generation. The complete lines of prose depict a scene based in a museum restaurant, with a man and a woman enjoying some food while their baby sleeps. They’re surrounded by statues in the museum, their faces showing terror . The poem forms a meaningful contrast and image suggesting how easy it is for people to indulge in their daily lives, while they’re surrounded by the suffering of the world in forms of poverty, starvation and human right violations as such. The ending has awe-inspiring impact with just a simple word, “possible”.
“Meditation at Langunitas” focuses on loss, as experienced by almost every living person and how reality is perceived. He tackles the idea about how language can lead to misunderstanding of the world, and how real things don’t exist anymore and various words are just lost with time. The poet here focuses on personal experience and talk about how he realized that philosophy is useless and is nonsensical based upon a conversation on loss with his friend. The ending focuses on how some things have lost their true meaning, with the passage of time and are just regarded as fascinating ideas or concepts.
All these poems written by Robert Hass have one theme in common, which is also the topic of discussion in his numerous other poems. This theme is reality, whether it’s beautiful, crude or even dangerous. But, the poems scrutinized in this paper give a sense of foreboding, and how values deteriorate and perceptions change with time. The reality of love between a mother and her son, intimacy and the irony of its idealistic nature and the meaning of loss are just a few of the realistic subjects of discussion. Hass can very easily shift from element to element within the poem, without disrupting the flow and that is his most applauded trait. The poem never becomes confusing or annoying due to these shifts, but rather captivating. Stanley Kunitz from the Yale Younger Poet Series, 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 into another element.” The style of his poems differs depending on the tone he wishes to imply. Ironic poems are set out in rather short verses and serious poems seemingly have longer verses which are harder to decipher.
Even though, Robert Hass’s poems have their basis in reality they can be though to decipher because of the dubious language and frequent use of symbols. Dragonflies and blackberries are just a few of the basic ones, and he uses a diverse range in his writing from man-created items to natural aspects that can be explained through his message. He doesn’t ponder over listless, boring and clichéd topics like love and women, but visit reality in a who new and different light enjoyable by every reader.
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Haslam, Gerald. Many Californias: Literature from the Golden State. 1999.
Hass, Robert. Human Wishes. The Ecco Press, 1989.
Pinksky, Robert. Poetry and the World. New York: The Ecco Press, 1988.
Poets and Poems Biography. Poetry Foundation. 2010.