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Robert Haas

The following interview was published in The American Poetry Review, March 1997.
At the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS with Robert Hass.

Robert Hass is our Poet Laureate consultant in poetry. He was born in San Francisco, took his undergraduate degree at St. Mary?s College and his graduate degrees at Stanford University. He reads from Field Guide, his first book, and Human Wishes. His other collections are 20th Century Pleasures, The Essential Haiku, and he has worked with many translations which we will find out about.

Grace: Last night you said that imagination makes communities.

Robert: Yes, I said that.

Now what did you mean?

Well I said that in connection with a poem from Field Guide (title "Concerning the Afterlife...the Indians of Central California Had Only the Dimmest Notions") What I had in mind. ...I wrote that poem I guess, it must have been the early 70's... One of the things I was thinking about during the years of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, was the way in which our imagination of Western polities, I guess is the word, has gone wrong so I set myself the task of trying to read through some of the thinkers like Hobbs who give us our ways of thinking about government.The first thing that struck me about our democratic capitalist ways of thinking about societies is that they always begin in the idea of some Robinson Caruso figure, some male appropriating, changing property and then building up into notions of men in competition with each other over the world?s goods which then of course Adam Smith picked up and said, Ah, but this is a magical system. Everything turns out fine. Prices get set. People gets the best goodsÓ and so on. It?s an imagination of the world in which it?s guys competing with each other over goods.

Yes, you said markets make networks.

That?s right.

But imagination which is more human makes the community 'spirit' I guess.

I would say it a little differently. The market makes networks, but I think real markets in fact do make communities. Because people don?t behave according to rules of economic rationalities.

Real markets are the product of the kinds of thought forms which you advocate

They are products of affection and imagination. You know the kind of stuff you do when you have a clean exchange with somebody. Makes a certain kind of relationship. The first real philosopher of the market system, Jeremy Bentham said the perfect participant in the market is a man perfectly rationale, perfectly selfish and perfectly free. That?s not how we behave nor would it be desirable to behave that way.

It?s not a bad thing to have you in Washington, you know. And you claim you might be able to lobby for American writers and for the mind and heart. Not a bad thing I think.

A recent poem which makes this point is "Iowa City." It goes on a bit. But it makes this point from another angle altogether. You know, it?s going make it sound like poetry has a moral purpose and I don?t really think it does. So I won't make a speech except to say we live in families, not on islands. That?s where human polity starts. We live among other creatures. "Iowa City, early April" was written when in Iowa. I never lived in the Midwest before and so that was a record of that experience.

I live in West Virginia so I?m grateful for your meditative nature poems. I?m very glad you mention that new poem because it?s a very good demonstration of something I feel about your work which was with us even in the beginning. Field Guide was certainly much with the deer, the serenity, even in tumultuous times -- the early 70's, you had this extreme quieting at the center in that book and it was an absorption in nature with that attention to detail which we see in your later work. Also there seems to be less self in your poems now and more of everything else. Do you agree?

In that poem, yes.

Your work has moved that way.

I think that?s true. I mean of course everything anybody writes is drenched in the self because language is but you can try to use it to represent what doesn?t belong to the self entirely.

When the experience is totally mine and not Robert Hass?s, I guess that?s what I mean. Which is quite a miracle I think. "Iowa City...." will be part of a new book we don?t know about yet. We don?t even the title.

That?s right. I wish I knew the title.

Last night at your reading, your premier, you said, 'out of self-delusion comes poetry' and you talked about 'this precious delusion'. Where is that referenced in your own work.

I was quoting Czeslaw Milosz. From a wonderful poem of his. He's an astonishing poet of the century now in his 80's and in the most recent book Facing the River he includes a poem which I translated with him called "Report" in which he checks in with the higher powers about what it?s been like to be a poet. It begins presenting a goes on to say we learn too much about the bizarre nature of man...possessed by self delusion..He goes on to say 'out of self delusion comes poetry' and poetry confesses the flaw.

But in spite of our pettiness, he says we go on and make that beautiful sound which you call singing.

I left out the middle part which is the most fun and we shouldn't manhandle the poem this way.

And this is a very good poem also for you to use as a signature of your own work. Not only as translator but because you have certainly been identified as a poet who is not a nihilist, who is certainly not going to acknowledge death, death, the death of death and this has brought you much wonder from critics and comments because your own work is so much in praise of our life and our poetry and the berries and deer. I have been reading Eugene O?Neill's "Lazarus Laughed," a little know play... Lazarus wakes ups and laughs at Caesar and laughs because he knows there is no death and of course he?s not treated really well about that. And in a way your poetry laughs at people who will be talking about that "dark other" as wall we hit. Have you gotten scored, or rapped on the knuckles for that laughter?

