Robert Hass celebrates the quiet joys of poetry
"POETRY . . . is . . . an . . . intimate art." Robert Hass speaks softly and slowly this afternoon, choosing each word as carefully as if he were selecting an expensive bottle of wine. Or a diamond. Or a new puppy. He's answering a question about the intense passion poetry fans often reveal when talking about the art form.
"Poetry's basic material," Hass says, "is the voice in which we talk to ourselves in our heads. Against all the noise and fury and pressures and deadening routines of external reality, poetry functions as that still, small voice of what it would feel like, were it not buried under the circumstances of our lives, to be our true and authentic selves."
Stop. Read that quote again. If you can do so without being thrown out of the coffee-house, try reading it out loud.
There now. You have to agree that poets--even when engaged in routine conversation, even when giving yet another interview--do have a way of making their words sing.
One of America's best living poets, Hass is also one of poetry's most eloquent and energetic spokespersons, a prolific, award-winning poet who has found time to be a syndicated columnist, a college professor, and the U.S. poet laureate, serving in that post from 1995 to 1997.
On April 20, Hass will be joined by Irish poet Seamus Heaney and acclaimed Mill Valley poet Jane Hirshfield onstage in San Rafael to breathe music into the work of yet another master, Polish-born Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz.
Concluding the Marin Center's 2001 Literary Arts Series, the event was originally to have featured Milosz himself in conversation with Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and scored a place on the bestseller list with his recent translation of Beowulf.
But the 90-year-old Milosz announced that ill health would prevent him from traveling from his home in Kraków.
So Hass--Milosz's longtime friend, translator, and sometime collaborator--agreed to step in.
Hass, who lives in Berkeley but has a house in Inverness where he often comes to write, is looking forward to the event.
He and Heaney are also old friends, having bonded back in 1971 when the two young poets met while teaching at UC Berkeley. Since then, they've each achieved a remarkable degree of fame for their work, with translations of other poets' writings ranking high among their achievements.
"I think the event will be wonderful," Hass says, "because Seamus always has such witty things to say. I remember him saying once that the basic relation of a poet to his translation is like the relation of the Vikings to Ireland. Some of the time it's a colony, and some of the time it's a raid.
"I think he was saying that, as poets who also translate other people's work, we'll occasionally do a translation that turns out to be, well, a lot like a raiding party. But other times--as with his Beowulf or my work with Milosz--you kind of settle in and colonize the subject for a while."
Since poetry is so intimate an art form to begin with, the act of translation must only intensify that intimacy.
"It's true," Hass agrees. "Having been given the chance to work with Milosz, studying this huge body of poetry, in detail, over many years time, I'm sure the experience has changed me. It's soaked into me and colored my way of seeing things. It's a very intimate thing."
THE SPECIAL intimacy of poetry and the written word is a subject Hass has thought a great deal about. In his research, he's traced the emotional soul of the art form all the way to its roots.
"Poetry . . . was first an oral art form . . . that at one point began to be written down," Hass elaborates. "In its written form, it participates in a particular kind of intimacy that wasn't brought into the world until the arrival of silent reading."
Silent reading, Hass says, changed everything.
"I was reading St. Augustine's confessions not long ago," he says, "and there's a part where he comes across Ambrose--who was, I think, the Bishop of Milan--and when Augustine goes in to visit him, Ambrose is sitting there bent over a book, reading silently.
"And Augustine is just astonished, because he's never seen anyone do silent reading before," Hass continues. "It sort of gives him the creeps. But it's also a revelation to Augustine: you can read without speaking the words out loud."
To Hass' delight, poetry over the last two decades has made a sharp U-turn. A growing audience shows up for poetry slams and poetry readings, yanking the art form back off the page and pushing it onto the stage.
But who, exactly, turns out for these readings?
"There is, in this country, a small class of technocrats, like George W. Bush, who never read anything except one-page summaries of things, mainly for business purposes," Hass says.
"Then there are the 30 percent of Americans who never read anything," he says, "because they're too busy trying to get their car started or dealing with whatever is coming down the pike.
"In between," he continues, "is that middle group that sometimes reads books and has ideas and thinks about their life, and some of them come to poetry readings."
While the intimacy of the work is significantly lessened by the egoism and onstage theatrics of performance poetry, Hass still sees it as a positive shift.
"In oral presentations, you can convey anger, comedy, impatience, a whole range of rhythms that you can't really intone in a written work," he explains. "Written-down poetry can do accents but it can't do pitch. It can't tell you which words are meant to be spit out, which ones to be hissed."
What is emerging, Hass says, is a new hybrid, a fusing of written poetry's intimacy and oral poetry's energy.
"Whenever genres start to collapse and get blurred," he says, softly and slowly, "it becomes . . . really interesting.
"I suspect that something quite wonderful is going to come out of this."
Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney, and Jane Hirshfield take the stage on Friday, April 20, at 8 p.m. at the Marin Center, Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. Tickets are $18 and $26. For details, call 415/472-3500.
From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.