When Poetry Meets Politics

What a new Pulitzer Prize winner tells us about age and public writing.

Robert Hass’ Time and Materials received a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for poetry on April 7, making it the first poetry book since 1983 to receive both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. As part of Slate’s Book Blitz last fall, Nathan Heller explained how Time and Materials marked a sea change in Hass’ approach to political poetry and a turning point in his career.

Time and Materials, Robert Hass’ fifth collection of poems, is a book about hitting the cold water of late middle age, but the story it tells is not so much of decline as of reinvention. Hass is in the front lines of a baby-boom generation coming to terms with its past. He was born in San Francisco a few months before the Pearl Harbor bombing and came of age in a cultural landscape overshadowed by Beats, hippies, and the Vietnam War. He got interested in Eastern thought, got subpoenaed as an SDS adviser in Buffalo, returned to California in time for the first tech boom, and eventually taught at Berkeley. The zeitgeist stuck with him like an Al Capp rain cloud even through his 50s: In 1995, Hass—whose poetry features proud regionalism and plainspoken eloquence, not to mention a strong tropism toward sex—became poet laureate during the Clinton administration.


Yet until this new collection, Hass the poet has shied from tackling public issues head-on. His past four volumes (the first, Field Guide, won the 1973 Yale Younger Poets competition; the last, Sun Under Wood, earned him his second National Book Critics Circle Award) focus on the natural world, his private experiences, and the people and places he knows best. His genius lies in capturing not a situation but a consciousness of the situation. That shared consciousness is Hass’ bridge to his readers, creating an intimate voice that feels open and unguarded—even when it’s not. (Sex aside, Hass’ work has a demure, sometimes evasive strain: He’d been publishing for 30 years or so before readers learned about his mother’s debilitating alcoholism.) It also imbues Hass’ life with a sense of familiarity, if not an outright pang of recognition. From the early poem “Spring”:


We bought great ornamental oranges,

Mexican cookies, a fragrant yellow tea.

Browsed the bookstores. You

asked mildly, “Bob, who is Ugo Betti?”

A bearded bird-like man

(he looked like a Russian priest

with imperial bearing

and a black ransacked raincoat)

turned to us, cleared

his cultural throat, and

told us both interminably

who Ugo Betti was. The slow

filtering of sun through windows

glazed to gold the silky hair

along your arms. …


These are not particularly fresh images: The tea is fragrant, the bookstore pedant has a beard, the afternoon light is gold. Hass, a student of the haiku masters, doesn’t strain over description. His skill lies in the pacing of thought and images, which mimics the way an afternoon like this settles into memory—down to that distracted glance at the window.


His decision to write in this subjective mode wasn’t purely aesthetic. Around the time “Spring” was composed, Hass said that writing “about myself and the world I knew, San Francisco and the country around it, in a fairly simple and direct way” was a response, in part, to Vietnam-era politics. “For a long time I felt a compulsion to direct myself to large issues,” he explained. But then public life intensified, and he decided that writing outside the maelstrom was wiser, “a way of being human in a monstrously inhuman world, and that feeling human was a useful form of political subversion.” In life, he remained an active liberal, and he mentions protest experiences in a few poems and essays. The descriptions are always uncomfortable, though. Hass in a napalm-plant picket is like a Puritan at a petting party: “Now the wind off the bay bullets your large cardboard sign. … Pathetic, really, and holding it among the other signs … you feel sheepish between gusts of affection for this ragtag army of an aroused middle class.”


Why wouldn’t Hass commit to political causes in his writing? The answer helps illuminate the poet’s vexed, often distrustful attitude toward language—and what he’s up to in the new book. Hass has described his overarching subject as the “immediate world,” by which he seems to mean everything that needs no principles or justification to exist: landscape, memory, the natural order, love, physical desire. Theory and ideology, meanwhile, generally stir his impatience. Language tendentious enough to make persuasive arguments can’t report human experience with precision and fidelity, as the poet must. Or, as Hass put it in a 1998 preface to Field Guide, “Orchestrated public violence of the kind that sends people off to war, off to die for a cause, needs to have a terrifyingly loose grip on language. The California landscape … was a place for me where language did not belong altogether to desire, to human intention.”


