The Temptations of Art

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POETRY MAY 4, 2010

The Temptations of Art

The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems
by Robert Hass
Ecco, 368 pp., $34.99

It’s hard to know what to expect of great poets late in their careers. Will they mature or regress, innovate or self-imitate?  Allen Ginsberg kept the spirit of his youth but lost its mind. Wallace Stevens refined both, writing lines such as “We make a dwelling in the evening air/ In which being there together is enough,” with a mystic’s vision and a man’s doubt and a child’s stubborn wonder. Some older poets find different dreams to chase. A middle-aged T.S. Eliot wrote that “Old men ought to be explorers,” and he spent his old age writing about cats.

If it is worrisome when a poet seems to lose his touch, it is great fun when he plays on our worries. This is the rhetorical hustle with which Robert Hass begins his new book. Hass is nearly seventy, and The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems begins with a strange new poem, “July Notebook: The Birds,” whose title suggests laziness and a self-mimicry that is almost self-mockery. A month’s notes? The material for a poem, perhaps, but not a poem. And “The Birds”? Someone seen as a nature poet may as well call his poem “The Clichés.” We fear that Hass has stopped trying, and he validates our fears with these early, chatty lines:

In front of me six African men, each of them tall

and handsome, all of them impeccably tailored;

all six ordered Coca-Cola at dinner (Muslim,

it seems, a trade delegation? diplomats?);

the young American girl next to me

is a veterinary assistant from D.C…

The details seem arbitrary (“Coca-Cola”), the syntax is distractingly casual (“delegation? diplomats?”), and the one rhyme lacks reason, “next to me/ from D.C.,” ringing awkwardly with its repeated simple syllables. These notes hardly amount to poetry.

These lines disappoint, but those that follow them surprise:

There should be a phrase for this passenger tenderness,

the flickering perceptions like the whitecaps

later on the Neva, when the wind

off the Gulf of Finland, roughens the surface

of the river and spills the small petals

of white lilacs on the gray stone

of the embankment. Above it two black-faced gulls,

tilted in the air, cry out sharply, and sharply.

The painterly details are part of an auditory landscape. Near-rhymes mimic sensuous perceptions (“white lilacs”), rhythms mimic sensory leaps (“white lilacs on the gray stone”). The sound of “spills the small petals” mimics the severance the words describe, the s’s and l’s and p of “spills” and “small” scattered in “petals.” The “ar”s in “sharply, and sharply” sound like gulls’ cries. There should be no doubt that Hass still has, and still uses, an imagination that can move mountains into sounds.

If at first we feared that Hass had lost his stylistic powers, it was because his powerful style had caused our fear. This irony about his craftsmanship leads to one about his craft. Hass created his literary self with his style, but in this second passage the style distorts his thoughts. The artful passage is composed mostly of a long simile likening the scenic movement of wave and wind and stone to his thoughts about fellow travelers. But how could the intricate terrain be “like” his “flickering perceptions”? It isn’t: the simile contrasts where it would compare. This rhetorical boomerang is almost certainly not Hass’s mistake—he already fooled us once—so he suggests that the fault has to do with art rather than with his attempt to make art. His new poems often allude to The Tempest, that canonical meditation on renouncing the magic of creation. 

Other than loss of ability, what could incline Hass to give up his artful style or even artfulness itself? The two ironies raise this question, central to Apple Trees, whose new poems’ response is to explore art’s temptations, frustrations, and joys, especially as they concern “the poet at the outer edges of middle age,/with what comes after that visible before him,” to discard old styles, and to craft new ones out of their abandoned parts. The exacting, precise poems indict poetry as they defend it.

Hass’s new poems are full of old parts of his art. There are the familiar images of his native Northern California, insanely lucid and divinely visceral. Light is “touching everything,” like the energetic quintessence of a child; water is “wind-chivvied.” There are also reflections on the environment and politics, on small pleasures and immense pain, on meaningful relationships and meaning itself. There is the first-personal voice of Hass, whose reflective clarity and descriptive genius modeled a wise, free imaginative life for forty years. That modeling is the essence of Hass’s style, and it is what the new poems largely abandon. Not that Hass is any less wise or free; he just no longer tells us what he thinks and does with poems that venerate his fashioned self, with their pithy wit and epiphanies. His old poems are full of philosophical dicta and psychological excavations. They would end with his thinking or doing something about which a reader could say, yes, that is true, that is human flourishing. (A poem about grace and loss ends with a graceful apothegm about grief, “First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.” Another poem says “there is one desire/ touching the many things,” and another, “There are moments when the body is as numinous/ as words.”) The new poems leave out the model and frustrate our attempts to follow it. The poems give us imagination to reflect on rather than an imagination to live with.

