Common Language: Robert Hass in Conversation
An interview with Robert Hass on the office of the poet laureate, poetry, and its role in American culture. This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets.
American Poet: Many of us know you as a translator as well as a poet. I wonder if you could begin by talking about that.
Hass: Well, I got into working on the haiku just because I started reading them and was curious about what they actually looked like. All I wanted to do was see what the grammar of the poems looked like, so I started to decode them, one a day, for a while, and I did that over a long period of time without actually learning much Japanese.
American Poet: And how about the Polish?
Hass: That came about because Czeslaw Milosz and I are neighbors, and we shared a publisher. At some point he started showing me translations of his poems, and we began fiddling with them together, with no intention of my making a career out of it. There were poems of his that I was curious about—that I'd read about—that hadn't been translated, and so I asked him if I could have a hand at some of them. I got together with a Polish-speaking friend [Renata Gorczynski] and started making versions of some of the poems from the war years. Then around that time he won the Nobel Prize, and many people were interested in seeing these poems, so we worked on it more and more, and I gradually fell into the task of getting this really huge body of work into English. I acquired a little—but not a lot—of Polish over the years doing that. Now I work directly with Czeslaw—he does the first translation, and then we sit down and get it into English we both like.
American Poet: How would you distinguish between your work as a translator and your original poetry?
Hass: As you know, translation is really a problem-solving task. Every once in a while you see the original and something comes into your head that is also a formal solution to the problem of getting it into lively English, and you feel like you've written a poem. But that's pretty rare. I wouldn't exactly say it's more like doing crossword puzzles than it is like writing poetry, but it's a mix of the two.
American Poet: What are you working on now?
Hass: Well, I've just about finished a new book of poems which will be out next year from the Ecco Press. I was intending to put together another book of literary essays that I've accumulated, but I've written so many talks, speeches, and editorials during this year that I may also put together a little book of civic essays, on the other side of this.
American Poet: Let's talk about this past year—can you tell us a bit about the office of the poet laureate? I know it was founded in 1938 as the chair in poetry—later the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress—and took its current form in 1984 with Robert Penn Warren. But what is it that you do today?
Hass: Well it's a job that has evolved, and it's still the case that the basic obligation of the Poet Laureate is to give a lecture and a reading at the Library of Congress during his or her tenure, and to set up a literary program for the Library and for the Washington community. And really, those are the defined tasks, that's all.
American Poet: Are there privileges which let you extend that office?
Hass: No privileges, but there are many obligations. The office is run by one full-time staff person, so you have help to do things. First, there are those defined tasks that come with the office. Second, enough people know about the office that it generates a good deal of mail which has to be tended to. And third is that in becoming the Poet Laureate you become the person through whom public presence of poetry is manifest, and therefore have to make yourself available for lots of press and radio interviews.
American Poet: It sounds like the primary functions of the office are political--is that a full-time job?
Hass: Yes. I mean, it doesn't have to be, because the position is set up so that if a poet chooses to accept the honor and go about their work, they can do that. But if you want to undertake any of the kinds of work you can do to enhance the presence of poetry in the public eye, you can also do that. Since Robert Penn Warren in 1984, different poets have done differently--some have thrown themselves into the task of being a kind of an ambassador for American letters, and others have taken it as an honor and chance to keep writing.
American Poet: When you say "an ambassador," you re speaking metaphorically, right? Or do you actually carry an American voice overseas in some way?
Hass: One can. I've gotten a couple of invitations to do that, and also to get involved in programming on Voice of America. It would also be possible, for example, to bring European, Latin American, or other international writers to the Library, as part of the program you set up, which has an archival function. You have to make choices, and to some extent the choices are determined by what is going on in the culture. When I was appointed, one of the things that was going on was that serious cuts were being made in the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. Because of the cuts in funding to the NEA, many state arts councils have been holding meetings to try to talk about how to deal with the sudden change in the "funding landscape" in which they operate. In some states, the governors have taken leadership in those issues and have sponsored conferences, pulled together artists and business people and arts administrators and arts organizations to plan for the future. That's one kind of response. I've been invited to participate in a number of those, to do these things and to try to make the case for supporting American writing, and the arts in general.
American Poet: Do you find yourself travelling a lot? It sounds somewhat like being on the campaign trail.
Hass: Yes, my experience of it has been that it's a lot like being on the campaign trail. In California, where there was a general interest in the idea of a Poet Laureate from the West Coast, I've gotten a lot of invitations to speak to business groups. In that case, I thought that an appropriate subject to talk about would be basic literacy issues public literacy and the condition of public education, support for the schools, and for the arts in schools--which was a second major concern when I was coming into office. Especially in a case when there's massive middle-class flight from public schools, education is desperately under-funded, the rate of literacy is rapidly declining. I think it's useful to have somebody who's not running for office going around and saying, "This is a catastrophe. If you want schools, and if you want an educated public, you have to pay for it."
American Poet: It sounds like you think it's very valuable to make common cause between poetry and the other arts and issues.
Hass: Yes. The third area that I got interested in, of course, was environmental issues, which is why we re doing the Watershed conference [a six-day series of events focusing on writers and the natural world, April 15-20 in Washington]. In conjunction with the conference, we've also organized a national poetry contest for elementary and high-school students.
The fourth thing going on when I came into office was that the Academy and the publishing industry had initiated National Poetry Month, with lots of activities around that, including the inaugural readings in San Francisco and Washington. We've been helping to organize the events and making sure that in both places--with support from the Academy--we re going to be able to hold readings of some of the best writers in each region, and to give a party for the clerks in all the bookstores in the region, as well. I think that this is a critically important thing to do--writers have to make common cause with the people who are doing the work of distribution for us. That includes supporting the work of the NEA and of state arts councils in creating and supporting distribution networks for literary writing, but it also involves making sure that the people who are selling books--independent booksellers as well as the chains--are thanked, when they've shown an interest in supporting the best American writing that we find a way to thank them for it.
