Prose from Poetry Magazine

Are You Smeared with the Juice of Cherries?

Uneven pleasures in the work of Robert Hass.

by Michael Robbins

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

The first line of Robert Hass’s first collection, Field Guide, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973, is “I won’t say much for the sea.” This offhand repurposing of idiom, funny and insightful, is characteristic of his poems—of course he goes on to say a million things for and about the sea. Field Guide was acclaimed, as each succeeding book would be, for Hass’s facility in translating into poems what is ridiculously referred to as the “natural world.” In the first three poems alone, we find: steelhead, mushrooms, apricots, gulls, sea cucumbers, slugs, a walnut tree, ironwood, waxwings, pyracantha, cliffs, bluffs, artichokes, a salt creek, owl’s clover, lupine, berries, hawthorns, laurels, “clams, abalones, cockles, chitons, crabs,” salmon, swamp grass, and a skunk. The preoccupation with nonhuman life is inextricable from a compulsive onomamania: “Earth-wet, slithery, / we drifted toward the names of things”; “I recite the hard/explosive names of birds: / egret, killdeer, bittern, tern.” This impulse is explained, sort of, in “Maps”:

Of all the laws
that bind us to the past
the names of things are

When Hass’s pintails and blue-winged teals are lined up in a row, the deftness of his observations almost rivals that of the haiku masters he has so memorably translated: in a restaurant’s tank, “coppery lobsters scuttling over lobsters.” But as the above verse suggests, Hass is also given to pedantic soothsaying, telling the reader how it is in tones that suggest he is just slightly winded from having jogged down the slopes of Parnassus. The poetry takes on the tenor of the lecture hall, the quality of prose statement: Of all the laws that bind us to the past, the names of things are stubbornest. Is this true? Is it even meaningful?

This register contributes to the dewy piety that makes it impossible to read many Hass poems with a straight face. The metaphor “jump the shark” has itself long since jumped the shark, but in its spirit I’d like to propose a new phrase to describe the moment when a poem goes hilariously off the rails. This phrase is “hating the cunt,” and I take it from Field Guide’s “In Weather”:

Then the heavy cock wields,
rises, spits seed
at random and the man
shrieks, homeless
and perfected in the empty dark.
His god is a thrust of infinite desire
beyond the tame musk
of companionable holes.
It descends to women occasionally
with contempt and languid tenderness.
I tried to hate my wife’s cunt,
the sweet place where I rooted

When discussing a poem in which the poet is so enamored of himself and his sincerity that he is rendered quite tone-deaf to the comic pseudo-profundity of his lines, one might say something like, “The third stanza really hates the cunt.” In the next section of the same poem, Hass is lying in bed listening to the mating cries of owls:

Slowly at first, I
made a solemn face
and tried the almost human wail
of owls, ecstatic
in the winter trees, twoo, twoo.
I drew long breaths.
My wife stirred in our bed.
Joy seized me.

So let’s see: you’re already trying to hate your wife’s, er, companionable hole, now she has to put up with you making owl noises in the middle of the night? Let the woman sleep!

Like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Sharon Olds—in their different ways—Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery. Unlike those poets, Hass has real talent. The Apple Trees at Olema is a frustrating blend of banality and brilliance. The second volume, Praise, now reads as a primer in late-seventies period style, the kind of laid-back beach koans that led people to believe Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear” was a good poem. There are more berries, more naming of flowers, more embarrassingly tin-eared warbling in the demotic:

It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman
he fucks in the ass underneath the stars
because it is summer and they are full of longing
and sick of birth. They burn coolly
like phosphorous, and the thing need be done
only once.
     —From “Against Botticelli”

Does ass fucking really require such a high-minded justification? Upon being told someone is fucking someone else in the ass, has anyone ever responded, “What! Why?” I regret to inform the reader that Hass goes on to compare this sex act to the sacking of Troy.

