The poet Robert Hass has won the National Book Award, The National Book Critics Circle award and the Pulitzer Prize. I have admired his work for some time. So when a good friend enthusiastically suggested that I explore some of his prose as well, I took her up on it. What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination and the Natural World is a collection of essays that is so readable, engaging and elegantly thoughtful that this book has been at my side for weeks now. (For readers like me who suffer from extreme promiscuity, that’s a seriously committed relationship.)
It turns out that Hass and I score high on shared interests. His first essay is about his adolescent initiation into a lifelong connection to the work of Wallace Stevens (that’s when I fell under Stevens’s spell as well). That is followed by a contextual nesting of Allen Ginsberg‘s legendary “Howl” that was extremely helpful in rethinking that work (which is a portrait of San Francisco just as I was coming of age in the Bay Area), the thoughtful comparison of intent shared by poet George Oppen and painter Paul Cezanne (always a topic of interest), and insightful portraits of many of the poets who impacted me in my college years including William Everson, Robinson Jeffers and Czeslaw Milosz.
And most coincidentally I read his essay, “Notes on Poetry and Spirituality,” while I was flying back from two weeks in Utah. It turned out to be about an invitation for Hass to speak to poetry students at Brigham Young University. Just days before I had been asked to meet with art students at BYU, so reading about his experience at that school was both timely and resonant.
Here are a few passages that may engage you as well.
I imagine I am not through thinking about this poem ["The Emperor of Ice-Cream"] or about “Sunday Morning” or “The Snowman” or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or “The Idea of Order at Key West” or “Of Mere Being” or “The World as Meditation,” which are other poems I have been brooding over and arguing with myself about for much of my adult life. But I heard it early and I’ve lived with it for some time and thought that it would serve for one image of the way poems happen in a life when they are lived
George Oppen and Paul Cezanne:
What’s extraordinary about George Oppen’s poetry is moment after moment in his work, line by line, syllable by syllable, you have a sense of an enormous ethical pressure brought to bear on the act of perception, and a sense that the ethical pressure of the act of perception is for him the same thing as the writing of the poem. And that is a way in which he is extraordinarily like Cezanne, it seem to me. The way Cezanne made lines, the way he studied color and tint, the way he insisted on seeing made it impossible for people to paint in the same way they had painted before…
Most poets are afraid of consciousness, perhaps because our art has magical and incantatory roots. And consciousness of consciousness, as the naked ground of all serious speech, has tormented twentieth-century writing. The first condition of honesty in poetry, and in the other arts, has been a certain self-reflexiveness; at the same time a flight from consciousness is probably the root of the passion to possess the world through language. That seems to be the fork in our path: a self-referential and hermetic poetry on one side, and on the other a passionate quest that strains toward and against dissolution.
George Oppen’s poems are remarkably free of both these passions. They are also free from many of the subversions of ego that accompany them: the desire to charm, the desire to dazzle, the need to have one’s suffering seen and acknowledged. This freedom is the ambience of only a few artists. Cezanne wasn’t trying to do anything to Mont Sainte-Victoire; he wasn’t trying to give it anything or take anything from it or make anything out of it. The mountain was there and he was there, and the painting—which was both consciousness of the mountain and consciousness of the consciousness of the mountain—was their meeting place and a single-minded act of devotion to the meeting place.
Poetry and spirituality at Brigham Young University:
Sitting there I found myself thinking that those Mormon kids could be good Mormons for their entire lives without getting in touch with their spirituality, whatever their spirituality was. And that the discovery of that possibility must turn on some kind of break from trying to be the kind of person they thought they were supposed to be seen to try to be, that, for me, the content of spirituality was almost always everything in me that rebelled against whatever the pattern of being a socially approved and good person was, even when I experienced that rebellion as failure. And that for me, the content of poetry, or at least what drew me to poetry—the way in which I could say to myself it was spiritual—had to do with negation, with some version of saying no to the plausibly constructed world, and of being drawn through that negation toward—what? i didn’t like any of the words. I tried out mystery and wonder, and more helpfully I thought of Emily Dickinson.
And coming to her I knew I needed another definition. If religion is a community created by common symbols of the sacred, and is not the same thing as a spiritual life, then the first thing to say about spirituality is that it is almost always a private matter.