One benefit of being a poet — as opposed to, say, a politician or talk-show host — is that you can be the most celebrated person in your field, a virtual rock star among those who study, read and write poetry, and still remain anonymous in just about any public setting.
The thought occurs to me as I stand outside one of this city’s finer Japanese-fusion restaurants (a fancy joint called Yoshi’s) chain smoking and awaiting the arrival of Robert Hass, a poetry rock star if ever there was one.
Last year alone the 68-year-old Berkeley professor won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection of poems “Time and Materials.” From 1995-97 he was America’s poet laureate, and he used the post in innovative ways to promote literacy. From 1997-2000 he wrote the popular “Poet’s Choice” column for the Washington Post, introducing readers to his favorite poets each week. His translations of Japanese haiku and the works of Czeslaw Milosz — the late, great Polish poet, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature — are read the world over.
Former poet laureate Robert Hass
Still, for the life of me, I can’t remember what he looks like. So, after approaching a few slightly startled gentlemen in his age bracket, I’m relieved when a pleasant man with a warm countenance, wearing blue jeans and a black windbreaker, extends his hand and says simply, “I’m Bob.”
After snuffing out my cigarette, I tell him my wife Masae awaits us inside and is holding what we hope will be a quiet booth where we can talk. Alas, there’s a speaker above us blaring jazz, and adjacent diners are shouting above the din. Undaunted, we peruse the wine list. “Buttery and oaky is the classic California chardonnay that everyone’s gotten sick of,” says the poet, with a slight grin. “But I haven’t!” And with that we order a bottle from California’s Santa Rita Hills and begin.
He’s just flown in from Toronto, he tells us, where he attended the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony, and asks that we please forgive him if he “fades early.” The Griffin Prize, Mr. Hass explains, was founded by Canadian philanthropist Scott Griffin, who annually awards an impressive $50,000 to one Canadian poet (this year’s winner is A.F. Moritz) and one non-Canadian poet (C.D. Wright). After the ceremony, there’s a gala bash. “It’s the kind of party where there’s a flowing chocolate fountain and an open bar where poets don’t do very well.” He says I should write a story about it, and offers to put me in touch with the Griffin folks.
But before I can ask him for details, he’s on to another topic: a Berkeley-based nonprofit called the International Rivers Network. “I’m the only poet on the board,” he says. “It’s an environmental organization that thinks about the ecological consequences of big dams” and provides “real life estimates of the damage done by these big boondoggle projects to the people who are trying to resist them.” The group has worked in some 60 countries, he says, to help prevent the kind of cultural and environmental devastation caused by projects like the Three Gorges dam on China’s Yangtze River.
Suddenly, like a guest who feels he’s gone on too long, Mr. Hass apologizes and peppers us with questions. “How long are we here?” “Where are we from?” “How did we meet?” When he discovers my wife is from Japan and we met in Tokyo the conversation turns to his love for haiku, particularly the poems of the 17th century master Matsuo Basho.
In the early 1970s, he says, “I tried to teach myself something about how to make images from working on haiku . . . I had this real paradisiacal period in my life where I would teach, come home, get out the Japanese dictionary, work on haiku, then go swim laps for an hour, then have dinner and put my kids to bed. . . .”
Just then our waitress brings the “Fisherman Carpaccio,” a flower-like assemblage of raw fish marinated in soy with a dash of karashi hot mustard and sesame oil. We order another bottle of chardonnay, and I attempt to ask another question. “That’s a really pretty presentation, don’t you think?” says Mr. Hass, admiring the dish that’s just arrived. “Can we stop?” He then turns to my wife, who’s a potter and chef, and asks, “What do you think about this presentation? And about saying this is carpaccio rather than sashimi?”
Right about now I begin to feel as if we’re inside a Robert Hass poem. They are known for their playfulness with language, love of long, sprawling sentences, and, above all, a kind of unquenchable honesty, a wrestling with memory and the world as it is. Yet listening to him talk it strikes me that he isn’t self-absorbed. He is, in fact, other-absorbed. His conversation, like his poetry, is full of wonder and horror, two wholly appropriate reactions to human history — or a plate of sashimi-cum-carpaccio.