Hass’s most famous poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” also succumbs to his fatal need to elevate everything to the phosphorescent plane of longing. It begins vividly by tweaking a worn catchphrase into literality:

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light.

Here, the poet is arguing against the deadening tendency to force ordinary particulars into luminosity. A woodpecker is allowed to be a woodpecker, and those who would derive allegory from its presence are seduced by intellectual fashion. Within a few lines, Hass is remembering “a woman / I made love to”: “I felt a violent wonder at her presence / like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river / with its island willows.” He’s savvy, he knows that “It hardly had to do with her.” But by the end of the poem, which everyone knows—“Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, / saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”—you begin to realize that Hass’s particulars are often subsumed into the general because he thinks that merely intoning the names of things can replace the hard work of description. A brief poem in Field Guide ends:

Cat sleeps in the windowgleam,
                     dust motes.
        On the oak table
   filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
slices of green pepper
        on a bone-white dish.
     —From “Song”

This isn’t poetry, it’s a list of stuff in Hass’s kitchen. If Jack Spicer’s perfect poem had an infinitely small vocabulary, Hass’s contains only the words “ripe blackberries.” (This is, in fact, the entirety of the twelfth section of “The Beginning of September.”)

But although the preciousness remains an irritant—“the floribunda are / heavy with the richness and sadness of Europe”—in the three books that follow Praise Hass is often charmingly aware of, and thus able to subvert, his own windy inclinations. The title poem of Human Wishes (1989) begins:

This morning the sun rose over the garden wall and a rare blue sky leaped from east to west. Man is altogether desire, say the Upanishads. Worth anything, a blue sky, says Mr. Acker, the Shelford gardener. Not altogether. In the end. Last night on television the ethnologist and the cameraman watched with hushed wonder while the chimpanzee carefully stripped a willow branch and inserted it into the anthill. He desired red ants. When they crawled slowly up the branch, he ate them, pinched between long fingers as the zoom lens enlarged his face. Sometimes he stopped to examine one, as if he were a judge at an ant beauty contest or God puzzled suddenly by the idea of suffering. There was an empty place in the universe where that branch wasn’t and the chimp filled it, as Earlene, finding no back on an old Welsh cupboard she had bought in Saffron Walden, imagined one there and imagined both the cupboard and the imagined back against a kitchen wall in Berkeley, and went into town looking for a few boards of eighteenth-century tongue-and-groove pine to fill that empty space.

The first sentence is not promising, but what follows is terrific, in part because the gardener’s platitude deftly exposes the hollowness of the opening. The poet’s aside—“Not altogether”—responds to the Upanishads but also to Mr. Acker’s bland assertion, and that puffery about “a rare blue sky” is deflated by association. Hass has jumped a few levels of the game. The bit about the nature program is just as astute: not “there was an ethnologist” or “we saw a show where an ethnologist.” The definite articles produce an immediacy that is reinforced by the lack of framing. There is always an ethnologist on television somewhere, watching a chimp.

Human Wishes’s prose poems inaugurated a genial talkiness that also enlivens the best work in Sun Under Wood (1996) and Time and Materials (2007). The poems in these later collections are often anecdotal, playful even when politically outraged, skillfully polished in order to appear offhand, attentive to their own processes. Hass has an engaging way of seeming to switch tracks, often by tossing in a seemingly random historical factoid:

asked me yesterday: are deer monogamous? I thought of something I
had read. When deer in the British Isles were forced to live in the open
because of heavy foresting, it stunted them. The red deer who lived
in the Scottish highlands a thousand years ago were a third larger than
the present animal.
     —From “Churchyard”

Hass is at his best when, as here, he is at his most casual. “The Miwoks called it Moon of the Only Credit Card” is not a line that would have occurred to the young man who wrote Field Guide. He cultivates a sense of having jotted down something that flitted through his thoughts, without ever straining after the unconvincing illusion of stream-of-consciousness. A poem in Time and Materials ends by musing of Whitman, “He was in love with a trolley conductor/In the summer of—what was it?—1867? 1868?” Another begins:

i am your waiter tonight and my name is dmitri

Is, more or less, the title of a poem by John Ashbery and has
No investment in the fact that you can get an adolescent
Of the human species to do almost anything
Which is why they are tromping down a road in Fallujah
In combat gear and a hundred and fifteen degrees of heat
This morning and why a young woman is strapping
Twenty pounds of explosives to her mortal body in Jerusalem.