So it’s surprising that Hass’ new collection, his first since stepping down as laureate, makes poetry and politics bedfellows. Time and Materials has the look of a catchall, mixing occasional pieces, imitations, translations, and the long narrative poems that are Hass’ tours de force. And while the book is, overall, unmistakably Hassian—aging Berkeleyites come to life in rocky West Coast landscapes and an erotic imagination of impressive stamina—its author is also readjusting his approach to language and poetic responsibility. Not only are there explicit anti-war poems of the sort he’s disavowed; Hass seems to stray, at times, from his commitment to immediacy.


Apologies for verbal and moral impotence abound, as do portraits of time as a destructive force, a multiplier of errors. One poem laments the boomers’ legacy as a messy disappointment. (“[T]hat small frown,” the narrator worries of a passing Berkeley student, “might be her parents’ lives.”) Several titles—”Envy of Other People’s Poems,” “Terror of Beginnings,” “The Problem of Describing Color,” “The Problem of Describing Trees,” and “Poet’s Work” (which is about how hard it is)—show a poet struggling to render something readers will find meaningful.


In one sense, this insecurity seems misplaced. Hass’ best efforts in Time and Materials are as lithe and surprising as anything he’s written. A perfectly pitched daydream of a poem called “Art and Life” explores how art can be timeless when it reifies fleeting experience. “After the Winds,” a bittersweet portrait of Hass’ unmoored generation, ends by brushing aside religious dogma for a grasp on the immediate: “For Magdalen, of course, the resurrection didn’t mean/ She’d got him back. It meant she’d lost him in another way./ It was the voice she loved, the body, not the god … ” In another sense, though, Hass’ diffidence is apt. Time and Materials contains explicit statements on public issues, throwing him into uncertain new territory. It also brings him face-to-face with his decisions as a younger writer. Given the disastrous new war under way, should he still keep language free from political argument?


The poet seems to think not. Four anti-war poems, in forms ranging from free verse to haibun, fall like bombshells near the end of the new book. Other pieces take up related political causes, like the human casualties of global finance. “Bush’s War,” a long meditation on innocence lost to violence, shows him learning to write in a new, polemical mode:

I typed the brief phrase, “Bush’s War,”

At the top of a sheet of white paper,

Having some dim intuition of a poem

Made luminous by reason that would,

Though I did not have them at hand,

Set the facts out in an orderly way.

Hass still appears skeptical of poetry like this. He admits to arguing from facts he doesn’t possess. And his avidity for the light of “reason” flickers with sarcasm. This is loose language, but he gives it his best shot:


The rest of us have to act like we believe

The dead women in the rubble of Baghdad

Who did not cast a vote for their deaths

Or the raw white of the exposed bones

In the bodies of their men or their children

Are being given the gift of freedom

Which is the virtue of the injured us.

It’s hard to say which is worse, the moral

Sloth of it or the intellectual disgrace.


Someone who lectures about democratic abuses, moral sloth, and “intellectual disgrace” has left the immediate world for a place where language sets rules and makes arguments. Hass may wish he’d done so sooner. Together, “Bush’s War” and its peers give more attention to World War II, Vietnam, and the Korean War than to Iraq. This broad chronology matches the poems’ style—fast-paced and disjunctive, lurching from horrific moment to horrific moment with little pause where consciousness can set itself. As “Bush’s War” reels from Nazi death camps to Sept. 11 to Iraq, Hass laments “a taste for power/ That amounts to contempt for the body.” In the end, he isn’t fighting hawkish politics or the immorality of violence. He’s fighting a mentality that holds his project—honoring subjectivity, physicality, directness—in disdain.


Hass’ poetic confidence may be tempered, and his political ire roused, but his priorities haven’t actually changed. Loosening his language and jumping into the rhetorical ring is a new way of defending old territory. There’s directness, after all, in acknowledging one’s political stance. And a portrait of consciousness in the world can hardly be complete, or honest, if it fails to show a mind wrestling with “large issues.” Hass has been negotiating a standard of public candor ever since he started writing. And while Time and Materials acknowledges forces stronger than poetry, forces that can be engaged only on their own terms, he hasn’t stopped struggling to stay true to his audience and himself. It’s an example the leaders of this country might learn from.