Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is it even meaningful?

This discussion of Robert Hass's poetry has occasioned a mild brouhaha in the world of poetry. I have mixed feelings about both the reviewer and the poet (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I should add I worked with briefly in grad school), but I think it's generally a thought-provoking piece.

Sample excerpt:
The first line of Robert Hass’s first collection, Field Guide, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973, is “I won’t say much for the sea.” This offhand repurposing of idiom, funny and insightful, is characteristic of his poems—of course he goes on to say a million things for and about the sea. Field Guide was acclaimed, as each succeeding book would be, for Hass’s facility in translating into poems what is ridiculously referred to as the “natural world.” In the first three poems alone, we find: steelhead, mushrooms, apricots, gulls, sea cucumbers, slugs, a walnut tree, ironwood, waxwings, pyracantha, cliffs, bluffs, artichokes, a salt creek, owl’s clover, lupine, berries, hawthorns, laurels, “clams, abalones, cockles, chitons, crabs,” salmon, swamp grass, and a skunk. The preoccupation with nonhuman life is inextricable from a compulsive onomamania: “Earth-wet, slithery, / we drifted toward the names of things”; “I recite the hard/explosive names of birds: / egret, killdeer, bittern, tern.” This impulse is explained, sort of, in “Maps”:

Of all the laws 
that bind us to the past
the names of things are

When Hass’s pintails and blue-winged teals are lined up in a row, the deftness of his observations almost rivals that of the haiku masters he has so memorably translated: in a restaurant’s tank, “coppery lobsters scuttling over lobsters.” But as the above verse suggests, Hass is also given to pedantic soothsaying, telling the reader how it is in tones that suggest he is just slightly winded from having jogged down the slopes of Parnassus. The poetry takes on the tenor of the lecture hall, the quality of prose statement: Of all the laws that bind us to the past, the names of things are stubbornest. Is this true? Is it even meaningful?


Cartooniste said...

Oh, ANCIANT. Everybody knows that poetry is supposed to *rhyme.*

Also - I want to see your novel.

ANCIANT said...

It should rhyme and, ideally, should be about God. Or at least love. Otherwise, it's not poetry. I agree.

But the hippies, Cartooniste--the hippies!

The novel has been on the shelf. I'm nearing completion on a play however. You can see that, hopefully in a month or so.

Btw, I have stopped going to your site only b/c I have no idea what my password is or was.