Hass is both funny and furious here (also unfair to Ashbery’s delightful “My Name Is Dimitri,” which, by the way, is spelled by Ashbery with three i’s), but did we really need the Horatian tagline that follows? (Take a guess.)

At times this didacticism becomes preachy, and Hass sounds like Bono lecturing the un:

                                                                      In the first twenty years
of the twentieth century 90 percent of war deaths were the deaths of
combatants. In the last twenty years of the twentieth century 90 percent
of war deaths were deaths of civilians. There are imaginable responses
to these facts. The nations of the world could stop setting an example
for suicide bombers. They could abolish the use of land mines. They
could abolish the use of aerial bombardment in warfare. You would
think men would relent.
     —From “A Poem”

We appreciate your input, Professor Hass. We will take it under advisement.

There are many pleasures to be found in these pages. And there is a great deal of affected flummery. Even in the new poems he is saying things like “Are you smeared with the juice of cherries?” Hass has for years enjoyed a reputation that is disproportionate to his admirable but uneven powers, probably because his work answers to a silly notion of poetry as a striving toward purity. People are always wondering why Americans don’t read more poetry. It’s not a question that occurred to me once while reading this book.

Originally Published: September 1, 2010


On September 4, 2010 at 2:58am Christopher Crawford wrote:
A brilliantly funny piece of writing. When I read something like this, which strips away the guilt I feel for not admiring the things I'm supposed to admire, it's like I just put down a tractor I was carrying.

On September 8, 2010 at 8:52pm Jim Finnegan wrote:
No 'natural world' to write about? The reviewer needs to get out more. (Buy a hat to protect that pate.)

On September 9, 2010 at 10:19pm Norman Minnick wrote:
If Sharon Olds has no real talent and Kinnell's "The Bear" isn't a good poem I don't know that I want to find out what Mr. Robbins considers a good poem or who he believes has real talent.

On September 14, 2010 at 11:52am MR wrote:
Mr. Finnegan misses the point. The human
world (the built environment) is, obviously,
no less "natural" than forests or mountains.
Or does he believe we are supernatural

Mr. Minnick is welcome to his prejudices.

On September 14, 2010 at 3:07pm stevenfama wrote:

Good for Michael Robbins for expressing his views, vividly. I'm not going to comment on each part of it, or the general take on the poetry of Robert Hass -- that'd be too much for a silly little comment like this. But will say the sentence or so here that takes Hass to task about "the list of stuff in his kitchen' not being poetry rubs me the wrong way. List-poems, as I'm sure Robbins knows, are plenty fine as poetry, often enough, and observations of the prosaic are plenty well used, very well used, in plenty of objectivist / objectivist type poems, to tremendous poetic purposes. I could parse out the Hass lines about the fish and peppers, and show some poetry in the actual words as well, and suggest too that the dust mote part of that echoes a Robert Duncan line. But again, this is but a sally forth in a silly comment box, so I'll resist. Still, I insist that particular Robbins' assertion is chap, and unpersuasive.

