Robert Hass, Human Wishes

A very good student of mine loaned me Robert Hass's poetry collection Human Wishes a while ago, after she'd written a paper offering an ecocritical reading of "On Squaw Peak." A good paper, though I didn't know Hass well enough - and still don't - to say how well her paper would fit into the scholarship, were it to be polished, lengthened, focused, and published. Still, it tempted me to read some Hass, and bless her for the subsequent purchase and loan of the volume "On Squaw Peak" was from!

I think of myself as a poetry fan, but there's a lot I don't get about contemporary poetry. (By which term, of course, I mean anything written since roughly 1797.) That's true about Hass, to some extent - the poems in this book tend to start one place, with or without an obvious link to the title, and wander off somewhere very different indeed. The end point is meant to reflect back on the starting point, and I assume that we're meant to see in the poem's development (a) a mirror of our own developing understanding of the poem and (b) a map of Hass's coming to terms with the kernel that prompted the poem. Sometimes it works really well, as it does in "On Squaw Peak," but sometimes it's less successful, to my eyes.

I enjoyed "Paschal Lamb" very much, and "Spring Rain," but "Spring Drawing 2" and "The Apple Trees at Olema" - not so much. How on earth do we get from a textured, dense evocation of aged apple trees, to a young boy walking hotel hallways, clutching his room key and hence feeling safe? I know, I know, there's a solid reason for it (we don't know as much as we think we do, maybe, or we're not as safe as we think we are, or something), I don't think it's random, but ... for me, it only works some of the time. Great stuff when it works, though.

It needs to be said, as well, that Robert Hass teaches a seriously interesting environmental studies course that addresses literature. Oh to be in Berkeley, now that fall is (almost) here....


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