Poet Robert Hass won a Pulitzer prize last week for his most recent collection Time and Materials, a book that also won the National Book Award last year.
Awards are not unfamiliar to the Berkeley-based poet, who began his distinguished career by winning the 1973 Yale Younger Poet Competition for his first book, Field Guide. He also won the William Carlos Williams for his second book of poems Praise (1979), the National Book Critics Circle Award for his lucid essays on poetry and poets, Twentieth Century Pleasures (1984), as well as for his poetry collection Sun Under Wood (1996).
From 1995 to 1997 Hass served as U.S. poet laureate. His tenure was characterized by his concern for cultivating public awareness of the role of poetry in our lives and his active role in developing literacy throughout the U.S. He was also the first Westerner to serve as poet laureate.
It is being a Westerner, particularly a Northern Californian living on the Pacific Rim, that most characterizes Hass’ work and sensibility—though one could argue that his clear love for food places him more exactly, smack dab in Berkeley. Who else but a Bay Area child, born and raised, could write: “… ham in thin, almost deliquescent, slices/ Mottled ovals of salami … crabmeat,/ With its sweet, iodine smell of high tide …” and then relate the careful attention of serving this feast, with its tenderness of lettuce leaves, to the death of a child?
A more frequent inhabitant of his work is the California landscape and its wildlife, especially birds, which seem to follow him even when he is out of the environment he is most bonded with, as in “Twin Dolphins,” set in an unnamed Hispanic country: “Harlequin sparrows in a coral tree/ One halcyon harrying another in the desert sky.” Likewise, the landscape of his dreams is invested with birds: “In my dream, I notice, to my surprise, a bird,/ Brilliantly yellow, a European goldfinch, perhaps,/ Red in the wingtips” (“Pears”).
This basking in the details of nature is more than an academic obsession with categorization or a poetic naming of the harbingers of ecologic concern. They are for Hass a path into the spiritual, the portals to a cosmic world underlying the everyday. This, to me, is a profoundly Californian attitude:
If there is a way in, it may be
Through the corolla of the cinquefoil
With its pale yellow petals,
In the mixed smell of dust and water
At trailside in the middle reaches of July.
Soft: an almost phospher gleam in twilight.
—from “Poet’s Work”
Totally lucid language is formed in easily discernible lines that reveal a thoroughly approachable perception of the natural world. These are the traits of Hass’ poetic style. And he uses them to draw the reader into his philosophy, which is more complex and involved with the complications of interconnectedness. Often Hass takes us on a ride of associations from, for example, the rain on the windshield to a schoolgirl crossing the street, to the imaginary book she carries in her backpack, Getting to Know Your Planet. And from there to the revolution of the earth around the sun, to greenhouse emissions, to spilled milk and hunger, to the Latin of Lucretius. And on and on, finishing at last with the Earth, who is a “she”: “the birds just keep arriving,/ Thousands of them, immense arctic flocks, her teeming life.”
In Time and Materials, Hass also addresses the war. Except through his constant return to ecology, politics is not a subject he is comfortable with. In a 1991 interview, he commented: “I think political writing is problematic .. I know what I hate, but I know less and less about how to change it.” But the war poems in this Pulitzer prize-winning book are some of the most powerful in the book.
Nightingales singing at the first, subtlest,
Darkening of dusk, it is a trick of the mind
That the past seems just ahead of us,
As if we were being shunted there
In the surge of a rattling funicular.
Flash forward: fire bombing of Hamburg
Fifty thousand dead in a single night,
“The children’s bodies the next day
Set in the street in rows like a market
In charred chicken.” Flash forward:
Firebombing of Tokyo, a hundred thousand
In a night. …
—from “Bush’s War”
Hass is a superlative editor of poetry, and one of his finest accomplishments is the Addison Street Poetry Walk. The Poetry Walk is a collection of some 120 poems cast in iron plaques that are imbedded in the sidewalk and introduced by artistic tiling in the pavement along Addison Street in downtown Berkeley. The poems range from songs from the Ohlone tribe to lyrics from the punk band Operation Ivy, and pretty much everything in between. Berkeley publisher Heyday Books has released a book of the poems, The Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley’s Poetry Walk (2004: Robert Hass and Jessica Fisher, eds.).
TIME AND MATERIALS:
By Robert Hass. Ecco Books (Harper Collins, New York.)