On September 16, 2010 at 1:51am Luke Hankins wrote:

I agree with Steven Fama's comment about Robbins' serious misstep in flippantly dismissing Hass' list as non- poetry. It's quite ironic, in fact, that Robbins has in the very preceding sentence pined for "the hard work of description." Well, what does Robbins think "description" is? Hass' "list" is, in fact, a damn fine example of description. How can we fail to notice the arrangement of objects and colors (the brown of the oak, the white sole stewing in tangerine juice of palest orange, the shock of green peppers against the white plate)? How can we fail to notice the tangible pleasure of pronouncing the particular words of Hass' "list" in their particular order? What's more, Robbins utterly misreads "Meditation at Lagunitas." For the sake of space, I'll just point out that Hass is not "arguing" anything in the lines Robbins cites. The speaker is describing (there's that phenomenon again!) what he has just called "the new thinking." What the speaker of the poem thinks about "the new thinking," however, is far from clear at this point in the poem -- and, as it becomes clearer, the speaker's view is, if anything, in opposition to this "new thinking." You could sum up the poet's view by reversing "the new thinking" -- the "luminous clarity" is not to be found in a "general idea" at all, but in "each particular." Thus, "blackberry, blackberry, blackberry."

On September 16, 2010 at 2:11pm MR wrote:

Oh, man, Luke. Thanks for clarifying what was already completely clear in my review: OF COURSE Hass is opposed to "the new thinking," as my review explicitly argues: >>Here, the poet is arguing against the deadening tendency to force ordinary particulars into luminosity. A woodpecker is allowed to be a woodpecker, and those who would derive allegory from its presence are seduced by intellectual fashion. That is, seduced by the "new thinking." Do you not understand that the opening is meant to be funny? That "All the new thinking is about ..." is a cliché that Hass is playing off? Wow. I have nothing against list poems. I have something against LAZY list poems that don't actually do any poetic work. Description? That's not description, man. Cf. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, stat.

On September 16, 2010 at 4:07pm Luke Hankins wrote:

Of course I understand that the opening is meant to be humorous -- or perhaps sly or playful are better words. But you misunderstand my comment. Your proposition is, in my opinion, based on a misreading of what the poet (or speaker) is "arguing." You say "the poet is arguing against the deadening tendency to force ordinary particulars into luminosity. A woodpecker is allowed to be a woodpecker, and those who would derive allegory from its presence are seduced by intellectual fashion" -- and then in your response to my comment above you indicate that you see all that as "the new thinking." My point is that you're misreading Hass' very idea of what constitutes "the new thinking." It is, in fact, almost opposite to your reading -- I believe the poem proposes that "the new thinking" is about the impossibility and powerlessness of language and allegory (rather than the POSSIBILITY, which you describe as the idea of "the new thinking"), which Hass describes (without advocating). The way the poem ends indicates the opposition to that view of language and allegory. Hass is describing the experiential power of language that "the new thinking" does not do credit to. (I still also disagree with you about the issue of "description," but won't get into that at this point.)

On September 16, 2010 at 4:34pm Luke Hankins wrote:

I think I should try to state this more simply and clearly: We both agree that the poem "argues" against "the new thinking." However, you see Hass as advocating the view described in lines 3- 11 of the poem, and, therefore, you must see those ideas as oppositional to "the new thinking." Whereas I propose that those lines are a description of "the new thinking" itself -- they embody it rather than "argue against it" -- and the poem has not yet taken a stance regarding those issues. So, if lines 3-11 embody "the new thinking," the end of the poem opposes those ideas. I hope it's clear how these two views of the poem produce almost opposite readings of the poem's propositions. It's no secret, of course, which reading I think it more accurate...

On September 16, 2010 at 11:25pm Steven Fama wrote:
Look, the cheap stunt nature of Michael Robbins' rip on Hass' "list of stuff in [the] kitchen" is plainly shown by the fact that he doesn't bother to discuss, or even mention, the context in which the lines appear.

The lines in "Song" that precede those quoted by Robbins do, I believe, provide balance, or ballast. It ain't like those lines just come out of nowhere.

Go find the Hass poem folks, and read it, see what you think.

Like I already wrote, this review is lively, vivid. But this particular rip is a cheap stunt, and misses the mark.

On September 17, 2010 at 5:16pm Larry Bole wrote:
Mr. Robbins rightly points out some of the failings in Mr. Hass' poetry. There are times when Mr. Hass' reach does indeed exceed his grasp. But at least he is trying to say something meaningful. I prefer that attempt in poetry, even if it's a failed attempt, than a jejune poetry full of "useless empty phrases," as seems to me so stylistically prevalent today.

