Letter from Poetry Magazine

Michael Robbins Responds

by Michael Robbins

If, as John Matthias prophesies, I, now in my late thirties, come to regret my review of Robert Hass, it will be because the letters it prompted are so incoherent. The matter is not as dire as all this. Robert Hass does many wonderful and admirable things; I acknowl- edged this. But he also does many things that are not only not good, they are embarrassingly precious and lame. Somebody, I thought, should say so.

Matthias wants us to believe that the lines I quoted from “Song” are worthy of Issa, to which the only kind response is that he should spend more time with Hass’s fine collection of haiku translations, while Igor Webb would simply have us take Stanley Kunitz’s word for it. No thanks. I did not write, and I do not believe, that Mr. Acker is simply a foil in “Human Wishes,” nor do I dispute that there is much more to say about the poem than the limited space of my review allowed. It is, as I wrote, a terrific poem. But is Matthias’s question whether there was a better first book than Hass’s in the seventies sup- posed to be an argument? Because I can name five off the top of my head, and then we’ll be back where we started. Matthias says that he “is probably not the best person to write objecting,” but he doesn’t seem to grasp that he really isn’t.

Michael Dickman and I are white male poets of the same genera- tion, so I daresay he knows whereof he speaks. I don’t know what his readings are like, but I can assure him that I rarely hold forth on Robert Hass’s poetry after my own.

Meanwhile, the letters of Blake, Ovitt, Gottlieb-Miller, and Smock all advance versions of the same non-argument: we don’t like your tone (not reverential enough), and anyway we disagree (ex- cept Smock uses the occasion to suggest that upstarts without a book to their name have no business writing criticism; I will endeavor to keep him informed regarding the status of my manuscript if he will promise to let me know when I am at last properly credentialed). None of them quite understands what there is to oppose in a “notion of poetry as a striving toward purity,” presumably because each of them strives toward purity. Well, good luck with that. Coleridge is one of my favorite writers, but poets and critics alike ignore Hazlitt’s mockery of him at their peril: “Poetry redeemed him ... he bathed his heart in beauty, and gazed at the golden light of heaven, and drank of the spirit of the universe, and wandered at eve by fairy-stream or fountain.”

Originally Published: November 1, 2010

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

November 2010


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 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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