To some extent I have, I guess. I always feel as I?ve been misread when that?s so. What I think about praise or dispraise of existence in poetry I guess is that to do either, to praise or dispraise, truly,( can you still use that word in post-modern culture?)

When you?re the Poet Laureate of the United States you can. You may make it fashionable again.

I think that to praise or dispraise, to enchant or disenchant, both of which functions art has-- you have to include a lot of the one if you?re going to do the other. I think poetry that says yes has to swallow great goblets of darkness; and poetry that says no has to say no in the face of the fact that there must be reasons why the poet has chosen to continue to live in order to say it. I always think in this connection of Monet because I read that his water lily paintings were begun as a response to reports he had read of the dead in the trenches in the first world war.

Have you used that in a poem?

No I haven?t used it in a poem. I mean, I think it?s already there. It doesn?t need to be. But the reason those paintings seem to us so supremely great and not wallpaper is that they are full of the dead. They?re full of all those, all those colors, full of the colors of the bodies in the trenches as he imagined them. Poetry that praises the world has to have immense ballast. Milosz is a poet who, all his life I think, has functioned in his having survived terrors that his compatriots didn?t survive. There is a terrible doubt, or a terrible feeling, that to praise the world in any way is to conspire with death and suffering... That it?s obscene to praise life which is so full of suffering and yet over and over again he praises. Anyway that theme is interesting.

It is yours also.

A kind of wonderful example of a poetry that doesn?t quite praise or dispraise is the haiku form which I?ve been attached to for a long time. And I read some of these poems last night at the Library . Those are my translations of poems of Basho who is a 17th Century poet and one of the great initiators of the haiku form. The interest, Grace, of trying to translate these poems is to make their syntaxes simple and efficient as it seems to me to be in the Japanese, though I learned the only Japanese grammar I know from trying to figure how these little magical pieces work.

From the characters?

Well I just got interested. You know I read haiku as other people did and thought 'God these are amazing and I wonder what they actually look like' so I just went out and got Japanese grammars and dictionaries and started to try to

Break the code

Break the code, so I never really learned the language except the common vocabulary of these poems so I just set myself the task of decoding one a day to see how they were put together. And after awhile I accumulated enough of them so I thought it might make a book. Here?s Basho: Even in Kyoto Hearing the cuckoos cry I long for Kyoto

I don?t know if I should comment on that poem. The cuckoos is a migratory bird of course, and it visits the islands of Japan in springtime and for years it was the subject of poetry. You heard the cuckoo in the springtime in Kyoto and knew it was Spring. So the poems are really a kind of sentimental ideal of pure presence and Basho says the truth about human desire very plainly." Even in Kyoto/ Hearing the cuckoos cry/ I long for Kyoto." Another poem. This road No one goes down it Autumn evening.

This comes from a very early travel journal that he did. One of his forms was to mix bits of both casual and highly formed sketch prose with haiku and this just evokes, you know, an empty road and an autumn evening. He suddenly notices he?s the only one there and that?s one way of reading it. "This road /No one goes down it/ Autumn evening." Another thing that?s interesting about it... Once you look at the Japanese, you see that Basho, like other Japanese poets, with certain words anyway, has the choice always of whether writing the word in the phonetic symbols of the Japanese syllabary...The word for road is ---mechi--- so you can either use the characters for me and chi, or you can use the Chinese character, and in this poem he chose to use the Chinese character for road, ( mechi in Japanese,) is Tao in Chinese and it of course changes the poem visually. 'Can?t do it in English. But you can do it by paying attention to what a deep metaphor any road that we take is. The American lonesome road from the blues will do." This road/ no one goes down it /autumn evening."

It?s all you need to hear about loneliness.

This is another one we talked about last night. All the Japanese poets of course wrote poems about Mt. Fuji, the great subject. Here?s Basho's: Misty rain Can?t see Fuji Interesting.

Was the word 'interesting' there?

Yes. Some years ago when I was a poet-in-residence at the Robert Frost farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, one of my tasks was to give a poetry reading in the barn and my young son who was then about five or six years old, wanted to go to the reading ; and I said 'if you?re very good and sit quietly, we?ll go to the town dump and see if we can?t see some bears after the reading.' So I give the reading and I read some of these haiku translations and he sat up straight. My friend Charles Simic read and he liked those poems. He said 'I like Charlie?s poems. They have rats with calculators in them.' He didn?t say anything about liking mine but when got to the dump there were no bears. He was disappointed. I said we?d go get some ice cream, and we were driving back into the town in the dark and he leaned forward and said 'I think I made up a poem.' And I said 'let me hear it.' And he said A night of July Going to the Franconia dump To look for bears. Didn?t see any.

