(reposted from an earlier blog)...
The Canonization of Robert Hass
Some of you may not remember an essay that appeared in the American Poetry Review sometime in the early 1990s, entitled "The Spiritual Progess of Robert Hass."—
Surely by now, almost two decades later, he must have spiritually progressed even futher, to the point where he's achieved sainthood?
Saint Robert of Hassisi. The Mother Teresa of American Poetry.
I start with a quote, and don't Dan (the Assassin) Chiasson's words here confirm my quibble (below) that Halfhass should really be writing novels?
Here's the excerpt I found apropos (google Chiasson/New Yorker/Hass for the full text):
"Then Time" is a magnificent new poem, probably Hass's best ever. The "girl" in "Meditation at Lagunitas" (or one like her) has become a woman ("Twenty years older, / She is very beautiful. An astringent person. She'd become, / She said, an obsessive gardener, her daughters grown"). Where once Hass might have located all the sentience in his own head, now, as in late James, sentience is collaborative, something people make together:
Studying her face, still turning over her remark.
He decides that she thinks more symbolically
Than he does and that it seemed to have saved her,
For all her fatalism, from certain kinds of pain.
She finds herself thinking what a literal man he is,
Notices, as if she were recalling it, his pleasure
In the menu, and the cooking, and the architecture of the room.
. . . . "Then Time" shows how lyric poetry can do what novels do so well, if at excruciating length: track the paths of consciousness and counter-consciousness across plots and characters.
But what kind of poet would WANT to write like the late James?! Is that a sine qua non any poet should shoot for?
Really? You're a poet and you want to write like a novelist?
(You're Halfhass and you are a prose-writer. A novelist in disguise. Playing the poet role. Hollywood always works for the Californian writer.)
Even Pound when he aspired "Mauberly" to be a boiled-down James novel didn't desert verse for his desire.
Frustratingly a lot of my books are in storage, so I can't go to the exact quote from an essay out of Jonathan Galassi's superbly-translated-and-edited selection from Montale's prose writings, "The Second Life of Art,"
in which the Italian Nobelist says something to the effect that ever since Browning poets have tried to incorporate prose into their verse—
Surely this trend this tendency explains his success, Hass's, yes?
As Oscar Wilde put the matter: "[George] Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning."
"The Nineties tried your game": the sneering taunt which successful novelist Mr. Nixon tries to quash the young Mauberly with . . .
I don't see how Chiasson-the-Assassin can chide and chivvy Jane Hirshfield for her lax prosification of verse, and then turn around and praise Hass for the same thing . . .
yes, I understand he's rating the quality of their respective CONTENT, but isn't prose prose,
whether it's Jamesian or How-to-Build-a-Better-Buddhist . . .
The American Poetry Review [Sept 07 issue] includes another chapter in their ongoing canonization of Robert Halfhass, whose careful-to-be-a-bit-bashful face photogs the cover.
There are a dozen or so new poems by him, followed by an obsequious essay devoted to his work: an extended advertisement for his new book which is certain to garner one or more of the major prizes.
[Note: my squib here was written before he won the National Book Award 07, on his way to the Pulitzer and or the National Critics Circle? Is he primed to be the first poet since Ashbery to take the Triple Crown? PPS: he nabbed the Pulitzer, but not not the NatCritCirc] . . .
The essayist quotes several banal (and typically clunky) lines from his poem "Bush's War"
(which was reprinted in the following year's BAPbatch, natch)
and then comments that these lines are "deliberately unsubtle . . . "
Deliberately unsubtle! What a revelation.
And here I was all these years thinking his poems were bad because he was a bad poet.
Here I was thinking his poems were filled with stale platitudes and pretentious apothegms;—
that they were, essentially, professorial or essayistic or diaristic prose, belletrist vignettes, chopped up into arbitrary lines.
Now I learn that he was being deliberately pretentious, deliberately obtuse, deliberately clicheish, deliberately prosaic—
I thought his verse-craft was amateurish at best: and that its incompetence showed he lacked any talent for or was unable to master the skills necessary to write poetry,—
and that if he wanted to be an author, novels were the answer . . .
But!— if all those defects were "deliberate"!?
Shouldn't that change my mind? No, sorrry: after reading his new poems in the new APR, I can only repeat:
All his new poems are boring; in this they resemble all his old.
I can't of course deny that he has achieved a degree of popularity in the USA poetry community, and that he is held in high regard by some poets . . .
I don't think his books will ever be bestsellers like those of Mary Oliver or Billy Collins or Jane Hirshfield et al, though.
On the whole his work can have no interest for the larger general public that buys and reads poets like these.
He's a poet for poets, not for readers.
