The Laureate as Onlooker

WHETHER or not they achieve permanent fame, certain poets speak for the sensibility of their era. We can even play the game of compiling a list of those poets who have best summed up their times. Mine would include, in England, George Herbert, whose purity and wit gathered in the religious intensity of the English Reformation; Alexander Pope, whose fabric came from the warp and woof of Newtonian England; William Wordsworth, who exalted the sweep of the Romantic movement; A. C. Swinburne, who exulted in the fin de siècle. The visionary William Blake bypassed all eras and every whisper of dialect to speak directly to the receptive yet critical human soul: in his strangeness he stands above time and place, like Shakespeare or Dante.

On this side of the Atlantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson opened up the possibility of a New World birth of the spirit; Walt Whitman celebrated its joy and its triumph; Emily Dickinson annotated its secret self-appraisal. In our present century T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden spoke for "the age of anxiety"; yet with the passage of time it seems to be cunning old Robert Frost who most irresistibly enlists our attention and who, despite later shifts in fashion and form, keeps answering the fire bell.

Since Frost's death, in 1963, the strongest currents in American poetry may well have pushed westward, away from our European heritage and toward a more nativist outlook. No practicing poet has more talent than Robert Hass, who is, to our good fortune, the present and deserving United States poet laureate. At fifty-six, with four collections behind him, he also qualifies as representative of his time by having set himself two important translating enterprises that have taken him around the world in both directions: the Polish poetry of the Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, which Hass has spent many years Englishing with the cooperation of its author, and Japanese haiku, an ancient art to which he has long devoted the delicacy of his attention. ("Summer is over, and / we part, like eyelids, / like clams opening.") In his fine book of criticism, (1984), Hass wrote eloquently on both subjects -- and many others. Yet if we look to his poetry in its own right, we'll find him most understandable as a native son, a Californian Catholic with a first-class education and a poetic sensibility that probes kindly but firmly in all directions.

Twenty-five years ago Hass was writing the poems in his first book, (1973), which displayed the mildness of his wit and the inclusiveness of his curiosity along with the firmness of his indignation -- a book that embodied the sort of sauna gladness that comes after cleansing sweat. It was as impressive a first collection as any of its decade. In (1979), Hass broadened his canvas but to some extent lost control of its margins. The masterpiece "Heroic Simile" (first published in this magazine) extended the oriental and intimate qualities that Hass's first book had so winningly displayed, while the famous and beautiful "Meditation at Lagunitas," with its majestic opening, quietly set its hand on the wheel of the contemporary aesthetic.


All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking. . . .
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

On the other hand, his poems began to blur into a haze of contemplative passivity (characteristic also, more generally, of the aesthetic implicit in much new American poetry of the time), in which states of mind and feeling were rendered reflexively with passive, copulative, or auxiliary verbs and the present tense, as though poems were to be merely tickled into existence, instead of animating themselves as self-propelled, self-motivating creations.

(1989) turned to more passionate declarations, in which the intimate relations of men, women, and children -- the life of the family, in fact -- were urged into fresh and interactive colors; but the syntactical limitations that still governed literary fashion allowed Hass's poems to continue slumping into the posture of being, rather than becoming. Having evaded the full responsibilities of language, Hass's poems edged away into remote, descriptive, but in the end cramped quarters: only one of the poems in Human Wishes, a love poem titled "On Squaw Peak," broke into blossom, crackled into spontaneous motion. The others kept to a beautiful stillness.

HASS'S newest volume, Sun Under Wood, reaches deeper below the surface of his talent, but it continues the trend as a volume that primarily bears witness, that does not altogether participate. Like Field Guide, this book moves backward and forward in history, frequently from a Pacific perspective ("We settled an almost empty California," one meditation remarks). Though his poetry in the past has often verged on the personal, the erotic, and the wounded, Hass now enters a more specific personal history and speaks ("Shame: An Aria," "My Mother's Nipples") of his alcoholic mother: "I didn't want to look, and looked, and looked away." "She was waiting for us to leave so she could start drinking." "I could hardly bear to look." Piercing poems in this mode mingle with landscape-haunted poems from Alaska, Korea, Warsaw, Iowa City, New Jersey, but the book has a way of returning to California and the compulsive intimacies of pain and self-reproach. The diction bears some affinity to Gary Snyder's Zen poems; but, even more than in Snyder's, the language and location would not seem alien to any land in the world.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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