Poem of the Day: ‘Heroic Simile’ by Robert Hass

Denis Balibouse / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.

This is how former Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz once described Hass’s work, as Peter Davison recalled in 1997’s “The Laureate as Onlooker.” Davison’s own assessment was more succinct: No practicing poet has more talent than Robert Hass.” He continued:

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.     

Davison calls Hass’s “Heroic Simile,” first published in our October 1976 issue, a “masterpiece.” In the poem, Hass draws on moments of heroism from classical and modern epics to find grandeur in the life of an ordinary woodsman:

When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing

Read the rest here to experience the tug of Hass’s undertow for yourself.