Robert Hass, poet: Meaning and Form and Pleasure
“. . . 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
… 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]:
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]
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.
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