On September 18, 2010 at 12:41pm stevenfama wrote:

Think about Robbins' "This isn't poetry, it's a list of stuff in [his] kitchen" body-slam in this way: After reading W.C.Williams' "Between Walls," would Robbins write, "That ain't poetry, that's just a bunch of stuff he saw on the ground after work!" Or after reading any number of Reznikoff poems, would he rip them by saying, "That ain't poetry, that's just something he saw riding the subway!" I'd enjoy asking Robbins about these, and hundreds of similar examples. To take him through such poems and line-sets, one at a time, for days on end. To thus find out where, if at all, he draws the line in his "this isn't poetry" condemning of descriptive observation.

On September 20, 2010 at 1:16pm Luke Hankins wrote:
@Steve Fama: Agreed. Or what about
entire Eastern traditions of pared-down
description with minimal, if any,
commentary? The purpose is to evoke
rather than to explain, which is, perhaps,
actually the PUREST form of description!
(See Robbins' stated desire for "the hard
work of description.")

On September 20, 2010 at 6:09pm MR wrote:
Geez! You two must be lonely. Here you
go: absolutely, "Between walls" is poetry,
so are "any number of Reznikoff poems,"
so are "entire Eastern traditions"! OK? But
UNLIKE THOSE, the Hass lines are
COMPLETELY dead on arrival. You disagree.
Hey, guess what? I get that! Message
received! BUT, here's the kicker, SO
WHAT? You've made yr point a long time
ago & now you're repeating yrselves.
That's not poetry, it's clamoring for
attention in comment fields. Now good

On September 29, 2010 at 12:43pm stevenfama wrote:
Michael Robbins,

I ain't lonely, nor do I care about attention in comment fields. I just like poetry.

Your answer above is appreciated, but doesn't convince: blanket assertions that certain lines are poetry, but others not, doesn't allow me to understand your reasoning.

And you're welcome, which I say because I take your reply as a thank you, from you to me, for my interest in what you wrote.

On October 5, 2010 at 2:08pm MR wrote:
Take it however you want.

On October 5, 2010 at 4:59pm Drew Krewer wrote:
Thank you, MR. This made my day. It also reminds me that I need to dispose of the smearworthy and ancient leakage of the drupes in my fridge.

On October 6, 2010 at 2:06pm MR wrote:
Ha! Glad you liked it, thanks, Drew.

On November 16, 2010 at 8:04am Diane Powell wrote:

I like his work. However, I was surprised by the part about anal sex and mentioning it as a form of birth-control? That kind of sounds like something a horny teenager would tell his girlfriend. You know, like the old saying that you can't get pregnant the first time you do it, or you can't get pregnant if you do it while you're standing on your head. Don't try this at home kids. Stick with heavy petting. I think I'm dating myself. I'm just getting silly. I don't see what Kinnell's poem has to do with Hass' work. I have read your other reviews and I really don't think you're being fair. All of the poets that you mentioned have little in common with one another. You don't seem to like very windy poems, pastoral poems, confessional poems, erudite poems, or witty poems. I do think that they all use strong imagery in their work and I think you may favor abstract word play. It's just a fad and it won't last. I remember the awful review you gave of Ruth Stone's book last year. At one point, you questioned her description of a horse as if it were made up and she had never seen one before. Of course, she had been around horses in her younger days, when they were still the main mode of transportation in many areas. She was never tenured, and always ran into guys like you who were determined to tear her down. She refused to play the po-biz games and dedicated herself to her poetry. You could learn a lot from her. I love the imagery and narrative pull of her poems. I know that you will just reply that you are sticking by what you have written, but why should anyone care what your opinions are?

