In his new collection of essays “What Light Can Do,” Robert Hass offers insights and ruminations on a diverse range of subjects. The former U.S. poet laureate draws on his vast literary knowledge in essays that examine artistic works, the relationship between literature and religion and the backstory of a UC Berkeley protest. He joins us to discuss his essays and career.
On Writing Essays vs. Poems
I find it very hard to write both at the same time because you're thinking in different rhythms when you're doing them. I love and hate the essay form because of its requirements, both its requirements, that is you start the damn thing and you have to finish it and also you don't quite know where you're going. Poems have their way of telling you what they are and where they're going, in my experience. And in essay, you're climbing the cliff barehanded.
[Essays are] more arbitrary. You can either do it this way or you can do it that way. With poetry, the life of a poet consists of second thoughts, in a way. One poem generates another — in an essay you're kind of supposed to get it for now, on this subject.
On the Influence of James Baldwin
The essayist whom I read and fell in love when I was a college student, that made me fall in love with the essay was James Baldwin. Those early books of his — Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, those essays were so gorgeous and such a revelation. This would have been [in the] late 50s, early 60s, the early days of the civil rights movement… and these just luminous, magical pieces of writing on what it was like to live inside his skin, a black man's skin, in America and Europe in those years, were so gorgeous.
On Whether the Poet Has a Responsibility to Be Political
My first answer to that is always to think about Emily Dickinson who wrote three hundred of the best poems in the English language in the middle of the Civil War that seem mainly to have been motivated by the fact that her sister-in-law hurt her feelings.
Robert Duncan said that the responsibility of the poet is to respond, to keep the ability to respond, so I think different poets do it in different ways.
[Wallace] Stevens is a very great poet. His political attitudes such as they were, were entirely conventional. It can be annoying to other poets that his poetry is so wonderful because it's never messy from having to deal with the stuff that poets who were concerned about history and the world and violence and what's happening to other people are concerned about.
On Maxine Hong Kingston and The Woman Warrior
I had just read, this would have been in the early 90s, Woman Warrior was the most widely taught text in American colleges and universities. That it had become the entry level book. And I thought, 'Well, maybe there's something wrong with it after all,' and read it again and, it's just a great story. Picking it up, I read the first sentence which I'm quoting from memory. The first sentence of Woman Warrior is 'And now, my mother said, I am going to tell you something that you must tell to no one.' So it enacts the writers first act of betrayal and self-invention in the very first sentence.
On Czeslaw Milosz and The Captive Mind
Another writer of that period… said that Milosz, with one image shifted the center of European culture from Paris to Eastern Europe, in the middle of the war… And Milosz later came to regret that on a number of counts, I think… People had tooth aches, love affairs, that the image of the resistance as one long gesture of heroic existential assertion of moral good in this evil time, [and that's] not what it was like. And it pained him to be seen that way. He didn't think it was the truth. That's number one. Number two: he thought in some way that the awfulness of that war was only an intensification of other kinds of awfulness… That poets have to write about the world as given. And his being seen only as the hero of the resistance in World War II, when in fact he was not in the Resistance army himself, he disapproved of it in fact.
On Jonathon Ruskin
He's supremely great. Ruskin is the great writer about art.
On Anton Chekov
For summer, and I recommend this to listeners, I started with the first story Chekov got published in a serious literary journal in 1883 and I read all through the stories. And you can do it in the eight volumes of the Oxford Chekov is one way, but there are other ways. And it's just so extraordinary… and when I was through with it I wanted to talk about, write about what a tough guy he was. And I discovered in the course of reading about him that in fact he started his life as a writer writing jokes for comic magazines in Moscow in the early 1880s to support his family, like the young Woody Allen.
Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and professor of poetry and poetics at UC Berkeley