April 29, 2010

Robert Hass: Meaning and Form

Dear Readers,

While I continue working on permissions for the memoir (Re)Making Love: A Sex After Sixty Story, and with a few exceptions that I will highlight here, the process has been torturous and in some cases horribly expensive. It has been a frightening alert about quoting that I will talk more about soon.

But in contrast to those difficulties, there have also been great kindnesses. Robert Hass, whom I quote ever so briefly in my new memoir, is one such gift.

So, here I would like to pay tribute to him with my analysis of his book Human Wishes. I do this not as a critic but as a lover of poetry.

Blogspot doesn't let me place superscript for the footnotes I have written, so please forgive the clunky way I must insert them here. As always, on this analysis, your comments are welcome. I hope to hear from you.

Here is: Robert Hass: Meaning and Form

“. . . as if language were a kind of moral cloud chamber
through which the world passed and from which
it emerged charged with desire.” (1)

To read Robert Hass’s book of poems Human Wishes as a whole—not as separate poems, but rather as a group of poems inextricably connected in their meaning to the poet’s search—is to be confronted with human desire in the concrete acts of domesticity, the monumental tragedies of the world, the pain and losses of individuals in the midst of beauty and joy and often the other way around. In other words, Hass’s achievement is a study in contrast, expressed in both the meaning and the forms of the poems. As Hass says in the book’s last poem “On Squaw Peak,” “. . . It meant to me/ that beauty and terror were intertwined so powerfully/ and went so deep that any kind of love/ can fail. . . . It was the abundance/ the world gives, the more-than-you-bargained-for/ surprise of it . . . .” (p. 83)

Cleanth Brooks in Modern Poetry and the Tradition quotes I. A. Richards on the importance of contrast to effective poems:

In the all-important chapter of his Principles of Literary Criticism, that which treats “The Imagination,” Richards distinguishes between two general types of poetry: first, poetry which leaves out the opposite and discordant qualities of an experience, excluding them from the poem; and second, poetry in which the imagination includes them, resolving the apparent discords, and thus gaining a larger unity. . . . In a poem of the second group the most obvious feature is the extraordinary heterogeneity of the distinguishable impulses.” (2)


Brooks also notes that Dr. Johnson who disapproved of “heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together”(3) nonetheless gives us the method when “Johnson likens a successful comparison to the intersection of two lines, pointing out that the comparison is better in proportion as the lines converge from greater distances.”(4)

Brooks’ context is metaphysical poetry, but the points he is making seems to me to apply to Robert Hass’s work in Human Wishes and to raise these questions: How does Hass achieve that “larger unity” to which I. A. Richards refers and how do meaning and form work to this end in his poems? It is my view that Robert Hass is in search of the unity to which I. A. Richards refers and that he indeed achieves it, though not in every poem. The unity of Hass’s work is most striking when the contrast he presents works to illuminate the human dilemma of desire and joy in the face of life’s torments.

The book is divided into four parts, with part two using prose as its form and ending with the poem “January,” which combines both poetry and prose. Parts 1, 3, and 4 are free verse poems. These choices in themselves reinforce the study in contrast that I believe Hass achieves. In the first poem “Spring Drawing” (p. 3) he establishes the longing that pervades the rest of the work:

“. . . then the interval created by if, to which mind and breath attend, nervous/ as the grazing animals the first brushes painted,/ has become habitable space, lived in beyond wishing.” In the last poem of this section he makes a return to this first poem in “Spring Drawing 2” (p. 13), which repeats with changes the first line of the previous poem. But in this poem he expands the world of desire by adding a political context: “In order to be respectable, Thorstein Veblen said, desperate in Palo/ Alto, a thing must be wasteful, i.e., ‘a selective adaptation of forms to/ the end of conspicuous waste.”/ So we try to throw nothing away . . . .” But desire is here too: “The first temptation of Sakyamuni was desire, but he saw that it led to/ fulfillment and then to desire, so that one was easy.” Thus the contrasts, not only within each poem, but among them, are laid in place as the first part of the book closes with the extraordinary and effective unity of two poems that reflect on one another in title, first lines and the continuing thread of desire. In Part two the switch to prose poems seems a fitting contrast that highlights the difficulties of form in the sense of that word literally—as the form of the poem—and figuratively—as our search for form through the meaning of things, meaning which seems to evade the poet despite the beauty he encounters. And desire, longing close this section, as well, in the poem of mixed forms “January” (p. 35): “. . . they are laughing. At the comedy in the business of trying to sort through mutually exclusive alternatives in which figures some tacit imagination of contentment, some invisible symbolizing need from which life wants to flower.” Parts 3 and 4 further the thematic unity. In “Misery and Splendor” (Part 3, p. 41), the poet describes the difficulty of perfect joining in the sexual act: ‘They are trying to become one creature,/ and something will not have it.’ This poem seems to me to be a predecessor of “The Privilege of Being” (p. 69) in Part 4, where this idea of the desire/the wish for and the difficulty of joining is more fully and I think more beautifully expressed and worth a longer quotation:

