On Robert Hass’s “Measure”

by Thomas Sayers Ellis
I discovered “Measure” while I was learning to write poems, and I immediately liked the lonely meaning and the lonely breathing of the title. I liked saying it slow, uttering its notes, so that the vowels (locked between governing consonants) would either take more root or run.

The first line of the poem, “Recurrences,” another patient, one-word performance, seems settled at the bottom of the white space between the title and text, making the silence at the end of the line (giving landlessness to the line break) both abstract and very real, an experience. The air surrounding the title and the first word, to quote Gertrude Stein, are “perfectly solid.”

The first line is the first meeting place in the poem between the blind reader and the seeing-eye writer. A good poem, like a film, needs an opening shot, an establishment of trust. Thus Hass begins with a description and an action of the light (“Coppery light hesitates / again in the small-leaved / Japanese plum.”), structurally brushstroking and tracing its interaction with the natural objects in his writing space, a space that has as its purpose and personal weather, the scope of and attempt at peace during a turbulent time in American history, “roughly between 1967 and 1972,” which Hass keeps outside the frame of the poem.

This patient, disguised cine-poem then tracks the light to a subtle confessional moment (“Last light / rims the blue mountain / and I almost glimpse / what I was born to,”) when, within the poet, an activism takes root. The gift of the poem is not the light, which Hass gets right and makes (as painters do) essential to the structural behavior of the poem and the theme of peace, but the acceptance and discovery of the natural rhythmic order within all nature. This poem sculpts its rhythm “as in the pulse / that forms these lines” and creates a how-to guide on transforming sentences into lines and breathing into varied measurements, so that the motion of meaning within each stanza is its own little respiratory system of language and attention.

Coppery light hesitates
again in the small-leaved

Japanese plum. Summer
and sunset, the peace
of the writing desk

and the habitual peace
of writing, these things
form an order I only

belong to in the idleness
of attention. Last light
rims the blue mountain

and I almost glimpse
what I was born to,
not so much in the sunlight

or the plum tree
as in the pulse
that forms these lines.

Robert Hass, “Measure” from Field Guide. Copyright 1973 by Robert Hass. Reprinted with the permission of Yale University Press,
Originally Published: October 12, 2006


On February 26, 2007 at 11:05am Karen wrote:
"Measure" has the natural essence and purity of a Haiku. I'd like to go back and taste it again.

On July 31, 2007 at 10:51am Bhavya Handa wrote:
it is vry good poem with good words and very big

On September 28, 2007 at 2:32am HAMLET wrote:

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 Thomas Sayers Ellis


Thomas Sayers Ellis is the author of The Maverick Room (Graywolf, 2005) and a chaplet, Song On (WinteRed Press, 2005) and his interview with Bootsy Collins appears in Waxpoetics #18. He lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and in the Lesley University low-residency Creative Writing Program.

In April 2014, Thomas Sayers Ellis was a featured writer for Harriet.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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