On November 24, 2010 at 6:54pm Bill Knott wrote:

"After reading W.C.Williams' "Between Walls," would Robbins write, "That ain't poetry, that's just a bunch of stuff he saw on the ground after work!" Or after reading any number of Reznikoff poems, would he rip them by saying, "That ain't poetry, that's just something he saw riding the subway!" Robbins gave you his answer to this; here's mine: that stuff used to be poetry and maybe it will be poetry again in the future, but for the present it isn't—

On November 24, 2010 at 10:09pm Bill Knott wrote:

"what about entire Eastern traditions of pared-down description with minimal, if any, commentary? The purpose is to evoke rather than to explain, which is, perhaps, actually the PUREST form of description!" —i assume he means haiku. On page xii of "The Poetry of Postwar Japan" is a fascinating excerpt from Donald Keene's "Modern Japanese Poetry", where he summarizes an 1946 article by a professor of French literature, Kuwabara Takeo, which "assert[s] that the difference between a haiku composed by an acknowledged master and one by a bank clerk or a railway engineer was barely perceptible. Taking a hint from a method used by I.A. Richards in "Practical Criticism," [Kuwabara] asked a group of colleagues [fellow professors at Kyoto University] to evaluate various haiku, some by masters and some by dubs, first removing the names of the poets. The results were so chaotic that Kuwabara felt justified in his claim that most people judge haiku by the poet's reputation and not by the works themselves. . . ." —without Williams's name on it, that photo-verite squib oh look there's some pieces of colored glass lying broken there in the gravel is banal——

On November 29, 2010 at 2:09pm Jaquiline Edwards wrote:
Sadly, the fact that Mr. Robbins titled his
first book after a pop-culture cliche says all
I need to know about him: unoriginal. His
critique feels the same way, and I'm
amazed he's given the credit to even
appear in Poetry.

On December 4, 2010 at 1:43am James Castle wrote:
I am thankful for this article and the comments above. Michael Robbins makes a few acceptable arguments here. His attempt at criticism now has me reconsidering Robert Hass, whom I once immaturely dismissed outright as not worth reading. It also though has me considering Michael Robbins not worth reading, given his bad attitudes toward a) a poetry unlike his own and b) those commenting on his writing.

On December 5, 2010 at 12:03pm MR wrote:

Jaquilline, I am pleased to lose you as a reader. You would, I suppose, decline to read Rae Armantrout as well. I don't know if you've heard of repurposing idioms before but I assure you it's a common practice. For instance, the title of my book you are so sure is a pop- culture cliché (what the hell is wrong with pop culture, btw?): do you really suppose the words "alien" & "predator" have no resonance in our culture? Have you ever heard them used before outside the title of the movie? Hmm. I wonder if maybe sometimes a poet knows what he's doing when he uses language? Maybe he has employed a pop-culture reference to a purpose? I sort of hate to tell you this in yr innocence, but Robert Hass does it all the time.

On December 6, 2010 at 8:22pm MR wrote:

James, if you would be more careful in yr reading, you would realize that I read & praise almost nothing *but* poetry "unlike my own." You'd be hard pressed to find the work of Horace, Dante, Petrarch, Herbert, Dickinson, Williams, Oppen, Zukofsky, Pound, Montale, Rilke, Maureen McLane, Mary Ruefle—to name at random some of my favorite poets— very "like my own" in a meaningful sense. I'm afraid any dismissal of poetry "unlike my own" is in yr imagination, & is due entirely, I'd wager, to a very narrow conception of what it means to work as a critic, one entirely summed up in the oddly irrelevant kindergarten phrase "bad attitude." It's weird that a severe reading of Robert Hass & a few of his contemporaries might be extrapolated to support the inane contention that I do not have a "good attitude" toward poetry "unlike my own." Have you ever heard of any poet or critic, anywhere, who only liked or enjoyed or praised or loved only that limited set of poems that resembled his own in the superficial way you obviously intend here? No. Any such poet or critic would never be heard, for only a relatively omnivorous taste for poetry will serve. I can almost guarantee that my sense of what poetry is & can be is wider than yr own, if only because I have probably read more of it than you have. I don't say this in any sort of self-aggrandizing way. It's my goddamn job, & I love it.

