Feb 22nd 2014

Robert Hass, poet: Meaning and Form and Pleasure

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

“. . . as if language were a kind of moral cloud chamber

through which the world passed and from which

it emerged charged with desire.”—Robert Hass (1)

Robert Hass was the US Poet Laureate from 1995-97, but he might be even more notable for the column he created in The Washington Post that would each week for two years close Book World, dropped by The Post as a stand-alone section in 2009. The column was entitled “Poet’s Choice”. Each week for some two years Hass made a poem and a poet accessible, lovable and alive. Assuming Book World came out every Sunday over those two years, I count over a hundred poems illuminated with startling light.

Here I pay tribute to Robert Hass in gratefulness with my analysis of my beloved favorite of all his books Human Wishes. I do this not as a critic but as a lover of poetry, and of this poet, heart and soul—I’ve been reading him for so long that I feel as if I know him.

To read Robert Hass’s book of poems Human Wishes as a whole—not as separate poems, but rather as a group of poems inextricably connected in their meaning to the poet’s search—is to be confronted with human desire in the concrete acts of domesticity, the monumental tragedies of the world, the pain and losses of individuals in the midst of beauty and joy and often the other way around.

Hass’s achievement is a study in contrasts, expressed in both the meaning and the forms of the poems. 

As Hass says in the book’s last poem “On Squaw Peak,”

… It meant to me

that beauty and terror were intertwined so powerfully

and went so deep that any kind of love

can fail.

… It was the abundance

the world gives, the more-than-you-bargained-for

surprise of it

In his body of work, I think Robert Hass is in search of unity and that he achieves that unity in Human Wishes, a book that promises no such unity as it explores the trials of existence. In other words, he relies on paradox and contrasts in his search. Note: In my end notes here, you’ll find a denser discussion of the importance of contrasts in effective poetry by two critics of note. (2)

In my discussion here of Human Wishes, I raise these questions: How does Hass achieve a unity that the reader can sense and respond to? And how do meaning and form work in his poems to this end and to create a transformational sense of pleasure in the reader? 

If you read the poems as a book, as a whole, in other words, you’ll see that achievement and you’ll love his work because you will have joined him on the journey of human wishes [my italics]; Hass relies heavily on italics and to great effect—so I will occasionally distinguish mine from his here.

The unity of Hass’s work is most striking when the contrasts he presents illuminate the human dilemma, the experience of desire and joy in the face of life’s torments. 

The book is divided into four parts, with part two using prose as its form and ending with the poem “January” that combines both poetry and prose. Parts 1, 3, and 4 are free verse poems.

But this is a poet who understands T. S. Eliot’s belief in the music of poetry and its relationship to form and who said, “[O]nly a bad poet could welcome free verse as a liberation from form.”(3)

Hass’s choices, i.e., prose and poetry joined, in themselves reinforce the study in contrasts that Hass achieves. 

The contrasts, not only within each poem, but among them, are laid in place as the first part of the book closes. The effect is extraordinary. The two poems that open and close the first part of the book reflect on one another in title, first lines, and the continuing thread of desire.

In the first poem “Spring Drawing,” he establishes the longing that pervades the rest of the work:

… then the interval created by if, to which mind and breath attend, nervous

as the grazing animals the first brushes painted,

 

has become habitable space, lived in beyond wishing. [italics are Hass’s]

In the last poem of this section “Spring Drawing 2”, he returns to this first poem by repeating a line from the first. And he catches the reader. He makes us remember what he’s written. He makes us want to read back—even as we move forward.

Here are the two contrasting opening lines [italics are Hass’s]:

Spring Drawing

 

A man thinks lilacs against white houses, having seen them in the farm

country south of Tacoma in April, and can’t find his way to finish a sentence, a

brushstroke carrying the energy of brush and stroke

Spring Drawing 2

 

A man says lilacs against white houses, two sparrows, one streaked, in a

Thinning birch, and can’t find his way to a sentence.

The way he pulls us back to his opening poem strikes me as a bit like memory, a bit like life itself, full of human wishes [my italics].

In “Spring Drawing 2” Hass expands the world of desire by adding a political context:

In order to be respectable, Thorstein Veblen said, desperate in Palo

Alto, a thing must be wasteful, i.e., “a selective adaptation of forms to

the end of conspicuous waste.”

 

So we try to throw nothing away …

Desire is here too in these lines about the Gautama Buddha:

The first temptation of Sakyamuni was desire, but he saw that it led to

fulfillment and then to desire, so that one was easy.

In Part two of Human Wishes, Hass switches to prose poems, a fitting contrast that highlights the difficulties of form.

Here’s what I mean: Literally, Hass explores the form of the poem. Figuratively, he joins us in our human search for form through the meaning of things, meaning which seems to evade him, the poet, despite the beauty he encounters. 

