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Books
The Laureate as Onlooker
by Peter Davison


SUN UNDER WOOD

by Robert Hass.
Ecco Press, 77 pages,
$22.00.


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, Twentieth Century Pleasures (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, Field Guide (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 Praise (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.

Human Wishes (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.

Hass seems to wish to transcend the limitations of his earlier poetry by setting his verses loose to move and burn their own way into reality -- but for some reason they won't go. When he speaks of the past, he speaks with imperfect freedom: "I had the idea that the world's so full of pain / it must sometimes make a kind of singing," leaving the shame and regret of the past to leak out of language into the country of music. It looks as though once he consented to penetrate a personal past, he was unable to free his language to move beyond a merely personal relevance. He all but apologizes.

Private pain is easy, in a way. It doesn't go away,
but you can teach yourself to see its size. Invent a ritual.
Walk up a mountain in the afternoon, gather up pine twigs.
Light a fire, thin smoke, not an ambitious fire,
and sit before it and watch it till it burns to ash
and the last gleam is gone from it, and dark falls.
Then you get up, brush yourself off, and walk back to the world.
If you're lucky, you're hungry.
["Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer"]

Hass cannot seem to locate the kinetic energy to fuel his poems: he continues to reside, with sweet placidity, in and at the present, to stand pat, allowing his sensory equipment to supply him with evidence only as it reaches him through eye and ear and touch and taste.

I'm a little ashamed that I want to end this poem
singing, but I want to end this poem singing --
["Interrupted Meditation"]

The charm and modesty remain, but these poems keep relaxing into the voice of an onlooker rather than taking on the energy of full participation -- as though they came to the poet through a window, a filter, a screen of white noise and unscented air. It would seem that the verbs that Hass employs have not willingly enlisted in the fight for meaning. It's no accident, perhaps, that the jacket portrait, by Jock McDonald, on Sun Under Wood shows the poet gazing mournfully from the indoor side of a rain-rinsed windowpane, looking overcome by thoughts that lie too deep for tears. The upshot is a kind of poetry that hangs out a DO NOT DISTURB sign, leaving few bloodstains and engaging in little motion, like the deer in a poem called "The Woods in New Jersey":

Look: they move among the winter trees, so much
the color of the trees, they hardly seem to move.

Stanley Kunitz once wrote, "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." To this reader it feels as though the undertow has slackened, as though the poems are willing to wound and yet afraid to strike. "Shame: An Aria" lays out the natural history of shame in a two-page sentence that has no principal verb, offering little but inertia to keep the poem moving -- no fuel for the engine, no fodder for the horse. Other poems evince an ambition to mediate between Western knowledge and Eastern no-knowledge; but without verbal energy they fall short, for this disappointed reader, of realizing either resource. Think a little about the following sentence: "The core of the self, we learn early, is where shame lives." What poetry, what understanding, can be found in a statement put this way? In Sun Under Wood the poet mildly and calmly puts sensations into play, but something prevents his diction from establishing the work of his hands, from expressing his will. The consequence of mildness is smoothness; and as the most searching poem in this book, "Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer," severely pronounces, "Once you're smooth, you're dead."


Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1997; The Laureate as Onlooker; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 100-102..

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