Poetry is a way of living...a human activity like baking bread or playing basketball. - Robert Hass
About Robert Hass
Robert Hass (b. 1941) is a native of California, specifically San Francisco, and the twin influences of the city's cultural life and the lush landscape around it are both evident in his work. It was Hass's teenage experience of the burgeoning Bay Area poetry scene that helped define his literary ambitions, as Hass himself explained in a 1996 interview: "I started out imagining myself as a novelist or essayist, but then Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg came along and poetry, imbued with the whole lifestyle of the Beats, was much more exciting." Family was also an important factor: Hass's older brother encouraged him to follow the path of a writer, while his mother's alcoholism informed later subject matter, particularly in his collection Sun Under Wood (1996). Hass graduated from St. Mary's College, Moraga, California in 1963. Already married by this point, his three children were born while he worked on his MA and then PhD in English at Stanford. The academic world has remained his professional home ever since with stints at his alma mater, St Mary's, and most recently the University of California, Berkeley.
Hass achieved recognition with his first collection, Field Notes (1972), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. This was followed by the William Carlos Williams Award for his second book, Praise (1979) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Sun Under Wood. Hass has also made his mark as a translator, most notably of the Japanese masters, Basho, Buson and Issa, and also as a critic: his book Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1984. Hass's two-year tenure as US Poet Laureate from 1995-97 was characterised by political passion and a desire to take poetry into "places where poets don't go" such as boardrooms and civic groups, with the aim of fostering "imaginative community". Hass still lives in California with his second wife, poet Brenda Hillman, whom he married in 1995.
Hass's approach to the Laureateship has been a more public expression of the lifelong concerns that inform his poetry: a close attention to the natural world, a sense of self developed in relation to the landscape, an acute awareness of both the pleasures and pains of being human. These concerns are present in his first collection, the title of which, Field Notes, implies both the careful observation that informs his work and his preoccupation with our relationship with language. In an early poem like 'Measure' can be seen Hass's characteristic movement between sensual impressions and the thoughts which these prompt:
"…Last light/ rims the blue mountain// and I almost glimpse/ what I was born to,"
In Hass's work we are always aware of the writer's thought processes, his way of experiencing reality. He is a poet of contemplation and revelation which gives his work a flexible, ruminative quality without relinquishing an ounce of formal control. These qualities are to the fore in the selection of poems you can listen to here – for example the informal formality of his unrhymed 'Sonnet' or the movement in 'Faint Music' from abstract musings on love through a friend's testimony of loss to the final thoughtful conclusion. It's an intensely moving poem which acknowledges that it can be the smallest things – a memory of a fishing trip for instance – which keep us in the world. Hass is an expert at catching such fleeting moments. In this he "sharpens our senses on the whetstone of his noticing and reminds us that the true metier of poetry is what is in our path." (Brigdhe Mullins).
Hass's controlled reading of his own work brings out its philosophical qualities. It's a dispassionate style but one which is suited to his poems' negotiation of the gap between experience and what we make of it. This is far from coldness – listen to the quiet empathy in his delivery of 'Misery and Splendour' as the couple in that poem try fruitlessly to become one flesh. Rather Hass's restraint, both in his writing and reading, is a mark of respect for what it means to be human.
His recording was made on 19 October 2007 in New York.
Poems by Robert Hass
1972 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, Field GuidePrize website
1979 William Carlos Williams Award, PraisePrize website
1984 National Book Critics Circle Award (criticism), Twentieth Century PleasuresPrize website
1984 MacArthur FellowshipPrize website
1996 National Book Critics Circle Award, Sun Under WoodPrize website
2007 National Book Award, Time and MaterialsPrize website