New Laureate Wields Bully Pen for Poetry
BERKELEY, CALIF. — PERHAPS everyone is at the football game nearby. At any rate, the cafe is unhurried. Robert Hass bites a sandwich, crunching its wedges of green-skinned apple. He pauses, then recalls the heroes of his youth, none of whom wore cleats.
''One thing about growing up in the Bay Area in the 1950s was the Beat thing in San Francisco,'' he says. ''There were poets around. It seemed like something you could be.''
Today's youths may feel differently. In a culture where heroes are increasingly defined by their shoe contracts, poetry may seem out of place, a quaint art from the days before MTV.
Mr. Hass, who today becomes the nation's eighth poet laureate, hopes to change that perception. He wants to make his art more accessible - via everything from poets in schools to more verse in newspapers.
An English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hass is considered a skillful translator of classical haiku and, more recently, the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. As a poet, his influences range from Beat to bebop to Bob Dylan.
He has long found art in the distractions of the ordinary. From neglected apple trees along the Pacific Coast, to couples eating drowsily in museum cafes, to the simple act of picking up his children after school, it is day-to-day detail that drives Hass's poems.
''Hass is able to talk in a conversational way about everything from the mushrooms he's picking one minute to heavy philosophical subjects the next,'' says Dan Halpern, an editor at Ecco Press, which publishes the poet's works.
Broadening poetry's reach
As poet laureate, he may be able to bring to a wider audience the joy he finds in language. From his earliest days of discovery, when he and his brother would stay up late on summer nights reading Robert Lowell and Rudyard Kipling to each other, Hass was captivated by the musical aspect of verse.
Poetry ''has a feeling of true things being said in powerful ways that are very measured,'' he says in an emery-board voice. If it hits home, he says, ''something happens to you and you say, 'Oh, it would be great to make other people feel it.' ''
Hass's central theme is his perception of the coincidence of pleasure and pain in the human experience, a mixture he calls ''bewildering.''
Admirers, such as Lee Briccetti of Poet's House in New York, call Hass's works ''nourishment for the soul and mind.'' They count him among the leading influences for young poets.
Critics say he is too sentimental, prosaic, and self-conscious. ''Hass thinks about Jacques Lacan while picking blackberries,'' notes Boston poet William Corbett. ''He's reaching there. I don't think all poets mull over things like that.''
But few who are familiar with either his work or the man himself doubt that Hass, in his capacity as laureate, will make an eloquent spokesman for his art. The American poetry community is vibrant, spreading through the Internet and urban cafes in as many different directions as there are political and social interest groups.
Following African-American poet Rita Dove, Hass's selection as the first laureate from the West Coast continues a celebration of that diversity. Yet the poetry community remains, in large part, a community of participants, overshadowed by Brad Pitt and Hootie & the Blowfish.
''There's lots of activity in American poetry,'' Mr. Corbett says. ''But it's an art in search of an audience outside itself. The energy and vitality that used to go into poetry is now going into movies and rock-and-roll.''
With a demeanor as easy as well-worn jeans, Hass has a gentle, witty way of making poetry accessible. ''He is a great thinker on American culture,'' Ms. Briccetti says, ''one of the best essayists on the art. He reaches out to a broad audience.''
As laureate, Hass has four ideas about how to make poetry more accessible. One involves giving inner-city students in Washington the same kind of models he found in the Beat poets.
''It would be great to get interesting young black poets and some of this sensational emerging generation of jazz musicians together in Washington over a stretch of time to do concerts for the schools,'' he says.
One performance, for example, might team artists such as poet Rita Dove and saxophonist Joshua Redman. Students would be encouraged to mingle with the performers during rehearsals. The shows would be taped for a video archive.
''It's often the situation with the American kid who wants to be a poet that he comes from a place where his father would think he was a flower-sniffer if he wanted to do that,'' Hass says. ''There are no models.''
Hass also hopes to recapture a role poets played in the 19th century and again in the 1950s: major influences on public-political thought. He wants to organize a week of readings and seminars in Washington next spring with the best environmental writers in the United States.
''Everybody's getting to hear what the lobbyists have to say about Alaska,'' Hass says, ''but nobody's talking about how mountains and rivers and bays fit into community values - about what we preserve when we talk about preserving.''
To encourage the structures of American poetry, Hass wants to establish a series of annual awards for publishers, critics, and community figures who promote the art.
Poetry in newspapers
Finally, he would like to see poetry reemerge in newspapers and is trying to find a format for syndicating poems ''reflecting the whole range of writing that is going on - Asian American, Chicano, African American, Latino.''
The constraints, of course, are time and money. The poet laureate receives some private funding, but traditionally has had to raise additional funds to implement the kind of programs Hass has in mind. With Republicans swinging their budget ax at arts and humanities programs, Hass says, fund-raising has taken on a political dimension.
''I don't have any illusions about how much good any of this is going to do,'' he says. ''But the question is, do you do something or nothing? If you ever did have this dream of a literate electorate that could entertain complicated ideas because it knew how to read complicated books ... we haven't done so well.''
A melody played on strings floats down from the cafe stereo, and the discussion shifts course. ''Not only is the San Francisco tradition full of Western images and our more intense personal relationship with the natural life,'' Hass says, commenting on the shaping of himself as an artist, ''but it has always been more friendly to international, experimental impulses.''
He is talking, in a manner, about the Beats again.
Growing up in Marin County in the years right after World War II, Hass felt displacement at the swift pace of development. The principle of the shortest distance paved over the logic of roads that followed the contours of valleys. Dusty Italian-style gardens with fig trees and fennel started disappearing, and it didn't make sense to the young Hass.
But poetry did. At the same time development was remaking the Bay area, Beat poets like Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth, in addition to writing their own pieces, were translating Asian and Eastern European poetry. As early as high school, Hass was struck by the clarity of such verse.
''There's a tremendous tendency, especially in our hurried-up society, to abstract, to not see, not notice,'' Hass says. ''I was attracted to Japanese poetry because it was the poetry of ordinary attention. And it was hugely arresting ... for me, the way to anchor and clarify is with a poem - my so-called Zen-clear way of noting detail.''
If there is a mythology in Hass's poetry, its central point may be that numbness is the worst kind of pain. In his pieces, details arouse feelings - some pleasant, some discomforting. Sometimes a single image provokes both.
There is a verse by the 18th-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa that Hass translates as ''In this world we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers.''
It is close to Hass's central theme. Gazing at flowers implies a slowing down, as if the simple pleasures of deliberate living are an antidote to painful experiences.
Hass's poem ''Museum'' hints at the same problem.
A young couple sits in a museum cafe having breakfast. She cradles a sleeping infant; he reads the Sunday paper and eats fresh fruit. Then he holds the child and she finds a section of the paper and butters a roll. They are drowsy, almost automated.
All around them, Hass writes, is an exhibit of carved wooden faces ''of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kind of pain: hunger, helpless terror.
''But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible.''
They are oblivious to the contorted images around them. They also seem unaware of the pleasures of the moment: atmosphere, sunlight on their table, release from the workday schedule. They seem incapable of feeling.
Now that he is in the midstream of his career, Hass hopes a shape is emerging to the body of his work.
His poetry chronicles the phases of a man trying to make sense out of the world: a youth sifting through the rigidity of a Roman Catholic education and the bustle of Western society; a father seeing the world through the eyes of his children; a man in midlife dealing with ''the accumulation of rues and woes and mistakes and damaged icons.''
''Either you wrestle and cope with friction and pain, or you just go straight ahead,'' he says, drinking the last swallows from a steaming mug. ''And it's a question of what do you praise.''