Desire and longing close this section with a poem of mixed forms, poetry and prose, entitled “January.” Here’s a bit of the evocative prose and poetry that deal with the poet’s memory of writing a poem and his description of watching Rachel and another woman Earlene. In poetry, he sees them:

Two women sitting at a kitchen table

Muted light on a rainy morning

One has car keys in her hand

In prose, twelve years ago Rachel had had an abortion. In prose, Rachel is now looking for a house. In prose, he tells us about the two women:

… they are laughing. At the comedy in the business of trying to sort through mutually exclusive alternatives in which figures some tacit imagination of contentment, some invisible symbolizing need from which life wants to flower.

The poem closes with the poet’s reflections on what he’s seen, first in prose and then in poetry. Take a read:

“I hate that old house,” Rachel is saying, laughing, tears in her eyes. But that is not mainly what I notice; I find myself looking at the women’s skin, the coloring, and the first relaxation of the tautness of the sleeker skin of the young, the casual beauty and formality of that first softening,

 

Back at my desk: no birds, no rain

but light—the white of Shasta daisies,

and two red geraniums against the fence,

and the dark brown of wet wood,

glistening a little as it dries.

Parts 3 and 4 of Human Wishes further the thematic unity.

In “Misery and Splendor,” the poet describes the difficulty of perfect joining in the sexual act:

They are trying to become one creature,

and something will not have it.

This is clearly a predecessor for my favorite in the book, “The Privilege of Being,” where this idea of the desire, the wish for and the difficulty of joining is more fully expressed. This is quite simply gorgeous. Here is the full poem:

Privilege of Being

 

Many are making love. Up above, the angels

in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing

are braiding one another’s hair, which is strawberry blond

and the texture of cold rivers. They glance

down from time to time at the awkward ecstasy—

it must look to them like featherless birds

splashing in the spring puddle of a bed—

and then one woman, she is about to come,

peels back the man’s shut eyelids and says,

look at me, and he does. Or is it the man

tugging the curtain rope in that dark theater?

Anyway, they do, they look at each other;

two beings with evolved eyes, rapacious,

startled, connected at the belly in an unbelievably sweet

lubricious glue, stare at each other,

and the angels are desolate, they hate it. They shudder pathetically

like lithographs of Victorian beggars

with perfect features and alabaster skin hawking rags

in the lewd alleys of the novel.

All of creation is offended by this distress.

It is like the keening sound the moon makes sometimes,

rising. The lovers especially cannot bear it,

it fills them with unspeakable sadness, so that

they close their eyes again and hold each other, each

feeling the mortal singularity of the body

they have enchanted out of death for an hour or so,

and one day, running at sunset, the woman says to the man,

I woke up feeling sad this morning because I realized

that you could not, as much as I love you,

dear heart, cure my loneliness,

wherewith she touched his cheek to reassure him

that she did not mean to hurt him with this truth.

And the man is not hurt exactly,

he understands that life has limits, that people

die young, fail at love,

fail of their ambitions. He runs beside her, he thinks

of the sadness they gasped and crooned their way out of

coming, clutching each other with odd, invented

forms of grace and clumsy gratitude, ready

to be alone again, or dissatisfied, or merely

companionable like the couples on the summer beach

reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes

to themselves, and to each other,

and to the immense, illiterate, consoling angels.

 

                                                —Robert Hass, Human Wishes, p. 69

Let’s look now at this poem “The Privilege of Being” and the prose poem “The Museum” to more fully examine Hass’s use of contrasts and to show how he succeeds at creating an “extraordinary heterogeneity of the distinguishable impulses” (see my note 2).

I’ll examine here the prosody of these two poems and how those choices are inextricably tied to meaning. 

“The Privilege of Being” begins:

Many are making love. Up above, the angels

in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing

The poem has 44 lines that range in syllable count from 5 to 18 with no discernible pattern, to my eye at least; only eight of the lines use a syllable count under 10.

Thus, it is possible to say that Hass has purposefully chosen the longer line and is avoiding the traditional pentameters (five syllable line), hexameters (six), etc. The long line seems to me appropriate to the expansive, even lush meaning of the poem, with the angels above who “are braiding one another’s hair, which is strawberry blond/ and the texture of cold rivers.” 

That last line, “and the texture of cold rivers,” scans with two anapests (˘ ˘ /, or as poetry is essentially musical: da da DUM) and a trochee (/ ˘, or DA da)—a pattern that slows the line and emphasizes the startling contrast of the phrase “the texture of cold rivers.” I find this quite rhythmically affecting, pleasurable.

The shortest line in the poem—five syllables and which I have quoted above in context—is “die young, fail at love.” This line scans with a spondee foot (/ /, or DA DA), followed by a trochee (/ ˘, DA da )and perhaps a trochee truncation (/ , or DA). 

Again, the meter, though not regular, seems perfect to the meaning: the spondees emphasizing the sadness of “die young”; the truncation, working with failure in life.

So clearly, the poet is aware of the meter even if he chooses not to use it in a regular fashion. And certainly one could argue that regularity is not germane to the meaning of the poem, for it is about the human inability to create perfect form. 