I must admit that some of his lines, some of his phrases, could be adapted for commercial use:
Imagine a Hallmark card whose front text reads: Longing, we say, and then you open it, and on the inside it continues: because love is full of endless distances . . .
Homilies like this one (from his famous "blackberry" poem) could be excerpted for greater gain and distribution.
But in trying to account for the acclaim and admiration granted him by some of his fellow poets, I have a theory as to why that might be—
Based on the poems of his I've been able to muddle through and or start to read, I speculate that the reason he is appreciated by those poets is, quite simply, his subject matter.
Or not subject matter, actually: subject singular, because as far as I can see his poetry only deals with one subject—
What is this recurring subject and why does it make his work so appealing to other poets (and there are certainly enough of them to establish his reputation)—
It's a theme that is as old as poetry: or rather, a sub-theme, an ancillary topic:
a subordinate leitmotif that can always be found to a greater or lesser (usually lesser) extent in all poetry, Shakespeare's sonnets, Wordsworth's Prelude,
and summarized in these lines from Milton's Lycidas:
Alas what boots it with uncessant care
To ply the homely slighted shepherd's trade
And strictly meditate the thankless muse . . .
The proposition that can be spied poking its head up from time to time in all poetry of the past and present, is this:
being a poet/writing poetry is difficult.
This gripe and grumble lament reappears throughout the centuries of verse, but normally it only emerges overtly in a limited measure—
The genius of Halfhass has been to take this heretofore minor issue and to make it his main, indeed as I perceive it, his only thesis:
All his poems are Complaints.
Every poem he writes is about how hard it is to write the poem he's writing.
Everything else in his poems is ostensible, mere occasion.
Or is Apologia the right term.
Anyway, that's his secret:
that's what makes (some) other poets respond
with such empathy and recognition (or self-recognition) to his work—
The whine of it all is never far from many poets' hearts.
The drudgery, the defensiveness, the diffidence, the doubts, the day-after-day
of trying to write poetry is (as every poet knows, and every writer who ever aspired to write poetry, and golly even failed poets like me)—
is, to say the least, demanding. Or damned—
What is that ancient Welsh curse Robert Graves quotes somewhere: It is death to be a poet.
All the D-words. Whereof come in the end Despondency and Madness—
Not to mention Masochism, which is another aspect of it that pleasures the poets who esteem this theme above all others.
This perversity—this breastbeating of the bard over the troubles of his task—is a minor vice, albeit a seductive one.
Yes, it persists, it subsists as a flaw poets fall heir to, a fixation in the blood, a bittersweet urge that has proved irresistible to poets of all eras; who among them has not paused to scratch that itch.
But in the drama of poetry, it is an Aside. A brief interruption in the flow. Extraneous—
A bit part, not a star role.
Think of it as a pocket of self-pity whose acid bubbles up under stress, in resentful momentary spurts.
But it's a capillary, not a vein. A rivulet, not a river. Etcet—
And most poets have seen it for what is: a self-indulgent luxury, a chocoholic spree, an intramural solipsistic tic, an autoerotic fetish of interest to others in the biz but no one else.
All poets are susceptible to it; an unfortunate few become addicted.
Ultimately it remains a trivial subject, and Halfhass remains a trivial poet.
—Back to that earlier fawning piece in APR, the one entitled "The Spiritual Progress of Robert Hass" . . .
Regarding which I responded in an earlier blog post:
Yeah, spiritual progress, I mean he's a fucking saint, right?
Unfortunately there has been no corresponding poetical progress.
All his new poems are pretentious and cliche-riddled; in this they resemble all the old.
Even when he tries to write a 'political' poem it turns as usual into maundering piffle.
After reading (or failing to read) that "Spiritual Progess" essay, I wrote the following poem:
AT THE "FEDERAL CENSORSHIP AND THE ARTS" SYMPOSIUM
Just as the Nazis never proscribed Rilke
(he was no Expressionist, no Degenerate,
no Art-Bolshevik), so most of us poets
are thought no threat by those in authority—
Halfhass, for instance, his books won't get banned:
his Rilkemanqué wins awards, his "spiritual
progress" and "earned words" (—to paraphrase Wilde,
his genius gives good guru Po-Biz style while
his talent brooks those so serious ergo poems)—
what might please our fuehrers even more is
his patriot's part in The American Poetry Series.
Better silence than that? Better to hide, to write
for one's cabinet? (To paraphrase Benn,
the aristocratic form of publication.)
This poem was deleted from my collected comic poems by the publisher, BOA, whose chief fund-raiser at the time was Robert Hass. . . .
I've wondered if the BOA editors censored this poem on their own initiative, or whether they were ordered to do so by Hass.
If Hass had my poem suppressed, it wouldn't surprise me, prima donnas like him are notoriously touchy.
Their facades are sensitive, these sainted ones.