Michael Robbins’s review of Robert Hass’s The Apple Trees at Olema was depressing reading. It isn’t that Robbins’s judgments are entirely wrong—there are some bad poems in Hass’s collection to be sure—but Robbins’s criticisms are reductive, unsubstantiated, and worst of all dismissive not only of Hass, but of what Robbins terms “middlebrow” readers of poetry.
Does Hass’s life work truly “answer to a silly notion of poety as a striving toward purity?” (And why is this notion “silly”?) Robbins accuses Hass of “dewy piety” and then, pointlessly, takes the phrase “hating the cunt” to demonstrate—what, exactly? That Hass is “tone-deaf” and “pseudo-profound.” The snippet of concocted evidence hardly bears the weight of the charge.
A paragraph later, after a gratuitous swipe at three popular poets and the fools who “believe Galway Kinnell’s ‘The Bear’ was a good poem,” Robbins makes the absurd claim that Hass “has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.” Ordinary readers like poetry for all kinds of reasons—some of those reasons are not all that sophisticated and some are profound. And even if, like Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, Robert Hass provides an ordinary Joe with poetic enjoyment for no good reason at all, so what?
And this, I think, more than Robbins’s assertion that Hass’s reputation is disproportionate to his “uneven powers,” is part of the reason why “Americans don’t read more poetry.” Many within the large but strangely hermetic profession of producing poems (and yet more poets) want to have it both ways. They want readers but despise the idea of being popular. Being a popular poet does not, of course, make one a good poet; but the idea that a poet is popular because he flatters some imagined sensibility displays a misunderstanding of what poetry means to those of us outside the gates.
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