In “Time and Materials,” published in 2007, Mr. Hass addresses everything from “Poor Nietzsche in Turin . . . Dying of syphilis . . . in love with the opera of Bizet” to an early memory of his father grinding up the antidrinking drug Antabuse (“It makes you sick if you drink alcohol,” he writes) and forcing his long-suffering, alcoholic mother to swallow it. Later, he watched as she sat down with a bottle of booze and “gagged and drank, Drank and gagged.” In another poem, he writes of his father’s death and his feelings of “love and anger and dismay and relief at the sudden peacefulness / of his face. . . .”
In a poem for his friend and longtime collaborator, Czeslaw Milosz — who died in Krakow in 2005 at the age of 93 after living through the Nazi occupation of Poland and the rise and fall of communism — Mr. Hass writes how Milosz “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.”
This idea, this lament — “the world’s poor salvation in the word,” that language often fails us, yet it’s our only hope for redemption — permeates Mr. Hass’s latest book, which was completed in 2005 at the height of the Iraq war. In a poem titled “Bush’s War,” he conflates 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the brutal history of the 20th century, when the slaughter of civilians and the “firebombing” of entire cities was commonplace. “Forty-five million, all told, in World War II,” he writes. “Why do we do it?” Certainly there’s a rage / To injure what’s injured us.”
To Mr. Hass, who’s married to the poet and antiwar activist Brenda Hillman, terms like “collateral damage” and “soft targets” are not merely euphemisms but sacrilege. In another poem, written after visiting the demilitarized zone that separates South and North Korea, he writes: “The human imagination does not do well with large numbers. / More than two and a half million people died during the Korean / War. It seems it ought to have taken more time to wreck so many / bodies.”
Raised in a Catholic household, Mr. Hass attended parochial school not far from here in the Marin County suburb of San Rafael and had, like his friend Milosz, a “relentlessly moral upbringing.” His first book, “Field Guide,” earned him the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973. In it, he writes lovingly of the lush California coast, but he also questions the relevance of romantic or elevated poetry in a violent age. Responding to Baudelaire he writes, “Surely the poet is monarch of the clouds. / He hovers, like a lemon-colored kite, / over spring afternoons in the nineteenth century / while Marx in the library gloom / studies the birth rate of the weavers of Tilsit / and that gentle man Bakunin . . . applies his numb hands / to the making of bombs.”
I mention how his first book and his most recent were both written when America was at war and, in a way, deal with similar subjects. “The Vietnam War and the Iraq war, in different ways, both made me feel like I could not not address them. I’m very doubtful about the usefulness of poetry to do that,” he says. And yet, “In this really violent, imperfect world where you’re not just a writer but you’re a writer writing in one of the languages of the rich and developed world . . . [you have] some responsibility for the world . . . [because] the way the world is seen gets framed in those languages.”
He pauses, takes a drink of wine, then continues: “I have a Libyan poet friend who thinks that part of the big problem with the Arabic world is Arabic poetry, that . . . there’s a certain level of elevation of the language that doesn’t make a description of reality possible. Not to make too much of a claim for poetry, but this is a question that goes to the moral heart of the business of any art: How do you see the world and what right do you have to see the world in the way that you do?
“And part of the answer is, artists don’t really have a choice. You don’t get to pick how you see the world. A lot of my appetite is for a kind of pure poetry . . . and one of the things I identified with and felt like I understood about Czeslaw was that he was raised with an appetite for pure poetry in a world in which he thought it was not available to him as an option . . . after living through the underground in Warsaw seeing the entire Jewish community hauled off and killed, and seeing 250,000 Polish kids go out in the street and get mowed down by the Germans.”
In his 1980 Nobel acceptance speech, Milosz said something similar: “Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.”
This is the work of the poet. And this, it seems to me, is the work that our dinner guest has undertaken.
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Mr. Judge is a contributing editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review