By Robert Hass
Poetry has a way of waiting for its readers to catch up with it. For a long time, I avoided the poetry of Robert Hass. In 1997, as I was starting college, he was finishing his term as United States poet laureate, the most famous poet in America. Poetry was still a very new and subversive revelation to me — I was all about poems that were funny, pissed off and right to the point, or so I thought. What did I want with Hass, a guy my dad’s age who wrote about nature, family and maybe politics, slow subjects to my racing mind.
Now, Hass is almost 80 and I am entering middle age; I’ve got two kids, have had my brushes with fortune and misfortune, am deeply angry and dismayed about the state of America, and I find that Hass’s poems move at exactly the speed I need and make a hell of a lot of sense. He writes poetry for grown-ups, and, alas, I have become one.
“Summer Snow,” Hass’s first gathering of new poems since 2010’s “The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems,” is a book that looks meaningfully back on the long life it took to write it. It recalls and mourns lost mentors and friends, rounds up decades of memories (“That voice, coming to me / Across forty years”), and rages in a quiet way against America’s long-held warmongering habits (“The drones themselves are startling”). Over almost 200 pages of new poems, Hass checks in with himself and his readers, as though he’s providing a public update on his private thoughts in sequences of linked poems, sometimes dubbed “Notebooks” or “Notes”; fireside chats with titles that tell you exactly what they’re about (“An Argument About Poetics Imagined at Squaw Valley After a Night Walk Under the Mountain”); and a handful of lyrics and incantatory songs (“In the dream the woman in the elevator took out her eye. / It was a moon in the dream”). It’s a big book, but never feels exhaustive or overstuffed. Some may find that Hass has grown too comfy in his effusive style and his old lefty politics, but to me it all sounds like mastery, like singular virtuosity attained on a very popular instrument — common American speech.
Hass has always been a talky poet. His poems operate by digression, veering off of subjects as seemingly innocuous as rain, flowers, Los Angeles (“the dry riverbed of some ancient river / grown from a little northernmost outpost / of the Spanish empire”), and “pictures of wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers.” Almost without meaning to — or seeming to mean to — he winds his way to lines like this, from “A Talk at Sewanee,” a poem that consists of a recalled (and most likely embellished) lecture given by the novelist Ellen Douglas: “It’s brutal, the way some lives / Seem to work and some don’t.” The value and the power of this line aren’t in its revelation of an obvious truth, but in the depths of empathy indicated in the tone. The unthinking cruelty of fate is too vast and unfathomable to summarize or explain, so Hass just sits with it with us, aghast, stumped and sad, but also unwilling to leave us behind or be left alone with all that weight.
These poems confront mortality — or what Hass calls “Life in its exuberance rushing straight uphill toward death” — on almost every page. “Summer Snow” is rife with elegies. It’s something of a Who’s Who of great writers who have died in recent decades: fiction writers including Ellen Douglas and Ursula K. Le Guin (who was also a poet), and poets including Tomaz Salamun, Stanley Kunitz and especially Hass’s longtime friend, the Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, whose poems Hass helped translate.
Death is poet catnip: Mention it in a poem and suddenly everything is dramatic and important, which is one reason young poets pour death onto their poems like salt onto flavorless food — it ratchets up the stakes real quick. And not all poets grow up and out of this habit, even if they grow old. What I mean is that many poets never learn how to articulate death’s banality, one of the main subjects of “Summer Snow.”
The part of this book I keep coming back to, which won’t let go of me, is a group of six poems gathered under the header “Patches of Snow in July” that meditate on the experience of death at various life stages. With simple, descriptive titles like “Death in Infancy” and “Those Who Die in Their Twenties,” these pieces are stunned gasps of empathy, reaching far into other lives. “Almost as if one should not speak of it, / who has not, as a parent, had the shock of it. / Too late to tell them that life is a breath,” Hass writes of parents who have watched an infant die. Hass recalls meeting “a solemn and delicate little boy” who died in childhood who “had learned to look at things. / Also to treat information with great seriousness / … The hole in his heart was not what killed him; / it was the way that his lungs had to labor / because of the defect.” Of poets who die in middle age, he says, “All of them suddenly become the work / they managed to get done.” Yes, life is a breath, and what kills us is never actually what kills us, and the fabric of our days dissolves, leaving only paltry lists of achievements.
Of course I had no idea what Hass was talking about when I was 20, no idea that he had anything to offer me. But he does now, and when I return to this book in 20 years, or in 40 if I’m so lucky, it will still be waiting for me, with something new to say.