Thursday, October 25, 2007
In the Bay Area of the 1940s, there lived a boy who played and grew up like many boys did in that time and place: He explored his region’s natural terrain, read comic books, went on family trips, and followed his favorite baseball team in the papers. That union of time, place and experiences, however, would shape this particular boy into one of the most celebrated poets in the nation. His name: Robert Hass.
Hass would go on to serve as the U.S. poet laureate – a term borrowed from England – from 1995 to 1997. His career includes five published collections of his poetry; his latest, 2007’s Time and Materials, was nominated for a National Book Award on Oct. 10. He co-translated the works of Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, edited poetry anthologies, wrote a poetry column for the Washington Post and started the environmental arts education organization River of Words.
His work earned him honors from groups like the Yale Series of Younger Poets, the National Book Critics’ Circle and the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, to name a few. Peter Davison, a poet and contemporary of Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost, writing for the Modern American Poetry website, calls Hass “a Californian Catholic with a first-class education and a poetic sensibility that probes kindly but firmly in all directions.” Despite all the accolades and attention, Robert Hass, a Bay Area native, is accessible, with a comfortable demeanor.
“I read omnivorously as a boy,” he says by phone from his office at UC Berkeley, where he is an English professor. “Comic books, newspapers, Hardy Boys, baseball stories.”
Family trips to the Monterey Peninsula also shaped his early years. “When I was a kid, exploring Monterey, Pacific Grove [where his great-aunt worked at the library] and Big Sur seemed like the most romantic thing to do – the cafés, books, students, intellectuals, the pines, the cypresses, the fog. There was still the romance of Cannery Row and Doc Ricketts.”
From high school in the 1950s and beyond, he discovered and consumed the literary so available in the Bay Area: the literature of Russia and East Asia, and the San Francisco Renaissance poets inspired by Kenneth Rexroth and including Beats like Kerouac and Ginsberg. His proximity to this intellectual wealth influenced the course of his life.
“If you grew up in Worchester, Massachusetts and your father worked at a mill,” he says, “people going to Harvard were a million miles away; you would feel extremely self-conscious being around them. But in Northern California, it seemed more accessible. Like you could be a writer, too.
“There was a time when newspapers tried to be literate. Back then a poet wrote a column for the San Francisco Examiner. There was Herb Caen, there was a daily book column by William Hogan, who wrote about O’Hara and Hemingway.”
A U.S. Poet Laureate is tasked by the Librarian of Congress to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” Hass fulfilled that to a great degree with a Sunday column – still in existence – that he started at the Washington Post in 1997 called “Poet’s Choice.”
“The aim there,” Hass explains, “was to bridge poetry with the everyday. It proved pretty popular. It got picked up by about 60 newspapers.” He advocates for fundamental literacy and believes any kind of reading – newspapers to comic books – to be beneficial, especially for kids.
Hass also employs poetry, and the platform it’s given him, to champion his devotion to the environment. He cites early environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and Gary Snyder as spiritual “kin and teachers,” but adds that “Steinbeck and Jeffers, Faulkner and Melville, were environmental writers. Where they lived was extremely important to their art.
“When I was poet laureate,” he recounts, “there were these anti-government ideologues, young Republicans, who wanted to downsize and privatize everything. When I invited environmental writers to come to the Library [of Congress] to talk and give readings, [Republicans] didn’t want them there. It’s possible to scare institutions.”
Hass’ poems incite excitement with significant economy, like this passage from “Etymology”: “Her body by the fire/ Mimicked the light-conferring midnights/ Of philosophy.” And the opening poem from Time and Materials: “In the long winter nights, a farmer’s dreams are narrow./ Over and over, he enters the furrow.”
Though his poetry can be musical, Hass claims a curious relationship with music. “I listen to musical structures and I get jealous. Because you can have two things at once: melody and lyrics.
“I still listen to Joni Mitchell and Dylan. I like jazz, classical. Not hip-hop, though my students do hip-hop projects and give me tapes to listen to. My wife raised a stepson who was in [ska-punk band] Operation Ivy.”
He doesn’t have much time for TV or movies. His River of Words organization has a website, but in general he finds the Internet “interesting,” “in flux,” but peripheral to the landscape of the “real” environment and human dramas his poems are made of.
ROBERT HASS reads his poetry from 7-10pm Saturday, Oct. 27, at Monterey Peninsula College, 980 Fremont St., Monterey. $10. 646-4100 or mpc.edu/homex.asp