Regarding Michael Robbins’s criticism of Robert Hass [September 2010] and the letters that followed [November 2010]: those on both sides of the debate seem to have difficulty keeping their focus on the language of the poems. “This isn’t poetry, it’s a list of stuff in Hass’s kitchen,” Robbins declares. “The Haiku masters . . . are behind simple but elegant passages like this,” John Matthias replies. One feels caught between two small boys arguing is too, is not. The danger is that both positions—perhaps all strong opinions about poetry—begin to seem arbitrary and subjective. Yet verifiable observations about poetry can be made:
On the oak table
filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
slices of green pepper
on a bone-white dish.
Of this, one may say: it begins with a capital and ends with a period but is not a sentence. Lacking a predicate (the implied “are”), it isn’t a complete thought. Instead, as Robbins observes, it is a list. In a list, every item has equal weight. Because of this, a list lacks the focus of Haiku.
The passage is fairly representative of the “period style” of the seventies, with the omitted verb showing the influence of Gary Snyder, who often omits verbs and articles for the sake of compression (“Across rocks and meadows / Swarms of new flies”). Yet the fragment by Hass, compared to Snyder’s, is notably adjectival, while introducing the unwelcome but inevitable association “stewing in one’s own juices.” A peculiar weight falls on the final three syllables—“bone-white dish.” Thud, thud, thud. This sounds profound, like a gavel falling, but is it? If I were to tell you that the fragment was lifted from a restaurant review in Sunset magazine, could you believe it? Isn’t this an accurate description of the language? When Robbins says, “This isn’t poetry,” maybe he means: This is journalistic rather than poetic, descriptive rather than evocative. It’s not bad writing, but, like professional “food writing,” it ain’t poetry.
Maybe the real argument is between those who believe it is important to maintain such distinctions and those who don’t. In any case, there can be no question that the language of the passage lacks the concision and the resonance of Haiku.
It is especially important to stay focused on language as language when turning to the poems “In Weather,” in which Hass attempts to imagine sexually mutilating and dismembering his wife, and “Against Botticelli,” in which, assuming the third person, he reports as a fact the complete fulfillment of “the pale woman / he fucks in the ass.” Fucking a lady in the ass in private is one thing, but in public—even the public space of a poem—something else. Even granting, as the poet does, that this is not the stuff of romantic love, the reader may feel embarrassed for “the lady.” Sworn statements from Hass’s wife/wives would not eliminate the problem, as it exists in the language of the poems, and it is crucial to stay focused on the language in order to make clear that one’s objections are not to the subject matter.
Thom Gunn’s “Jack Straw’s Castle,” published six years before Hass’s “In Weather” (indeed, perhaps an inspiration for it), is a poem in which the poet confronts his own buried sado-masochistic impulses. The eleven sections constitute an elaborate imagining of the levels of human consciousness likened to rooms in a castle. Gunn’s poem is more formal than Hass’s. Its greater artifice seems to make possible a greater nakedness. Like “In Weather” and “Against Botticelli,” it is “confessional,” but unlike those poems, it takes full responsibility for what the poet finds on visiting his own imagination.
I am the man on the rack.
I am the man who puts the man on the rack.
I am the man who watches the man who puts the man on the rack.
Hass’s “In Weather,” by contrast, offers a confused sense of the poet’s culpability. By using the “confessional” occasion to depict the degradation of his wife, Hass commits an additional—in this case, gratuitous—violation of womankind to which he never confesses. “I tried to hate my wife’s cunt,/the sweet place where I rooted,” the speaker says, concluding, “It was easier than I might have supposed.” Here, at last, we seem close to the truth of the matter, yet the line is not convincing because the real work of imagining is never undertaken. What seems all too “easy” is the adjective “sweet” affixed to the “cunt” the poet then imagines mutilating. The scene itself is sketchy. Hass rather hastily conjures “cutting her apart, / bloody and exultant” but imagines it as if “in short experimental films.” By substituting films for real experience—and a generic kind of film, at that—Hass further evades the horror of his subject, even perhaps eliciting a chuckle from those familiar with amateur experimental films and their pretensions. With this, one would suppose (with a certain relief) that Hass has at least acknowledged his inability to participate in the mindset of the sadistic killer. Yet he concludes with the opposite claim. The monstrousness of the imagined act, coupled with the glibness of expression (“easier than I might have imagined”), supports Robbins’s claim that Hass is tone-deaf. Again, by claiming to confront what in fact it evades, Hass’s poem fails.
Those who participate in poetry writing workshops often advise that praise be offered in amounts sufficient to offset any criticism. They agree to this partly as a trade-off: in order to protect themselves when it is their turn to be “workshopped,” they strive to be “supportive” colleagues rather than severe critics. The idea of accuracy in poetic language may confuse them. They are not sure that there is any such thing. Is it any wonder that, with each passing year, respect accorded to the role of poet in the culture is diminished?
The lack of critical thinking that typifies the political rhetoric in our time is becoming so pervasive it is downright scary. Could we, as poets, change this by being more exact in our critical discernments? Le mot juste for which Flaubert searched may not really exist, but good writing makes us feel as if it does.