A Poetics of Comprehension: Robert Hass

"Hass’s is a poetics of comprehension: his work grasps, lays hold of, and conceives of earth and landscape in tandem with the human dreams, energies and emotions that shape and are shaped by this environment in which we live."

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Standing spotlit on the stage of Tech’s cavernous Allen Theatre, Pulitzer Prize-winner, former poet laureate, translator, and environmental spokesperson Robert Hass began his reading with a poem from his next book, which he told us would be an “album of dreams,” tapping in to the well of the unconscious mind. It described one of those long, inexplicably serial dreams in which the dreamer dreams himself as (variously) a tree, a woman lounging naked after having sex, a hawk, and facing an elevator full of young children who tell him that their day is not today, but Tuesday. Hass then turned to “Song of the Border Guard,” a series of site-specific (Cuernavaca, Houston, Waco, San Antonio) mashups of contemporary and historic detail, Instagrammatic snapshots of what it’s like to live in a (geographical, mental, or both) border state (dragon kites and soccer balls in the park, “hip-hop and mariachi,” traces of Malinche and Cortes and the Yanaguana and Santa Ana and the Alamo), juxtaposing these layers of human cultures and contested places with the repeated refrain: “What was that racket in the trees?/ Boat-tailed grackles and white-winged doves.” Finally the poem turns to the trees, insects, and birds along the Rio Grande, whose variations of species have nothing to do with human boundaries:

So what is this business of walls and border guards?

Who owns that country anyway? What was that racket in the trees?

Ai-yi-yi-yi. Boat-tailed grackles and white-winged doves.

“Song of the Border Guard” and the dream poem are comprehensive works. To comprehend is simultaneously to grasp, seize, lay hold of, or catch; to lay hold of with the mind or senses; to “take in” or conceive fully; to understand. Hass’s is a poetics of comprehension: his work grasps, lays hold of, and conceives of earth and landscape in tandem with the human dreams, energies and emotions that shape and are shaped by this environment in which we live.

“Poetry ought to be able to comprehend the earth,” begins a section of “State of the Planet” (commissioned in 1999 by Columbia University for the 50th anniversary of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), and Hass’s poem does, yawing dizzyingly from life’s primordial beginnings in carbon dioxide and oxygen to the breath of a twenty-first century schoolgirl with a red backpack, from the organic chains

Of DNA, the curled musical ladder of sugars, acids.

From there to eyes, ears, wings, hands, tongues.

Armadillos, piano tuners, gnats, sonnets,

Military interrogation, the Coho salmon, the Margaret Truman rose.

This is the poetry of deep time, connecting the pre-human earth with the quotidian trivia of today, but it is also a poetry that acknowledges that the very concept of deep time, or time itself, is a human construct just as much as is a Margaret Truman rose. People, in other words, are very much a part of Hass’s ecopoetic comprehensivity, in their making and breaking, and in their living and dying. He reduced his Lubbock audience (including an unruly group of students towards the back of the theatre) to silence with a series of meditations on early deaths, each based on an epigram from a seventeenth-century poet like Thomas Traherne, Richard Crashaw, John Donne, or Ben Jonson. These quiet pieces on death in infancy, in adolescence, and in the twenties or thirties, were also about how a poet can try to mediate grief through a tradition that acknowledges art’s inadequacy to ever truly assuage loss, while simultaneously celebrating its capacity to comprehend beauty in the face of that loss.

In Hass’s work, this ability of the individual mind and hand to make art links humanity with non-human organic processes. Chemistry is metaphor, he exclaimed in one of the final poems he read Friday night, a rendering of a conversation about aesthetics with his long-time friend and collaborator, the now-deceased poet-statesman Czeslaw Milosz: “this becomes that, becomes this.” Poetry thus comprehends both the vast scope of earth and environment, science and geologic time, but also (and, Hass seems to say) equally importantly, the simple business of going about one’s individual life in the present day and time. Sometimes it’s enough to get through a rough day by repeating the lines that Hass left us with, his own translation of seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, a haiku that he tells us he uses as a form of therapy:

A cool fall night—

Getting dinner, we peeled

Eggplants, cucumbers.


Images courtesy of Texas Tech Presidential Lecture and Performance Series

and Robert Hass.

Jennifer Snead is an associate professor in the English department at Texas Tech, where she works on eighteenth-century British and American literature, literacy, evangelical religion, and book history. She helped to found and currently directs the Texas Tech Letterpress Studio, where she teaches workshops and classes on the history and practice of letterpress printing and bookmaking. She has also taught courses in contemporary American poetry, art, and creative writing.

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