Robert Hass is one of contemporary American poetry’s most celebrated and widely-read voices. In addition to his success as a poet, Hass is also recognized as a leading critic and translator, notably of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Japanese haiku masters Bashō, Buson, and Issa. Critics celebrate Hass’s own poetry for its clarity of expression, its conciseness, and its imagery, often drawn from everyday life. “Hass has noted his own affinity for Japanese haiku,” the poet Forrest Gander has remarked, “and his work similarly attends to the details of quotidian life with remarkable clarity.” Gander described Hass’s gift for “musical, descriptive, meditative poetry.” Carolyn Kizer wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Hass “is so intelligent that to read his poetry or prose, or to hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure.” Hass told interviewer David Remnick in the Chicago Review, “Poetry is a way of living. ... a human activity like baking bread or playing basketball.”
Hass’s first collection, Field Guide (1973), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and established him as an important American poet. The book’s imagery drew on Hass’s native California countryside and background in Slavic studies. “The poems in Field Guide,” wrote Gander, “are rich with Russian accents, aromas of ferny anise and uncorked wines, and references to plant and animal life: the green whelks and rock crabs, tanagers and Queen Anne’s lace, sea spray and pepper trees of the Bay Area.” “He is a fine poet,” declared Michael Waters in the Southwest Review, “and his book is one of the very best to appear in a long time…Field Guide is a means of naming things, of establishing an identity through one’s surroundings, of translating the natural world into one’s private history. This is a lot to accomplish, yet Robert Hass manages it with clarity and compassion.” Hass confirmed his ability with Praise (1979), his second volume of poems, which won the William Carlos Williams Award. “In many ways,” Gander explained, “Praise addresses the problems implicit in the first book: Can the act of naming the world separate us from the world? How is it possible to bear grief, to accept death, and how can the spirit endure?” Writing in the Chicago Review, Ira Sadoff remarked that Praise “might even be the strongest collection of poems to come out in the late seventies.” Sadoff noted that Field Guide “was intelligent and well-crafted; it tapped Hass’s power of observation carefully and engagingly.” Nevertheless, the reviewer had “reservations” about Field Guide that “stemmed from some sense of chilliness that seemed to pervade a number of poems, as if the poems were wrought by an intellect distant from its subject matter.” Sadoff continued: “I have no such problems with Praise…[It] marks Hass’s arrival as an important, even pivotal, young poet.”
In 1984, Hass published Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, a collection of previously published essays and reviews. In the volume, the author examines American writers (including Robert Lowell and James Wright) as well as European and Japanese poets. The book was well-received and won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. “Mr. Hass’s style balances conversational directness and eloquent complexity,” noted the New York Times Book Review contributor Anthony Libby. He concluded that “Mr. Hass believes that poetry is what defines the self, and it is his ability to describe that process that is the heart of this book’s pleasure.”
Since the publication of Twentieth Century Pleasures, Hass has continued to write both poetry and prose. His third collection of poetry, Human Wishes (1989), experimented with longer lines and prose paragraphs, privileging process and meditation over the poeticized images that had filled his earlier work. David Barber, writing for the Boston Review, noted that in the volume Hass had “cultivated a more open, intimately epistolary verse that makes room for everything from strenuous metaphysics, beguiling storytelling, and wry recollections to haiku-like snapshots, flinty epigrams, and tremulous lyricism.” Though Barber recognized that the “stolid essayistic manner” betrayed “a sensibility increasingly concerned with diminishment and flux,” critic Mary Ann Cutler noted that “the most striking quality of Human Wishes is the sense of its abundance,” however fleeting and tenuous. The Nation critic Don Bogen explained that Human Wishes “reveals [Hass’s] basic concerns: He is a student of desire, of what we want and how likely we are to get it.” “In Human Wishes,” Bogen concluded, “Robert Hass captures both the brightness of the world and its vanishing.”