All of creation is offended by this distress,
It is like the keening sound the moon makes sometimes,
rising. The lovers especially cannot bear it,
it fills them with unspeakable sadness, so that
they close their eyes again and hold each other, each
feeling the mortal singularity of the body
they have enchanted out of death for an hour or so,
and one day, running at sunset, the woman says to the man,
I woke up feeling so sad this morning because I realized
that you could not, as much as I love you,
dear heart, cure my loneliness
,
wherewith she touched his cheek to reassure him
that she did not mean to hurt him with this truth.
And the man is not hurt exactly,
he understands that life has limits, that people
die young, fail at love,
fail of their ambitions.


Having, I hope, illustrated both the unity and use of contrast among the poems, I would like now to look more closely at “The Privilege of Being” and the prose poem “The Museum” (p. 18) to more fully examine the use of contrasts within each of these poems and to show that Robert Hass succeeds at creating the “extraordinary heterogeneity of the distinguishable impulses” to which I. A. Richards has referred. I consider these two poems to be among the most successful in the book because here the poet is most in control of his form. And for this reason I will examine more closely the prosody of these two poems as it relates to meaning.

“The Privilege of Being” begins: “‘Many are making love. Up above, the angels/ in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing . . . .” The poem has 44 lines that range in syllable count from 5 to 18 with no discernible pattern, to my eye at least; only eight of the lines use a syllable count under 10. Thus it is possible to say that Hass has purposefully chosen the longer line and is avoiding the traditional pentameters, hexameters, etc. The long line seems to me appropriate to the expansive, even lush meaning of the poem, with the angels above who “are braiding one another’s hair, which is strawberry blond/ and the texture of cold rivers.” That last line, “and the texture of cold rivers,” scans to my mind with two anapests and a trochee—a pattern that slows the line and emphasizes the startling contrast of the phrase “the texture of cold rivers.” I find this quite rhythmically affecting, pleasurable. The shortest line in the poem—five syllables and which I have quoted above in context—is “die young, fail at love.” This line scans with a spondee foot, followed by a trochee and perhaps a trochee truncation (?). Again, the meter, though not regular, seems perfect to the meaning: the spondees emphasizing the sadness of “die young”; the truncation, working with failure in life. So clearly, the poet is aware of the meter even if he chooses not to use it in a regular fashion. And certainly one could argue that regularity is not germane to the meaning of the poem for it is about the human inability to create perfect form. In terms of imagery, Hass contrasts the angels, the lovemaking, the philosophical musings of the poem with the mundane: The man in the poem runs beside his lover, “ready to be alone again . . . or merely companionable like the couples on the summer beach/ reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes”—a sobering, ironic reflection of the longing in the poem and the impossibility of complete connection. This poem exemplifies Hass’s gifts for meter, for contrast, indeed, for “an extraordinary heterogeneity.”

In the prose poem “Museum,” he achieves an equal success in my view. This poem in 19 lines of prose, sets forth the contrast of desire for living, for joy and pleasure in the midst of the world’s suffering by painting a scene in a museum restaurant. A man and a woman eat fresh fruit and rolls, drink “coffee in white cups” while their baby sleeps. They sit midst the K├Ąthe Kollwitz exhibit of “faces carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror. But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible.” That last word ‘possible’ stands alone on the last line; clearly an intentional move and a powerful statement set in contrast.

I am an avid reader of poetry and venture to assert that poetry ought to give pleasure through both form and meaning. Robert Pinsky eloquently expresses a view I share in Poetry and the World: “. . . I want to say—as humbly as possible—that despite all the complexities of literary theory, for all the ingenuities of ambition or expectation, the trouble with most poems that fail . . . may be described simply: they are not interesting enough to impart conviction.”(5)

It is Robert Hass’s conviction to form and meaning in Human Wishes that moves me, that makes me want to take the poems apart to understand his technique and then to read them again just for the pleasure they provide.



1. Robert Hass, “Human Wishes,” Human Wishes (New York: The Ecco Press, 1989), p. 23.

2. Cleanth Brooks, Modern Poetry & the Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p.41.

3. Ibid., p. 40.

4. Ibid., p. 43.

5. Robert Pinsky, Poetry and the World (New York: The Ecco Press, 1988), p. 31.