Poets You Should Know About: Robert Hass, the Storyteller

A story about Robert Hass: he lived in a house next to mine, before I was born. So the scenery in his poems is deeply familiar to me—I recognize the rhododendrons, the tire-swing, and his ex-wife, Ellen. I can see the cherries ripe on the shelf, and the dragon stomping through the Chinese Day Parade makes me long for my childhood garden. These particulars of my own life, Hass points out, could be anybody’s. It’s that we each have them—our own garden plant, special pet, or fish-market—that we all share. Take his most famous poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas”:

 

All the new thinking is about loss.

In this it resembles all the old thinking.

The idea, for example, that each particular erases

the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-

faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk

of that black birch is, by his presence,

some tragic falling off from a first world

of undivided light.

 

If only all critical theory was so pretty! Paced so that the argument naturally unfolds into a late-night conversation Hass has with a friend and goes on to become a recollection of lost love (“a violent wonder at her presence”), “Lagunitas” ends with a mild rejection of the new thinking:

 

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,

saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

 

And at this blackberry we imagine both lovemaking and intimate conversation and all the human activities that are subsumed into the “luminous clarity.” Hass struggles toward the particular—the details of a friend’s almost-suicide, “the wooly/ closed-down buds of the sunflower,” but he knows, ultimately, we can’t imagine that same sunflower or that same friend. But because we can’t, we’re brought closer together, all struggling toward knowing someone else’s life.

It is this acknowledgement—of this mass, ultimately failed effort—that gives Hass’ poetry an eerie power. Take this Haiku by Basho, one of many Hass has translated:

 

Even in Kyoto—

hearing the cuckoo’s cry—

I long for Kyoto.

 

There’s a sense of not being where one is, a displacement that is common to Hass’ own poetry: this happened, but we can’t be sure it happened, but it’s a good story anyways, and it meant something to me, so I’m going to tell it—goddamnit! As he says in “Faint Music”:

 

It’s not the story though, not the friend

leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,”

which is the part of stories one never quite believes.

I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain

it must sometimes make a kind of singing.

And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—

First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.

 

So Hass belongs to the “confessional,” “poetry-as-therapy” movement, but in a unique sense: he doesn’t just tell us about his, or his friends’, lives, he tells us that he’s telling us. Reading someone like Anne Sexton, it’s often hard to make her stories my own. But with Hass, there’s no need to. Rather, it’s the art of storytelling itself that he champions; his stories could be anyone’s. That’s the point.


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