Illustration by Marianne Goldin.
Although it won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, I don’t think of Robert Hass’s essay collection, Twentieth Century Pleasures, as a book of “criticism” exactly. Perhaps this is because I can’t hear that word without being reminded of the passage in Lawrence Durrell’s novel Clea in which the narrator tells his lover that he has been thinking about writing a book of criticism, provoking the following:
“Criticism!” she echoed sharply, as if the word were an insult. And she smacked me full across the mouth—a stinging blow which brought tears to my eyes and cut the inside of my lip against my teeth.
Beyond its negative overtones—the idea of constructive criticism is surely one we all comprehend, but the idea of a genuinely positive criticism still strikes many of us as an oxymoron—the word criticism may suggest an intellectual endeavor that is narrowly focused and predominantly text-oriented. Indeed, many people seem to assume that criticism, at least for genuinely gifted or significant writers, will be at most a sideline, something to engage their energies in between the major works.
Hass’s collection of essays, though, is one of the few works of criticism I find myself returning to for the sheer pleasure of reading. Hass is one of a handful of critics (Randall Jarrell and Pauline Kael also come to mind) whom I read with as much deliberate slowness as I can manage, pausing to savor the elegance of the thought and the richness of the imagery.
Indeed, Twentieth Century Pleasures is largely concerned with images—as they mean and function not only in poetry, but in life as well. The concluding essay is titled “Images,” and it is perhaps the finest piece of writing in the book: a perceptive and evocative mixture of personal memoir, philosophical speculation, and criticism in the narrower, textually focused sense, in which a survey of classical Japanese haiku can be followed by a passage like this one:
Walking through the rooms of my house on a moonlit August night, with a sharp sense of my children each at a particular moment in their lives and changing, with three or four shed, curled leaves from a Benjamin fig on the floor of the dining room and a spider, in that moonlight, already set to work in one of them, and the dark outline of an old Monterey pine against the sky outside the window, the one thing about the house that seems not to have changed in the years of my living in it, it is possible to feel my life, in a quiet ecstatic helplessness, as a long slow hurtle through the forms of things. I think I resist that sensation because there is a kind of passivity in it; I suppose that I fear it would make me careless of those things that need concentration to attend to.
Such passages remind us how many critics neglect to connect the matter of their work with the matter of their lives. The connections are, perhaps, plain to them; but by leaving them unspoken, they produce books that ultimately feel wan, thin, enervated. Hass, by contrast, never forgets that poems are composed by human beings, with the aim of being read by other human beings. They arise within the context of particular societies, and their form, content, and success in speaking to readers can convey a great deal about the character and spiritual health of that society.
In Twentieth Century Pleasures, discussion of the technical aspects of poetic practice is always connected to larger social and political issues. Thus, in an essay like “One Body: Some Notes on Form,” a passage like this (about William Carlos Williams’ “a dust of / snow in / the wheeltracks”):
[P]eople must have felt: “Yes, that is what it is like; not one-TWO, one-TWO. A dust of / snow in / the wheeltracks. That is how perception is. It is that light and quick.” The effect depends largely on traditional expectation. The reader had to be able to hear what he was not hearing.
can lead, in about the space of a page, to an observation like this:
[T]he 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.
before being brought back to the subject of poetry:
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 a character in it. And metrical poetry is used in the same way. [. . .] When it is graceful and elegant, it becomes, as it was in Herrick, a private fiction of civility with no particular relation to the actual social life we live.
Part of what is both distinctive and admirable about Hass is how he simultaneously recognizes the value and attractiveness of this “private fiction of civility” and acknowledges the tempting danger it poses, the way it threatens to sever us—particularly those of us who are privileged enough to have living rooms and offices with books of poems in them—from the complex and untidy realities of “the actual social life we live.”
The most moving and insightful essays in Twentieth Century Pleasures combine these approaches: “Images,” for instance, or the wonderful “Reading Milosz,” which begins by suggesting that “[i]t might be useful to begin by invoking a time when one might turn to the work of Czeslaw Milosz,” and then offers five pages vividly describing what it was like to live with a Vietnam-haunted conscience in the Bay Area in the mid-Sixties. Read in isolation, these five pages would seem to have no obvious connection either to Milosz or to poetry. But the writing is so good, and the intent so obviously sincere, that the piece never feels indulgent. Hass simply knows that we cannot speak intelligently about poetry without addressing ourselves to the world poetry lives in.
Poets who receive substantial consideration in Twentieth Century Pleasures include Robert Lowell, James Wright, Stanley Kunitz, Tomas Transtromer, Milosz, Rilke, Joseph Brodsky, Yvor Winters, Robert Creeley, James McMichael, and Gary Snyder. Although there has been an explosion of poetic activity since the moment captured in this book, none of these figures has passed into insignificance. The book also feels timely in another, far less fortunate way: the particular complexes, anxieties, and paradoxes of the Vietnam-era America that Hass frequently looks back to will strike contemporary readers with more resonance and familiarity than the author could have anticipated—or would have wanted to believe:
That war was, perhaps, a paradigm of planning without people in the plan. The Vietnamese did not fit it and the American young who were supposed to fight the war did not fit it; and as the administration with a plan to win the war was replaced by an administration with a plan to end the war, the suffering seemed to go on forever.
At the very least, poetry can offer solace during such times. Hass sometimes seems to suggest that we dare to hope for more: that poetry, being inherently political, may help us grasp and appreciate the reality of what we are doing and of what can and must be done. “Rhythm is always revolutionary ground,” he writes. “New rhythms are new perceptions.” The experience of rhythm in poetry “calls us to an intense, attentive consciousness.” Of course, as he immediately adds, “the last thing many people want is to be conscious.”
Troy Jollimore's first book of poetry, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. His other poetry collections include At Lake Scugog (2011) and Syllabus of Errors (2015), both published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other...