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Robert Hass

Visiting Poet

Robert Hass

“Are you there?” asks Robert Hass, in the opening poem of The Apple Trees at Olema. “It’s summer. Are you smeared with the juice of cherries?” A poet known for his perceptive renderings of the natural world, Hass was born in San Francisco, California. Throughout his career he has earned top accolades such as the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the MacArthur Genius Grant, and two National Book Critics Circle Awards––one each for Poetry and Criticism. In 1995 he was selected as the United States Poet Laureate, serving two terms that were seminal in locating that role at the nexus of art and activism. Along with seven books of poetry, Hass has published prose works and extensive translations of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, as well as other poets ranging from Issa to Transtromer. His combination of attention and devotion marks him as one of the leading writers of his era: in The Ontario Review, writer Charles Molesworth describes Hass’ greatest gifts as a “loving tentativeness” and “the need to see and to save.”

Hass’ oeuvre is rich, perceptive, and distinctly Californian. Field Guide names the “fog-soaked earth” of his home state, a coastline “thick with kelp” and hemlocks that grow “cerebral and firm.” Judge Stanley Kunitz selected Field Guide for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1972, praising the debut collection as “a big, strong-hearted, earthy book, in the American epic tradition of Whitman and Neruda.” Subsequent works such as PraiseHuman Wishes, and Sun Under Wood experiment with memoir, dialogue, Buddhist thought, and unconventional form but stay true to Hass’ profound interest in the earth. “If there is a way in, it may be / through the corolla of the cinquefoil / With its pale yellow petals,” he writes in “Poets’ Work” from the collection Time and Materials, “In the mixed smell of dust and water / At trailside in the middle reaches of July.”

Hass’ way with words is augmented by his ability to involve them in policy. “My shorthand goes like this,” he has been known to say—“Wordsworth read a German philosopher who wrote about mountains, Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt read Muir, and so we got Yellowstone and Yosemite.” During his tenure as Poet Laureate, Hass organized a conference for American nature writers at the United States Library of Congress and traveled extensively to “places where poets don’t go,” bringing poetry from civic groups to corporate boardrooms. Together with writer and activist Pamela Michael he founded River of Words, a nonprofit organization for eco-literacy education that provides poetry and art competitions for youth. Sarah Pollock writes in Mother Jones magazine that Hass’ public service “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-development in relation to the landscape, and acute awareness of both the pleasures and pains of being human.”

In the past twenty years, Hass has served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets; trustee of the Griffin Poetry Prize; and professor at the University of Buffalo, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Today he lives in California with his wife, the poet and antiwar activist Brenda Hillman. A Little Book on Form, his latest writing on poetry, was released by Ecco Press in 2017.

Select Poems

I am outside a door and inside

The words do not fumble

as I fumble saying this.

It is the same in the dream

where I touch you. Notice

in this poem the thinning out

of particulars. The gate

with the three snakes is burning,

symbolically, which doesn’t mean

the flames can’t hurt you.

Now it is the pubic arch instead

and smells of oils and driftwood,

of our bodies working very hard at pleasure but they are not

thinking about us. Bless them,

it is not a small thing to be

happily occupied, go by them

on tiptoe. Now the gate is marble

and the snakes are graces.

You are the figure in the center.

On the left you are going away

from yourself. On the right

you are coming back. Meanwhile

we are passing through the gate with everything we love. We go

as fire, as flesh, as marble.

Sometimes it is good and sometimes

it is dangerous like the ignorance

of particulars, but our words are clear

and our movements give off light.


From PRAISE (Ecco Press, 1979)

Beauty is sexual, and sexuality

Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility

Of the earth is economics. Though he is no recommendation

For poets on the subject of finance,

I thought of him in the thick heat

Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you

Outside the Shangri-la Hotel

And says, in plausible English,

“How about a party, big guy?”

Here is more or less how it works:

The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam

Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way

To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,

And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled

In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed

By Lazeres Freres in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,

Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco

Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,

Spun by the force of rushing water,

Have become hives of shimmering silver

And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light

Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.

From TIME AND MATERIALS (Ecco Press, 2007)

The aspen glitters in the wind

And that delights us.

The leaf flutters, turning,

Because that motion in the heat of August

Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf

Of the cottonwood.

The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem

And the tree danced. No.

The tree capitalized.

No. There are limits to saying,

In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.

Mountains, sky,

The aspen doing something in the wind.


Available as a Broadside.

About Robert

Poetry Center Reading Dates: October 2007, October 2017