In terms of imagery, Hass contrasts the angels, the lovemaking, the philosophical musings of the poem with the mundane: The man in the poem runs beside his lover, “ready to be alone again … or merely companionable like the couples on the summer beach/ reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes”—a sobering, ironic reflection of the longing in the poem and the impossibility of complete connection.

This poem exemplifies Hass’s gifts for meter, for contrast, indeed, for “an extraordinary heterogeneity.”(see note 2) 

In the prose poem “Museum,” in part 2, he achieves an equal success. This poem in 19 lines of prose, sets forth the contrast of desire for living, for joy and pleasure in the midst of the world’s suffering.

The poet word-paints a scene in a museum restaurant. A man and a woman eat fresh fruit and rolls, drink “coffee in white cups” while their baby sleeps. They sit midst the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit of “faces carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror. But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible.” 

That last word ‘possible’ stands alone on the last line; clearly an intentional move and a powerful statement set in contrast.

I am an avid reader of poetry and venture to assert that poetry ought to give pleasure through both form and meaning. 

Robert Pinsky, poet and US poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, in Poetry and the World eloquently expresses a view I share: “… I want to say—as humbly as possible—that despite all the complexities of literary theory, for all the ingenuities of ambition or expectation, the trouble with most poems that fail … may be described simply: they are not interesting enough to impart conviction.”(4)

It is Robert Hass’s conviction to form and meaning in Human Wishes that moves me, that makes me want to take the poems apart to understand his technique and then to read them again for the pleasure and, yes, I say in thanks, the wisdom they provide. [Grateful italics mine]

Notes:

1. Robert Hass, “Human Wishes,” Human Wishes (New York: The Ecco Press, 1989), p. 23. 

2. Cleanth Brooks in Modern Poetry and the Tradition quotes I. A. Richards on the importance of contrast to effective poems. Here’s the rather dense quote, dense but worth it: “In the all-important chapter of his Principles of Literary Criticism, that which treats ‘The Imagination,’ Richards distinguishes between two general types of poetry: first, poetry which leaves out the opposite and discordant qualities of an experience, excluding them from the poem; and second, poetry in which the imagination includes them, resolving the apparent discords, and thus gaining a larger unity … . In a poem of the second group the most obvious feature is the extraordinary heterogeneity of the distinguishable impulses.” Brooks also notes that Dr. Johnson, who disapproved of “heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together,” nonetheless gives us the method when “Johnson likens a successful comparison to the intersection of two lines, pointing out that the comparison is better in proportion as the lines converge from greater distances.”

Cleanth Brooks, Modern Poetry & the Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 40, 41, 43. 

3. T. S. Eliot, “The Music of Poetry,” On Poetry and Poets, (New York: The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961), p. 31.

4. Robert Pinsky, Poetry and the World (New York: The Ecco Press, 1988), p. 31.





Robert Hass Wins $100,000 Poetry Prize





     

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example. 
Nov 13th 2018
Over the last ten years, research has demonstrated the importance of creative practice in the arts and humanities. They can help maintain health, provide ways of breaking down social barriers and expressing and understanding experiences and emotions, and assist in developing trust, identities, shared understanding and more compassionate communities. So, hopefully, this sidelining of the arts in health terms is changing.
Nov 13th 2018
I am here to sing Will Kemp’s [in the picture below] praises and review this new e-book because I have been studying with Will since January 2016, long distance but close in heart—Will lives in Britain and I live in the States.
Nov 13th 2018

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities

Nov 2nd 2018
Writing is such hard work that those of us who dabble in prose often dread looking at the “white bull” – Hemingway’s term for a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled up with our words. Will we defeat the bull today? It’s always a tossup. The stress and strain of writing perhaps explains why so many writers seek an outlet in the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Visual output satisfies the hunger to create, and, as a bonus, the art form is more free and spontaneous. Great writers have produced great paintings. Look at Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more interesting to me is the somewhat lesser phenomenon of pianists who paint. They are seeking the same release, the same soulagement, the same need to liberate themselves. 
Nov 1st 2018
Modern life does have many benefits, but when it persuades us to use transport, sit in a chair at work, or watch TV for extended periods, we increasingly have to turn to medicine for solutions because these habits are killing hundreds of millions of us each year. With 70% of people in the US on prescription drugs (50% in the UK), it seems that as lifespan inches upwards, disease is skyrocketing. The irony is that many advances in modern medicine are firefighting those very problems that modern life itself has created.
Oct 30th 2018
It’s important to note that all studies, including our own, only show an association between the herpes virus and Alzheimer’s – they don’t prove that the virus is an actual cause. Probably the only way to prove that a microbe is a cause of a disease is to show that an occurrence of the disease is greatly reduced either by targeting the microbe with a specific anti-microbial agent or by specific vaccination against the microbe. Excitingly, successful prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by use of specific anti-herpes agents has now been demonstrated in a large-scale population study in Taiwan. Hopefully, information in other countries, if available, will yield similar results.