Hass paid tribute to some of his non-Western mentors in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (1994), translations of short works by the most famous masters of the short Japanese poem. And, as Andrew Rathmann suggested in a Chicago Review article, Hass deserves a great deal of credit for these translations. “The translations…must by anyone’s standard be considered remarkable poetic achievements in themselves,” wrote the reviewer, “comparable—in terms of sheer written fluency—to the best poems in his three previous books” of poetry. When it was published in the mid-nineties, Hass’s book also brought a poetic form that has a long history of development in Japan to an American audience. As Mark Ford explained in the New Republic, each of the three haiku masters (Basho, Buson, and Issa) used the short verse form to record commonplace images in an uncommon way. Ford added that “Hass’s language is unflashy, his interpretations sensible and his pacing effective.” Ford declared that the three poets “demonstrate the ways in which great art may intensify and illuminate our engagements with the real, the experience of art.” Hass’s other major work as a translator is his decades-long project of translating the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz. Working collaboratively with Milosz, Hass has translated over seven collections of the Nobel prize-winning poet’s work. In an interview with Guernica, Hass talked about the influence of Milosz on his own thinking regarding poetry and politics. Discussing the high symbolist mode of Wallace Stevens and Paul Valery, Hass argued “you can aim for perfection if you stay away from the hard subjects. But if you’re going to do what Milosz does, you can’t aim for perfection; your work is going to be messy and opinionated.”
Hass's next collection of poems, Sun Under Wood (1996) won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In the opinion of Poetry contributor David Baker, “Hass’s new volume contains many of his most important works to date … he is something of a buttoned-down [Allen] Ginsberg, emotionally and formally open, inclusive, enthusiastic, if considerably more ironic.” The book deals more explicitly with autobiography, and includes poems about Hass’s childhood and alcoholic mother. However, not all critics found the collection compelling. Peter Davison of the Atlantic Monthly admitted that while Hass’s famous “charm and modesty” remained, “these poems keep relaxing into the voice of an onlooker rather than taking on the energy of full participation—as though they came to the poet through a window, a filter, a screen of white noise and unscented air.”And, in the estimation of David Baker, “all through Sun Under Wood, Hass’s ability to convert the comedic to sublime, the anecdotal to the metaphysical and ethical, the personal to the social, is remarkable.” He concluded, “this book reaches a level of achievement Hass has not reached before. It is literary and messy, discursive and lyric. It is risky, large, and hugely compassionate.”
From 1995 to 1997, Hass set aside his personal role as poet to take up the mantle of the nation’s poet, serving as U.S. poet laureate. A largely ceremonial position, historically speaking, the poet laureate has recently become far more of a public advocate for poets and their work. In a sense, the new role was a logical extension of Hass’s personal, private work to a public arena. Sarah Pollock elaborated in Mother Jones, “Hass’s tenure as poet laureate has been a more public expression of the lifelong concerns that inform his poetry: a close attention to the natural world, a sense of self developed in relation to the landscape, and acute awareness of both the pleasures and pains of being human.” The laureate position also heightened the political sensibilities of the poet and his work. Hass recognized early on that the political and business climate seemed to have little use for poetry and other arts. Hass focused on promoting literacy, telling Francis X. Clines in the New York Times, “I thought an interesting thing to do would be to go where poets don’t go.” He visited businesses, convincing some to support poetry contests for schoolchildren and spoke to civic groups, trying to broaden their horizons. Because of these efforts, “Robert Hass is the most active Poet Laureate of the United States we’ve ever had,” wrote Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Frances Mayes, “and he sets a standard for those who follow.”
After his tenure as poet laureate, Hass remained in the public realm, teaching, translating, editing and writing newspaper columns. As Stephen Burt noted “all that service seems to have strengthened Hass’s powers.” Hass’s first book post-laureate, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 (2007), Burt declared “shows the worth of playing against type, the survival of his private talent and the artistic uses of his public life.” Containing poems about art and artists, meditations on middle age and descriptions of a California well-known to Hass readers, the book also features poetry that engages in world affairs, in contemporary politics and, notably, “Bush’s War” in Iraq—participating in what Nathan Heller in Slate called “large issues.” Heller noted that “Hass has been negotiating a standard of public candor ever since he started writing.” Dan Chiasson, in the New Yorker, also noted that the continuity between Time and Materials and Hass’s previous work: “Hass’s wish to make poems resemble the world as closely as possible (his often remarked stylistic ‘clarity’) has been a constant in his method from the start; what has changed is not the style but the vision of the world.” Unanimously praised by critics as a supremely well-crafted collection, Time and Materials won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
In the mid-1990s, Hass cofounded the River of Words organization, which provides tools for teaching ecoliteracy to young students through multidisciplinary, interactive curricula. In addition to serving as the U.S. poet laureate, Hass was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007. In 2014, he won the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Hass teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in California with his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman.