“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 Praise, Human 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.
Poetry Center Reading:
- Like Three Fair Branches From One Root Derivd
- Ezra Pound’s Proposition
- For Czeslaw Milosz in Krakow
- The Problem of Describing Trees
Like Three Fair Branches From One Root Deriv’d
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)
Ezra Pound’s Proposition
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)
For Czeslaw Milosz in Krakow
The fog has hovered off the coast for weeks
And given us a march of brilliant days
You wouldn’t recognize——who have grumbled
So eloquently about gray days on Grizzly Peak——
Unless they put you in mind of puppet pageants
Your poems remember from Lithuanian market towns
Just after the First World War. Here’s more theater:
A mule-tail doe gave birth to a pair of fawns
A couple of weeks ago just outside your study
In the bed of oxalis by the redwood trees.
Having dropped by that evening, I saw,
Though at first I couldn’t tell what I was seeing,
A fawn, wet and shivering, curled almost
In a ball under the thicket of hazel and toyon.
I’ve read somewhere that does hide the young
As best they can and then go off to browse
And recruit themselves. They can’t graze the juices
In the leaves if they stay to protect the newborns.
It’s the glitch in engineering through which chance
And terror enter on the world. I looked closer
At the fawn. It was utterly still and trembling,
Eyes closed, possibly asleep. I leaned to smell it:
There was hardly a scent. She had licked all traces
Of the rank birth-smell away. Do you remember
This fragment from Anacreon?——the context,
Of course, was probably erotic: “…her gently,
LIke an unweaned fawn left alone in a forest
By its antlered mother, frail, trembling with fright.”
It’s a verse——you will like this detail——found
In the papyrus that wrapped a female mummy
A museum in Cairo was examining in 1956.
I remember the time that a woman in Portland
Asked if you were a reader of Flannery O’Conner.
You winced regretfully, shook your head,
And said, “You know, I don’t agree with the novel.”
I think you haven’t agreed, in this same sense,
With life, never accepted the cruelty in the frame
Of things, brooded on your century, and God the Monster,
And the smell of summer grasses in the world
That can hardly be named or remembered
Past the moment of our wading through them,
And the world’s poor salvation in the word. WEll,
Dear friend, you resisted. You were not mute.
Mark tells me he has seen the fawns grazing
With their mother in the dusk. Gorging on your roses——
So it seems they made it through the night
And neither dog nor cat has got to them just yet.
From TIME AND MATERIALS (Ecco Press, 2007)
The Problem of Describing Trees
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.
The aspen doing something in the wind.
TIME AND MATERIALS (Ecco, 2007)
Available as a Broadside.