For 212 weeks now, without break or vacation since Dec. 3, 1995, Robert Hass has produced a column for Book World that combined an artist's sensibilities with a veteran's wisdom. His fans among our readers are legion. We hear their praises every day.
With today's column, however, Robert Hass is stepping down as Book World's poet-cicerone. The editors of Book World extend a warm thanks to Robert Hass for his extraordinary service to our readers, and we offer a hearty welcome to his worthy successor, the much-celebrated poet and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove.
-- Marie Arana
For many years, Robert Hass has buoyed our spirits with a weekly tonic of poetry: Syndicated in newspapers across the country, "Poet's Choice" has become a national respite. I have met lawyers, tennis players and cashiers who read "Poet's Choice" and ask my opinion on the poems selected. Just recently a woman in my ballroom dance class stopped in the middle of a syncopated waltz turn to say how much she enjoyed opening The Washington Post Book World each Sunday for her "little surprise," like biting into a chocolate without knowing which delicious filling -- raspberry cream, nougat, coconut? -- she'd discover.
Of course, the catch-22 of writing such a column is that we have never been treated to a poem by Robert Hass. A pity, because his is a distinguished literary career: In addition to publishing four volumes of his own poems, he has been an essayist (Twentieth Century Pleasures) as well as an editor (of poetry collections by the late Californian Robinson Jeffers and the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, and of the charming "wedding anthology" Into the Garden). We've been treated to selections from his recent haiku translations (The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa); as the primary translator of Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, he continues to perform a incalculable service to world literature.
High time to rectify this omission. To bookend the conclusion of the old year and the flowering of the new, here's a sampling of Robert Hass's poetry. His most recent book, Sun Under Wood (Ecco, 1998), opens with this one:
Because yesterday morning from the steamy window
we saw a pair of red foxes across the creek
eating the last windfall apples in the rain --
they looked up at us with their green eyes
long enough to symbolize the wakefulness of
and then went back to eating --
and because this morning
when she went in to the gazebo with her black
pen and yellow pad
to coax an inquisitive soul
from what she thinks of as the reluctance of matter,
I drove into town to drink tea in the cafe
and write notes in a journal -- mist rose from
like the luminous and indefinite aspect of intention,
and a small flock of tundra swans
for the second winter in a row was feeding on
in the soaked fields; they symbolize mystery, I suppose,
they are also called whistling swans, are
and their eyes are black --
and because the tea steamed in front of me,
and the notebook, turned to a new page,
was blank except for a faint blue idea of order,
I wrote: happiness! It is December, very cold,
we woke early this morning,
and lay in bed kissing,
our eyes squinched up like bats.
How disarming that lyrical entry -- "Because yesterday morning . . . " -- as if everything in the world depended on the sighting of foxes, or the fact that the poet's wife went to the gazebo to write, or that the tea was hot. But isn't it true -- doesn't every act, small or large, hinge on the preceding moment, no matter how seemingly inconsequential? A poet like Hass knows that in details lies our salvation, and he invites us to celebrate them.
Finally, appropriate to the season, here's the beginning to his marvelous poem-within-a-poem, "January":
Three clear days
and then a sudden storm --
the waxwings, having
feasted on the pyracantha,
perch in the yard
on an upended pine, and face
into the slanting rain.
I think they are a little drunk.
I was making this gathering -- which pleased me, the waxwings that always pass through at this time of year, the discarded Christmas tree they perched in, and the first January storm, as if I had finally defined a California season -- when Rachel came down the walk and went into the house. I typed out the poem -- the birds giddy with Janus, the two-faced god -- and then went in to say hello.
[from "January," in Human Wishes
by Robert Hass. Ecco, 1989]
There's much more: the women chatting over oranges, the poet listening to their conversation while continuing to write the poem in his head, snatches of it sprinkled before us like the first crocuses across the thawing lawn. But what pleases me most is that Bob first typed out the poem before going inside to visit. These past few years, I fear, have not given him as much time to tend to the muse as he longed for. And so we view his departure from these pages with sorrow but also with the anticipation that he has made that essential poet's choice -- to treat us to many more new poems.