Let me count those syllables. Is this Lief?

It?s Luke, my youngest, who?s now a young man.

Let us have one more haiku. You know this book , The Essential Haiku, is all you need for the rest of your life on your bedside table, a page a night because each one resonates so much. You can?t really read that book in a hurry.

Well let me read without comment a few of them. They?re very short. As for the hibiscus On the roadside My horse ate it. The oak tree Not interested in Cherry blossoms. Seeing people off Being seen off Autumn in Kyso It?s not like anything they compare it to the summer moth. This is very good sound. Let me find one of the better ones I wanted to read Year after year on the monkey?s face a monkey face.

I guess this moves us into the inevitable and that is your own attention to the thing itself which is the image. And I guess a couple of your themes. Critics talk of your 'unswerving faith' in the imagination and your belief in the image, in a thing. So it is natural that you would have gone to haiku it seems to me. It is your nature, it is your essence. It calls you. It is everything you believe in. It is the thing itself, instead of picture of a thing and I wonder if you would comment on that quality you have as a poet. I see the combination of the image and the imagination and I don?t quite know how to make that relationship.

Yes, you know in contemporary thinking about poetry, of course, it?s the big issue because if there is anything that defines post modernism I suppose it?s radical skepticism, skepticism about whether there?s a world we can know, with conceptual and ideological apparatus of the social worlds we?re born into. I think if there?s anything that characterizes contemporary art it?s skepticism about those things. Lots of writers, especially minority writers have been unpacking the extent to which the languages we acquire already marginalize them. Gays and lesbians have been -- and thinkers sympathetic to the problems that come from this, whatever their own sexual orientation -- have been thinking about the ways in which the very nature of language already marginalizes any sexual relationship that doesn?t look exactly like the ones that were approved by the churches in 1200. So there are millions of reasons to distrust the clear representation of the image and good reasons for distrusting them, and I think that one of the things that I love about haiku is that they work very hard to create the kind of aesthetic ideal.

I guess you?d say, in which one could use language as a clear mirror of the seeing of the world which of course only happens through work. You don?t get to see that way if your head is full of brainless chatter.Yes, so that?s the connection.At some level the common world has to be earned over and over and over again. It doesn?t exist. Basho who would be -- in the whole history of writing, the great example of this -- when asked how you got to it he said through aesthetic madness. Which meant through imagination. There?s no way there without that but, the idea whether there is one or not, our language can model a kind of attention that seems to both call the world into being, and call us into being by being there... That?s an act of imagination. It?s not necessarily the way things are. In fact it?s not usually the way things are.

It?s a hologram at best.


But it?s how you see that.

There?s a Russian critic of the 20's. There?s a whole group of wonderful critics in the early years of the Russian revolution, most of whom got silenced of course later. This man named Ikenbaum said the function of art is to make the grass grass and the stone stone by freeing us from the automatism of human perspection.

The Poet Laureate of the United States Consultant in Poetry at The Library of Congress, I think we are going to have fun in Washington this year. In addition to being a translator, you are an essayist. And a teacher. Since you are at the University of California at Berkeley and you?ll be teaching there two courses, this Fall. You'll be coming back and forth I guess ?

That?s right, I?m commuting.

I am very interested in Twentieth Century Pleasures because when I read those essays what I loved about them was the way you moved into them. .. It could be in a bar with a dirty ditty that moved into the realm of thought that you wanted to explore; or else, a hiking trip where you got an allergic reaction, which I myself get; and I thought how important it is for us to connect the thought with the human being. It?s just as simple as that. And just to put it out there. Just to put the human being up front, that hook works. I mean, and then whatever you think matters more to us. And I think that as you proceed with all of your life that is in your work, the humanness is never an abstract thought. Let?s talk about more of your recent work. Let?s go into spring because some claim that you can?t tell it in California. In fact I have friend, Judith Hall, who?s the editor of the Antioch Review, she?s new to Sacramento and she said she thinks it might be Autumn but she?s planting things in case. One can?t tell in California, right?

In fact you can. It takes, it?s a different set of signals. One of the experiences, I don?t know if it?s still true of growing up in California, but I think it's one of the things that made me want to be a writer-- is that in our school books when we were children were still printed in Boston and New York and so Dick and Jane got their boots on and went out into the snow and they went out and jumped up and down in piles of leaves; so I think all children growing up in California, and probably in Texas and Arizona and New Mexico and any place in the country that doesn?t have northeastern weather, end up feeling like the real children are having the real seasons.

