On Robert Hass’s Empathy in the NYTBR

In The New York Times Book Review of May 16, 2010, David Orr considers Robert Hass's new volume of selected poets, The Apple Trees at Olema, and sees a shift from early to late work.  Given the importance of the review and the importance of Hass to American poetry, it's worth a look for what it says and what it leaves out.


Robert Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate, is one of our presiding masters.  I credit Orr with recognizing the essential beauties of his work, the embrace of equanimity, the empathy toward the world and the human action within it.  Stanley Kunitz saw it early on, too, that Hass's poems are "as much an expression of an organic principle as the activites of which they are an extension--walking, eating, sleeping, lovemaking--and they are equally pleasurable, equally real."   Orr cites two of Hass's early great poems, "Songs to Survive the Summer" and "Midatation at Lagunitas," as examples of this empathy untinged by sentimentality, a truthfulness that Hass, in the second half of his 'golden' career, as Orr puts it, has lost.

It's worth reading Orr here if only for his contemplation about what makes a poetic "career," whether it needs to build and grow or whether, for him as he sees Hass's case, it's enough that a poet be struck by inspiration five or six times in his life.  These competing narratives are fickle, though.   Fashion grows or fades, critical response changes, work gets reevaluated, new work uncovered.  But that's not the only reason why I feel Orr's choice of the "not-the-same-as-he-once-was" narrative for Robert Hass is incomplete.  We can't forget how readers are perpetually drawn, whether they know it or not, to Hass's ear.

In his 1977 conversation with Pearl London at the New School (collected in Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversation with America's Poets; Knopf, 2010), Hass happens to discuss two of the poems Orr mentions as early triumphs, "Songs to Survive the Summer" and "Meditation at Lagunitas".  "What's happening in the poem," Hass says to London about the first work, "is the slowness of the breath. The spirit, literally the breath of poetry, is in the vowel sounds ... the way a poet actually reaches into and takes over your body while you're reading and experiencing a poem."  He goes on in detail.  And about the second poem he says, "What I tried to do was write in longer lines. To have a longer breath. And as soon as I did that I used more words...and I saw I was involved in this terrific battle of control."

That Hass recognizes, if only after the fact of his writing, the workings of sound and breath and control in his work, demonstrates another power of his poetry to this day.  His work breathes.  It moves rhythmically.  Its sound is distinct.  For me, beyond the quality of empathy that binds his work together, it's what happens to the ear when you read a Hass poem aloud, new or old, that always moves me. For that reason alone the new selected work is worth our attention--and devotion.

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