Issue 233, Summer 2020
Robert Hass read poetry early on, but he first imagined being a fiction writer. And though he would become known around the world for his poems—sometimes giving them titles like “Novella” and “A Story about the Body”—his first publication was a piece of prose fiction in a Faulknerian vein, printed in his college magazine. Later, his dissertation at Stanford combined an analysis of the nineteenth-century novel with an inquiry into economic ideology, work that provided him cover for a private and steadily growing love for poetry. Hass went on to become a renowned professor of poetry, but would still teach, from time to time, courses on narrative film, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, or, recently, Nabokov and Naipaul.
His own story begins in 1941, when he was born the second child of four to a specialist in tax law and a homemaker. Hass spent his early years in San Francisco before the family moved in 1945 across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Rafael, a small town in then-rural Marin County. His mother struggled with alcoholism and his father seemed to hate his job, and “neither,” Hass would recall, “seemed to be having their lives.” He grew up hunting and fishing, and would one day raise his own children blackberrying and mushrooming and birding around the Bay Area.
Hass’s first collection, Field Guide, was selected by Stanley Kunitz in 1972 for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and by the time he published his second, Praise, in 1979, critics were describing him as one of the finest poets of his generation. “A singular brightness,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “and freshness of mind.” “Visceral pleasure,” said Carolyn Kizer. Among his earliest models and interlocutors were Denise Levertov, Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gary Snyder, the last of these especially opening a prospect for Hass onto the possibility of writing about the place he was from. His most recent collection is Summer Snow (2020), the title a reference to his beloved Sierra Nevada. Over the course of his life, Hass had been awarded many of the important accolades in American poetry, from the Pulitzer to the Wallace Stevens to the National Book Award, along with a MacArthur grant, and he twice served as poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress, a job he was very good at and which made him “miserable.”
Hass also produced two volumes gathering some of his essays and reviews—Twentieth Century Pleasures (1984) and What Light Can Do (2012)—ranging across poetry, film, photography, and the culture at large. For the former he was given the National Book Critics Circle Award. A Little Book on Form (2017), which everyone likes to point out is not particularly little, is a poetry master class between two covers. And there is Robert Hass the translator—of haiku, of Dante, of lyrics by Frida Kahlo and Tomas Tranströmer, and especially of the volumes of Czesław Miłosz, which Hass labored decades bringing into English. Miłosz said it was “one of the extraordinary accidents of my life” to have met the younger man.
Our conversation began in 2010, but we didn’t finish it until this January. We recorded our first bout at the dining room table in the house in the Berkeley Hills that Hass shares with his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman. For our second session, eight years later, we moved to the living room. Through the corner window the bay was shining like a sheet of tin in sunlight, and beyond that the San Francisco skyline was threaded with fog. Some days later we did another round in his office on the Berkeley campus. At one point a crow landed on the concrete balcony just outside the window, and he offered it a bit of cookie he found in his desk, but it flew away. For our final discussion, we went back to the living room.
By then, the world seemed in some ways a very different place. But the concerns and themes that emerged in our first conversation had only deepened. In Hass’s poems, and in his talk, there’s a striking mix of the plain and the elaborate, the earthy and the urbane. He dwells in his art not only on human suffering but especially on what remains to be felt and known in suffering’s wake. And context, itself one of Hass’s great subjects, became a touchstone as the interview unfolded, too.
Hass’s smile is sweet and a little bit sad. Sometimes as he answers a question, so much seems to be occurring to him—“My mind went seven places at once,” he writes in his poem “Consciousness”—that he starts to speak in luminous fragments. He’s told me he’s not sure he believes in digression. “There’s nothing to digress upon,” he says.
How, in general terms, do poems come to you? I’m thinking of Seamus Heaney saying he was never sure whether the will could do the work of the imagination.
Seamus had such a gift for naming the issues in making. And he was such a conscious maker, it’s understandable that he would go there. My experience is mostly that the will can make prose and it can’t make poetry. But it takes will, sometimes, to put yourself in the place where poetry might happen.