In yellow slickers

Some place else. So it?s not that we don?t have seasons, we have them deeply but they are somewhat different seasons and they don?t have a traditional vocabulary.

It?s not orthodox, your seasons.

Well I think one of the things about America art is that we haven?t lived here long enough yet. One of the least true things Robert Frost ever said is that the land was ours before we were the land's. I think you know it takes a lot of, as in these haiku, suffering in a place, living in a place and making it art over generations and generations -- so thin -- human life drawing its images from those places and their actualities before they even know what they mean. I think we?re still, if you look at Chinese literature or English or almost any European literature, we?re still in a very early stage of our relationship to the continent partly because we have so many diverse weathers. Any way this 'weather' is in my poem" Spring Rain."

From Human Wishes

It comes from a group of poems called "Spring Drawings" which were written out of, not necessarily about, the California spring.

In "Spring Rain" you end being glad for beauty...' casual and intense, lasting as long/ as the poppies last.' How long do they last ?

How long do poppies last?

When you said that poem, I wondered how long they last for him. About, about a month.

Well it?s interesting because the little bright orange poppies of California full size ...

We have them in West Virginia..

They last quite a long time. They can last two or three months. In fact in very unpromising circumstances. These poppies were those poppy tulips, you know.The one ones with sequels which look like artificial eye lashes or mascara brushes or something.

Yes, I do know those poppies but I thought you meant this to be ambiguous because they last so many different kinds of way. And this is Spring in California. The poem "Late Spring" is also in Human Wishes. People make a lot of your mention of food in your poems. But I think you talk about everything. I don?t think that there is more food than flowers or birds in your work. I do remember, though, the green peppers on the white plate. So it is memorable. Your images of food are memorable. And I don?t drink coffee but when I read your poetry I want coffee. So I guess it is powerful in a way I don?t know. The book Human Wishes, is the latest work. The most recent book?

It?s the most recent book of poems, yes.

Right before the one which is forthcoming . Educated in California. What was the title of your dissertation? I?ve been trying to puzzle it out and thinking ...hmmm...Blake and His Printing? What would it be? I was trying to imagine what could have caught your imagination when you were at Stanford getting a Ph.D.

You know it was a very political time and when I was thinking about doing literary scholarship, and what I wanted and needed to study, I wasn?t really thinking about my poetry which is something I just did and so I did a dissertation about the idea of -- ideas about the ways which economic philosophy, so I was reading that hard man Thomas Hobbs on the Causes of the English Civil Wars --- so I wrote an essay on the ways in which the novel imagined the transformation of European societies in the 18th and 19th century.

How did it

I had a couple of ideas about it. One was, partly I didn?t have ideas about it and I just wanted an excuse to think about the subject of how we got the kind of ourselves that we have, particularly then the economic ideas. I think my starting place was kill ratios, the obsession during the Vietnam War with making sense of it by quantify it. It was clearly, as Robert Mactamara has demonstrated and written about recently in ways that are, you know,

A little late

Late but moving. That way of thinking was a disaster. You know, it was very mistaken.

And you identified that in your dissertation.

Well, it was what got me thinking. Why do we believe that we have, that our real way of making sense of the world is quantifying outcomes, when so much of our behavior and so much of the reasons that we?re alive don?t have anything to do with that. So I was interested in the way, from this history, from the very beginning, the history of the novel took this subject on. I was interested in Robinson Caruso. And I was interested in why when Raskolnikoff killed somebody in Crime and Punishment, he kills a money lender and that money lender is a woman. I was interested in the fact that are so many orphans in the history of the novel. Of course a way of doing this kind of economic thinking in which people don?t begin life in families. In order to have this solo competitor for the world?s goods, you need to not represent the way people actually grow up.

Are you pleased with that at this day in your life. Do you look back at that work and think it?s still valid.

Oh I look back at it and think that it was a useful part of my education but I guess, I wish I?d spent that time writing poems.

You know I think that it is going to stand you well in Washington. You will be able to hold your own in anything. The new Nobel Prize winner in economics ... Are you a little baffled by that theory he has? I mean I can?t really articulate it very well but it's given to someone who changes thought in economics; and yet some of this is a little difficult for me to pin to the human condition, so it sounds as if your dissertation could be a contribution. You should be publishing it.

