Robert Hass: January 24, 2011

Report by Engram Wilkinson:

Before he took the stage at Dixon Auditorium last night, Professor and English Department Chair Molly Rothenberg said, “Robert Hass is appropriate for our region.” Referring to the recent oil spill, Rothenberg welcomed the former Poet Laureate and environmental activist to Tulane.

Professor Peter Cooley praised Hass’ poetry for its “sensual qualities and political engagements.” Before reading selections of his own work, bespectacled Hass told the audience that, as a medium, “poetry can do anything.” His first poem was “Iowa, January,” a selection from his book Time and Materials. On the short poem he said: “sometimes all you want to do is capture a moment.” Hass peppered his reading with short anecdotes, recalling his friendship with Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose work Hass himself has translated into English. Discussing his own poetry in the context of Milosz and Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, Hass said the poet’s task is to “capture lightning in a bottle.”

Hass told personal stories as well, recounting his job of writing a poem on the state of the planet for Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s fiftieth anniversary. “State of the Planet” is a poem that juggles and unifies many elements—a schoolgirl walking in the rain, the speaker’s conversation with long-dead Roman poet Lucretius, and the luminescent properties of jellyfish, to name a few—and, at one of the readings most intense moments, proclaimed:

It must be a gift of evolution that humans

Can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up

From our knees if we could.

Following “State of the Planet” Hass read a four-part poem entitled, “August Notebook: A Death.” “I like to keep journals of poetry and ideas for each month of the year,” said Hass. He concluded the reading with a poem about the California coastline—“an elegy, of sorts,” he said—which began:

Late afternoon in June the fog rides in

across the ridge of pines, ghosting them,

and settling on the bay to give a muted gray

luster to the last hours of light and take back

what we didn’t know at midday we’d experience

as lack…

After the reading Hass took questions from the audience. In response to a question about his own writing process and experiences as a poet, Hass echoed his earlier statement to students in Professor Cooley’s advanced poetry workshop by saying: “I work a little everyday—to do “work,” properly speaking. I like to show the Muse I’m showing up. But really, I’d like to become a better reader.” “To make art,” Hass said, addressing another student, “you’ve got to be dedicated to it.”

Robert Hass served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. He was awarded the Yale Younger Series of Poets Award for Field Guide in 1972, the William Carlos Williams Award for Praise in 1979, and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2008 for his collection Time and Materials. Hass has translated the works of Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Japanese haikus in his book The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. His other awards include the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is the Distinguished Chair of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Berkeley.

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