Robert Hass

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Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

–Excerpt from East Coker V, Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot

In What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, Robert Hass writes about this poem by T. S. Eliot and the difficulty in teaching students about poetry:

One of the traditional ways of teaching poetry is to discuss, to explicate, what Eliot is saying here to make sure that students (and the teacher) understand what’s being said…in teaching poetry, that is quite often what we settle for. We hope that the deeper thing that we can’t communicate has gotten communicated, passed directly from the poem to the student reader without our aid or interference. We do what we can with content, especially if, as in this case, the content is rich, psychologically or philosophically. And we do what we can, harder but still manageable, with affect. And we leave the deeper thing in the work of art, which is also famously the most ineffable, its tone or mood, which is like a sensation of echo, which we often take away quite mutely and quietly, in the same way that people do coming out of a concert hall or theater. In those deepest reaches of a work of art, the truth is what we mostly cannot teach.

Hass goes on to talk about the possibility of teaching echoes. As Eliot has said elsewhere, the past is “modified in the guts of the living” much the way a new work of art emerges from an old one. Like the lives we construct for ourselves from our experiences, our work and our relationships, the sensation of echo is ongoing and sometimes as close as we can get to our own deeper thing.

This feels particularly resonant for me this morning. This weekend is the fifth anniversary of the passing of Morris Arrari, a dear friend to many of us. A group of us are gathering in New York City to remember him. In thinking about Morris more than usual, I was reminded of these words delivered at his memorial service by Andrew Kimball:

Morris said once he would choose to return to earth — should that be our destiny — as a bird, high above hospital rooms, stomas, the gracelessness of ordinary manners — his artist’s eye quickened by the earth’s spiny geology, its interlocking clays and ores, its patterned waterways, the play of shadow across the landscape – observed this time from a distance.

The sensation of echo, the ineffable deeper thing—these are concepts that don’t translate easily into words. But remembering this wish for an ambient presence brought me closer to that unsaidness.

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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.


Wallace Stevens:

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.

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The view this weekend from my kitchen window

Robert Hass begins his extraordinary collection, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, talking about the photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams:

What the two artists have in common, besides a name, is a certain technical authority. The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination. I don’t know whether photographers find it in the world, or when they look through the viewfinder, or when they work in the darkroom, but the effect is a calling together of all the elements of an image so that the photograph feels like it is both prior to the act of seeing and the act of seeing. Attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention comes to life.

This passage is full of such powerful thoughts, and I appreciate being reminded of the inimitably wise quote from Simone Weil. Yesterday while we were dealing with the disruption of 27″ of snow piled everywhere in Boston, I posted this quote on Facebook from Philippa Perry‘s book, How To Stay Sane:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to…The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved…If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up. … The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

One friend read that quote and shared this wise additional insight: “What we speak (and I’m adding “listen to” and “believe without questioning”) becomes the house we live in.” — حافظ Hafiz, Persian Poet.”

The house I am living in, literally and figuratively, is changing. I am leaving the arduous navigation of snow narrowed streets for several weeks of trekking in the wild outdoorness of New Zealand. I am asking Hass’ idea of the “formal imagination” to accompany me.

I am back here, Slowly Musing, after March 4.

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Ode to Weather


After Paradise

Don’t run any more. Quiet. How softly it rains
On the roofs of the city. How perfect
All things are. Now, for the two of you
Waking up in a royal bed by a garret window.
For a man and a woman. For one plant divided
Into masculine and feminine which longed for each other.
Yes, this is my gift to you. Above ashes
On a bitter, bitter earth. Above the subterranean
Echo of clamorings and vows. So that now at dawn
You must be attentive: the tilt of a head,
A hand with a comb, two faces in a mirror
Are only forever once, even if unremembered,
So that you watch what it is, though it fades away,
And are grateful every moment for your being.
Let that little park with greenish marble busts
In the pearl-gray light, under a summer drizzle,
Remain as it was when you opened the gate.
And the street of tall peeling porticos
Which this love of yours suddenly transformed.

–Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by the author and Robert Hass

An atmospheric and sensual poem for a snowy weekend when a languid, slow rising from bed was the most appropriate gesture.

I was caught by the image in the lines, “that little park with greenish marble busts/In the pearl-gray light, under a summer drizzle”. I know that climatic state, the clammy humidity that leaves every object damp, heavy and limp. Weather does inform the inner life, and these last winter snow storms that bring skies of diffused, angled light offer their own limpidity of an edge to the body and the soul. There’s viscerality in all of these extremes, from the sharp angles of winter light to the shimmer of a pearl-gray summer drizzle.

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