Take my word for it, it shouldn?t be published! But you know that kind of economic imagination is really another matter. One of my colleagues at Berkeley, Gerard Debreu, is a Nobel Prize winner in economics ... and mostly the kind of thought they change is thought about the way people do economic modelings of economic behavior.


The problem with our economics is not that we don?t have very sophisticated and constantly changing ways of modeling market behavior and market activity -- The problem is that we think that we have one kind of economic system, the one in which people behave rationally in a market but in fact sitting right next to it is this other system in which people actually behave the way they do which doesn?t have to do with calculating rational self advantage.

I can?t wait for the essays, the essays that come out of fusing the imagination from your stay in Washington, I think we are going to get a whole new rush on theory because you are interested in politics, you?re interested in the Federalist Papers, you?re interested in Madison and I think maybe being here is going put you on a new platform for your writing.

It?s going to be interesting.

You have been writing and working in the field for solidly 25 years or more, 30 years, every day of your life as a writer, not sometimes a banker, sometime a lawyer, so you must have seen what you consider a change in American Letters, in your own lifetime. Your own work has certainly changed. Even the line lengths have changed. What do you make of where we are right now, in American poetry. If you could say a sweeping generalization.

Well I think the generalizations that poets always make come to the same thing - which is that the generalizations aren?t of much use. The sweeping generalizations that someone would have made when Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman were alive would have been about how magnificent the poetry of Longfellow and Whittier were. We don?t know in what closet the poems that are going to most deeply nourish our culture are. I don?t know if you can every see clearly in the present.

That was general enough for me.

Because of all that has been going on in Congress with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I?ve heard lots of speeches in which people say the arts in America in trouble and I always think, they are? It?s news to me. Do people really think that in the future they are really going to remember this as the age of Jesse Helms or the age of Toni Morrison? There are great writers working among us, doing great work. It?s not by accident that the last four Nobel Prize winners, none of whom were Americans, live and work in this country. Three of the four are American citizens. This has been a place enormously hospitable to poetry. We?ve had, after how many years between contact and 1965, let's say, there was very little Native American poetry in English. Suddenly there is a really interesting body of new work in poetry and fiction from Native American people. In my part of the world there has been the sudden creation of the voice of Asian Americans.

That?s right. And a Latin influx. A second immigration. It?s incredibly influencing our work.

Yes. And there an interesting new generation of postmodern writers, experimental writers, mainly concentrated in places like New York and San Francisco. I think that there?s a tremendous amount of liveliness in American writing right now.

Is that what you call postmodern - experimental?

Well I think there are different kinds of experiment but I would say that one quick way o thinking about postmodern work is that it always has an element of questioning the materials of the art, exploring questions around what the art can do.

And accumulating a lot of it, different kinds

There is dazzling work being done. I can name just a couple of writers and a couple of books for people who are interested in that sort of difficult, playful work at the edges. Work that?s like jazz. Some of these writers are going to be coming to the Library to read right now. I recently saw an anthology of poetry and poetry about jazz. And one of the things that struck me about it was there were an enormous number of poems about jazz and jazz musicians.

Was that from University of Indiana?

Yes, but almost none of the poems were like jazz. They were about jazz.

You're right. Now who are the writers who are writing jazz, poetry like jazz.

One is a woman named Lyn Hejinian, whose husband is a jazz musician. If you want to see what this kind of writing is like at its most dazzling and demanding. She has written a book which I think is one of the most interesting in my generation. It's called My Life. It?s a prose work, prose poetry I guess or in some borderland between prose and poetry. And the other is Michael Palmer. He?s like those jazz musicians who play chords all around the melody, never quite playing, don?t want to play the melody,and he?s extremely interesting in that way. There are at the same time powerful writers working in the realist tradition. So any way I would say a couple of other things. That there are 900 books of poetry published in this country every year. Three a day. There are 400 poetry magazines on the Internet. I think part of the ground work for this interest got laid by the work that?s been done by our cultural institutions including the NEA.

I know you do not write occasional poetry. However, you did honor Chief Justice Brennan recently with a poem, written since you were named Poet Laureate. How did that come about. I think it sounds like a nice official thing to do.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked me if I would write something for the occasion of their presenting a lifetime achievement award to Justice Brennan. I didn?t think I could do it but I was looking at the deer moving through the winter woods in Iowa and thinking about what I admire about his prose and so I wrote "Jurisprudence" with the woods in New Jersey where Justice Brennan was born.

Can we have a final remark from you about American poetry?

Poetry is alive and flourishing in this country, and people will find out just by going into their book stores and looking at the poetry shelves.

And we're glad to have you as a spokesperson for it.