Letter to the Editor
I am probably not the best person to write objecting to Michael Robbins’s review of Robert Hass’s The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems [“Are You Smeared with the Juice of Cherries?” September 2010]. I have been a friend of Hass’s for many years, and the objections that follow might better be left to letters from some who have a more objective relationship to the poems and the poet. But the review sticks in my craw.
The fruits and veggies and happy fucking have been inventoried many times before in reviews and essays—some favorable and some unfavorable—of Hass’s work over thirty years. His characteristic imagery is either part of a stylistic signature (if you like it) or a mannerism (if you don’t). How can there not be imagery, rhythms, and favored sequences of sound (not “compulsive onomamania”) in an oeuvre that has developed over such a long period of time? Robbins’s jokes about sexual juices (one might look at Christopher Ricks’s Keats and Embarrassment for some useful direction) don’t really constitute literary criticism, but an attempt at stand-up comedy’s one-liners and zingers—William Logan on a bad day. You really do have to be as good as Randall Jarrell to play this game without doing serious damage to yourself as a critic.
If Robbins thinks that “the metaphor ‘jump the shark’ has itself long since jumped the shark,” then those poor blackberries in “Meditation at Lagunitas” have been absolutely sucked dry by all of the critics who have tasted them since the poem was first published. “Meditation” has become Hass’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and I’m sure he would pluck it out of all the anthologies that print it if he could substitute something else. But that it has been a popular, too often cited, and overly influential poem is not his fault. He was about thirty when he wrote it. Who could have guessed then that it would become the poem of his generation? And he wrote Field Guide in his twenties. Was there a better first book than his in the decade of the seventies?
Cat sleeps in the windowgleam,
On the oak table
filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
slices of green pepper
on a bone-white dish.
“This isn’t poetry,” says Robbins, “it’s a list of stuff in Hass’s kitchen.” And yet he has just praised Hass’s translations of the Haiku masters, very much the poets who are behind simple but elegant passages like this. But Robbins wanted another joke. Therefore, “this isn’t poetry.” Remember Williams in Paterson, explaining his “fashionable grocery list” to a critic?
If you say “2 partridges, 2 mallard ducks, a Dungeness crab”—if you treat that rhythmically, ignoring the practical sense, it forms a jagged pattern. It is, to my mind poetry. . . . Anything is good material for poetry. Anything. I’ve said it time and time again.
Mr. Acker, the Little Shelford gardener in “Human Wishes,” would, as he liked to say, “speak right up in Anglo-Saxon” to discover that Robbins says his platitudes are “exposed” and his “bland assertions” in the poem are there only to be deflated. What about the “human wishes” at issue in the poem and the relationship between Acker’s story about a shopkeeper fiddling a few quid from Hass’s wife, who “might [by now] have put it on the horses at Newmarket,” and Earlene Hass walking away with the tongue-and-groove pine for the broken back of the Welsh cupboard she had bought in Saffron Walden and could imagine—could wish—back in her Berkeley kitchen, mended with the patchwork? That connection is the charm of the poem, and there’s no mention of it.
Then there’s the issue of speaking right up in Anglo-Saxon. Passing up another joke about “tongue-and-groove,” Robbins can’t leave in context the dark, brave, radical, and very vulnerable line about briefly entering into the imagination of a predator’s sexual violence: “I tried to hate my wife’s cunt,/the sweet place where I rooted.” No, even this must become a joke about the phrase “hating the cunt,” which Robbins compares to “jumping the shark.” A page later he can’t figure why there needs to be any “high minded justification” for “fucking someone else in the ass. Has anyone ever responded, ‘What! Why?’” Not some poor couple who might live in a two-room flat with three sick kids running around, but nonetheless there’s a reason: “It is summer and they are full of longing/and sick of birth.” High-minded justification? No such thing. And the poem isn’t an advertisement for condoms either, or brought to you by the Family Planning Institute. But enough.
Once a long time ago when I was young I wrote a review in these pages in which I tried to make myself sound clever at a good poet’s expense. I’ve regretted it ever since. I think Robbins will regret his own review of The Apple Trees at Olema.
John Matthias has published fourteen books of poems, most recently Trigons (2009) and Collected Shorter Poems (2011), both from Shearsman Books. He is professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and co-editor of Notre Dame Review.