If Hass’s new poems model anything, it is ways of thinking about art, as in the three notebook poems. They are allusive, elliptical, and associative, each concerned with a different set of imaginative tasks. The form is new for Hass, and although its name seems to imply a lack of effort, it actually implies a lack of closure. “Poem” is from the Greek “poïesis,” or “making,” and notebooks are for things that are not yet made. For instance, “August Notebook: A Death” shows Hass’s efforts to write about his brother’s death, starting with an early attempt:

I woke up thinking abouy my brothr’s body.

that q That was my first bit of early morning typing

so the first dignity, it turns out, is to get the spelling right.

It is tempting to retort that the first dignity is to not write bad poetry about him, but the source of this insensitive temptation is what the poem questions, that artful style would serve Hass better than a sort of anti-style. Proper spelling dignifies, but elegizing may create emotional distance. The poem ends,

               ... [I am] not through, I see, with the habit—

I thought this poem would end downriver downriver—

of worrying about where you are and how you’re doing.

Hass rejects a poetic image, of ashes floating away, the repetition of “downriver” like a mantra for him to accept the course of things and for them to be all right, its magic working on both subject and object. Instead he worries, and his irrational worries are a way for him not to say good-bye. But don’t we want emotional closure? What’s wrong with mantras of acceptance? The poem leaves us these questions, unanswered, whereas the Hass of old would have left us the mantra.

Hass’s ambivalence just makes the artful parts of “August Notebook” more beautiful. The frank casualness is where the elegant style comes from, the unsightly origins of a vision. The notebook’s second section, “Sudden and Grateful Memory of Mississippi John Hurt,” gives us that memory after a prosaic desultory mini-essay relating his brother’s body to burial customs, whose intra-ethnicity made mortuary work one of the only profitable career options for early-1900s black Southerners, Hass notes, before speculating about those rituals with their moonshine and their keening, like that of Mississippi John Hurt for Louis Collins,

And when they heard

that Louis was dead,

all the women dressed in red.

Angels laid him away.

After Hass’s diffuse intellectualizations about “symbolic forms of courtesy” and the like, the reader is as grateful as he is for Mississippi’s spare symbols. Hass then borrows from the blues:

You can fall a long way in sunlight.

You can fall a long way in the rain.

The ones who don’t take the old white horse

take the morning train.

It feels as if analyzing these lines could break them, in the way that confronting someone’s death could kill her.

The other new poems puzzle over art in other ways. “September Notebook: Stories” pieces together scraps of stories and of stories about stories, underlying which scraps are different reasons for storytelling. Longer story poems show how other people imagine their lives. Another poem mostly describes how dunes form, italicizing the poetry hidden in plain science, “wind shadow,” “slip face,” “surface of discontinuity,” and ending with a conventionally poetic gesture,

                                                This movement, this grand slow march

across the earth’s surface, has an external counterpart in the scouring

movement of glaciers,

                                      and an internal one in the movement of grief

which has something in it of the desert’s bareness

and of its distances.

We expect poetry to address our emotions, and Hass’s comparison meets our expectations only to complicate them. A familiar concern of his is how emotively to describe a landscape without projecting emotion onto it. He once responded with comic caution: “The aspen doing something in the wind”; and here he responds with poignant ambivalence. Grief, dramatic distance, the two are of course like each other. But it is not clear how the comparison coheres—are objects of grief far, unreachable, a mirage since they are actually lost? And what is an internal counterpart? But it is also not clear how to describe emotional distance as anything but, well, distance, hence the ambivalence.

Most of the new poems in Apple Trees reflect on Hass’s style by changing it, inverting expectations, complicating them, weighing style against anti-style, but one of the most formally familiar new poems is also one of the most striking reflections on his style. “The Bus to Baekdam Temple”:

The freeway tracks the Han River, which flows

west out of the mountains we are heading toward.

This morning it is river-colored, gray-green,

streaked with muddy gold, and swift. August,

an overcast morning after rain, the sky one shade

of pearl and the sheen of the roadside puddles

is so empty it seems to steady the world

like the posture of zealous young monks.

Bare puddles steady the varied world like young monks whose energy belies their outward serenity, who may or may not find inner peace, and whom a reflective older man imagines in the style with which he devoted his life trying to steady his suffering, wild world.

Adam Plunkett is a writer in New York City.

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