Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

By John Matthias and Igor Webb

Dear Editor,

Belle Randall’s admirably intelligent letter [December 2010] regarding the discussion about Robert Hass’s The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems nevertheless misunderstands the main points of our earlier letters, and, we believe, Hass’s poems. In the end, like Michael Robbins, she seems more concerned with what is not in the poems than with what is, less with what the poems are than with what she would like them to be.

Take, for example, the question of the relation of some of Hass’s work to the haiku tradition. Many of Hass’s translations in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa do indeed ask to be compared with the second half of “Song” in Field Guide. That book also includes ten haiku translations, printed as if they were a single poem with the haiku triads as stanzas, which establish a tradition in terms of which lines like the seven quoted from “Song” might be understood.

However, no one has mentioned that the disputed lines themselves have a context, and do not appear by themselves. The first half of the poem is in fact narrative, and it begins like this:

Afternoon cooking in the fall sun—
who is more naked
                               than the man
yelling, “Hey, I’m home!”
                   to an empty house?
thinking because the bay is clear,
the hills in yellow heat,
& scrub oak red in gullies
that great crowds of family
should tumble from the rooms
                 to throw their bodies on the Papa-body,

Only then come the lines at issue. It is as if a still life had intervened in the middle of a story. What the speaker expects and wants is family tumbling over him in their love and welcome. What he gets is something different, not family and yet also deeply sensuous. The lines are subtle and elusive in their expression of domesticity, at once about absence and presence, loss and pleasure, as well as the adequacy and inadequacy of a certain kind of aesthetic experience. Stanley Kunitz, in singling these lines out, stresses their acuity of observation, which is yet another important context for the lines. The morality of seeing is at issue here, as in haiku, and as a California poet writing on the lush edges of what was then an East-coast-dominated poetry scene, Hass was particularly enmeshed in those philosophical dilemmas. Robbins calls these lines a list and Randall calls them journalistic. Surely such judgments willfully disregard what’s there in the poem.

Letters to this magazine are customarily short and (often) edited, and so we won’t say any more than has already been said about the poet’s treatment in 1973 of his (now) former wife’s genitals. But for the same reasons that we find “Song” to be elegant and moving we also disagree with Randall’s judgment of “In Weather,” a judgment that once more seems to be less concerned with what is in the poem, and how it should be understood in its various contexts, than with what Randall would have preferred the poem to be.

Originally Published: February 1st, 2011

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.

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