On December 16, 2010 at 5:35pm George Yannopoulos wrote:
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Robbins doesn't approve of poetry unlike his own, but he does seem to be trying to position himself as the standard bearer for a certain Ashbery-influenced, pop-culture-obsessed, self-consciously nerdy and epigrammatic aesthetic. This may or may not help Robbins as a writer, but his criticism should be read in this light. (I don't pretend to have a view on whether Ashbery’s style is useful to other poets or whether, like Eliot’s, its influence will in the end be seen as pernicious.)

On February 5, 2011 at 9:32pm JLC wrote:
Thank you all for reminding me why I gave
up on the literary life. Hass' poems are
useful. This? Useless. Reading Hass has
changed my life. Reading this has wasted
my time. It's the snotty, critical academics
who write for no one but themselves (and
possibly one another) that made me decide
to quit the limp and vapid world of

On April 12, 2011 at 11:45pm Tien Tran wrote:
Are we still commenting? I think it's a brilliant piece - we need more spirited evaluative criticism like this. It's certainly refreshing. Bravo!

On May 25, 2011 at 12:27am b. alexander wrote:
I definitely enjoyed the article as well. "Hating the cunt" alone was reason enough to write this. What a weird phrase to try to use.

On June 30, 2011 at 11:25am Amy wrote:
While I appreciate the brave stance of Robbins (to
question our idols is always important), I return again
and again to Robert Hass's Twentieth Century Pleasures:
"instead of being an instrument to establish person,
tone has become an instrument to establish personality.
And the establishment of distinctions of personality by
peripheral means is just what consumer society is about.
Instead of real differences emanating from the life of
the spirit, we are offered specious symbols of it,
fantasies of our separateness by way of brands of
cigarettes, jogging shoes, exotic food. Once free verse
has become neutral, there must be an enormous impulse to
use it in this way, to establish tone rather than to
make form. Because it has no specific character, we
make character in it" (p. 71). Perhaps this is the new
"thinking"--that in the 21st century has resulted in
gobs (globs?) of flushable tone poems just for the sake
of clever (and often inscrutable) postures. I think a
re-reading of Hass's book of essays would better show us
the thought (and spirit) behind his poetry.

On January 11, 2014 at 9:18pm Brent Stauffer wrote:
While I have nothing of merit to add, and think the considered, calm reflections of the last post leave little room for improvement, in the interest of pure snarky goodness, I can't resist taking this cheap shot....

Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings,
Stinson, Sterling, Otis Redding.
Johnny Thunders and Joe Strummer,
Ronnie Dio, Donna Summer.

Randy Rhoads and Kurt Cobain,
Patsy Cline and Ronnie Lane.
Poly Styrene, Teena Marie.

I mean, list things much? Michael knows what I'm saying! Don't you, buddy?

On February 19, 2014 at 5:08pm HR wrote:
I think this is an unfair takedown that wasn't
particularly necessary or insightful enough to justify
its meaner assertions. Everyone is entitled to taste and
to preference, but few people are arrogant enough to
assume their benign dislike of a peer amounts to a
persecuted minority opinion desperate for expression.

I definitely agreed with the author about some of Hass'
early work, but to look at his entire body of work and
still say he's "made a career out of flattering
middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery" is
presuming an awful lot about the scope and scale of
Hass' readership. It's also either an indictment of the
author's classist prejudices, or else a thinly veiled
jealousy of a successful poet laureate couched in (dare
I say "cheap") intellectual trappings.

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2010


Audio Article Authors Discussion Guides
 Michael  Robbins


Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his critical work in Harper's, London Review of Books, The New York Observer, the Chicago Tribune, Spin, and several other publications. He is currently at work on a critical book, Equipment for Living (forthcoming from Simon & . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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