American Poet: It sounds like some of the first items on your list of conditions in which you entered office--the funding problems at the NEA and the concern about education--are indicative of a general crisis situation for poetry and the arts in this country. Do you believe that is the case?
Hass: Well the fifth thing on my list is that there suddenly seems to be an increased public awareness of poetry. I think all of us involved in the poetry world understand that there's been a kind of steady boom of interest in poetry, writing, and publishing going on really for the past twenty-five years, and that this is an enormously exciting time in American writing. At the same time, since the postwar years there has been less public attention; poetry has been marginalized by the new media.
American Poet: Some poets and critics have disparaged the emergence of new media on the literary scene, saying it marks the death of the written word. How would you respond to that?
Hass: First of all, let me say that the written word is far from dead. The situation that we re in is curious, because in many ways the written word is thriving as it has never thriven before. I mean--if you take a somewhat longer historical view--hardly anyone could read before 1800. Hardly anybody could read, and hardly anyone got a college education, or was able to study very much literature. And then, during the nineteenth century, there was a concerted campaign in the United States and Europe to teach people to read, and by the twentieth century many people could read, although very few received college educations, and even fewer had access to education in the arts. Now--although it's evident in just these last two generations that the number of children that are learning to read is declining--there are still an extraordinary number of literate people. Far more people than ever before are entering universities. There's more training in the arts, particularly in creative writing and in literature, available at every level. There's hardly a community college in the country that doesn't have an active and lively creative writing program. There are more bookstores, the bookstores carry more books, and more books are being published. More books of poetry, I'm sure, are being sold and read--even if you adjust for increase in population--than ever before in American history. And yet, we have this fixed idea that the written word is dead, and that it's declining. So the really interesting question is "Where does this idea come from?"
American Poet: And where do you think it comes from?
Hass: I think it has three sources. One is that during the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries, the print medium had a monopoly on information and, until about 1910, a monopoly on entertainment, or at least the kind that could be disseminated nationally, as opposed to theaters. The print media were the creators of celebrity. We have in our collective consciousness the idea that we've lost a great readership for poetry since the days of Frost and Hemingway and Eliot and so on, when what's really happened is that radio and television became the media of celebrity creation. We remember a time when the magazines created the cultural stars, who were often to some extent writers. The engines that create fame are always interested in their own kind. Now, writers are practically nonexistent as stars.
A second reason has to do with the fact that as more people have gone to college, education has become far more specialized. There are more and more people who go through school without getting a literary education, so we don't have that in common in the same way. A much smaller percentage of the population received an advanced education in the past. There are more lawyers and doctors who haven't read poetry then ever before. It's a bad thing when a country doesn't know its own poets, doesn't know the words of its own poetic tradition.
Number three, I think, is that all during the nineteenth century (when poetry and serious fiction were an important part of what people aspire to through literacy), poetry was published widely in newspapers and magazines, and it was geared to its audience: bourgeois, sentimental, and didactic, for the most part. Modernism was born in some ways as a reaction against that kind of writing (we may have lost our historical sense of this) so in a way Modernism was notoriously anti-popular. You could say it wasn't true of Williams, but at the same time he did want to publish in all those hot New York experimental magazines. I think that the papers and the magazines stopped publishing poems partly because the poems that they were publishing weren't hip anymore, and the new poems were too hard to understand.
American Poet: In a sense, poetry closed itself off from the world.
Hass: Yes, I think in a way it did. I think the modernists rose up to bite the hand that was feeding them just at the moment that the hand was being withdrawn. Pound was in that way kind of missionary--he really thought that he was going to change the reading habits of a country. But I also think that they had a more "classist" idea of who was going to read and who wasn't going to read. We feel like fewer people are reading because we really imagine that everybody should. But the modernists imagined a small upper-middle class as their audience, and they were trying to improve the taste of that small upper-middle class. There were writers like Sandburg, of course, of whom that wasn't true.
American Poet: Overall, do you feel that this was a mistake--something we should now be trying to address?
Hass: Well, it's hard to say that such a rich and inspired tradition of writing was a mistake. It's a tradition I belong to and a tradition that I pledged myself to. So, no, I don't feel that. Milosz, in his eighties, looks back across all the generations of experimental writing that he's lived through, from Valéry and symbolist writing and the early surrealist writing of his youth, through many of the forms of modernism, and as an old man, having seen an awful lot of the horror of the twentieth century, has an ideal of writing poems that are as plain and accessible as possible. So it's interesting to me to have been in Berkeley at a time when there was this terrifically interesting postmodern poetics that was if anything even more difficult for ordinary readers than modernism, at the same time that I was translating this old poet who had tried on every avant-garde movement of his time and had come to the conclusion that they were mostly the vanity of wounded artists who hated the middle class that they grew up in.
I think that an awful lot of American writing since the 1950s was in some ways anti-modernist, and that one of the reasons that poetry is undergoing this small boom is that people are turning to it and finding it surprisingly accessible, despite many years of education by teachers trained by New Critics to think that poetry was the best way to teach children analytic and interpretive skills in school--which could certainly kill off anything, you know? Somebody did a survey of college freshman and asked what was the single poem that they hated most in high school, and by a great measure the single most hated poem was Williams's "Red Wheelbarrow." What does that tell you? It tells me that such an innocent poem has been used by thousands of schoolteachers who asked "why does he say glazed with rainwater?" and "why are the chickens white?" So I'm sure there's also a pedagogy issue. Still, there's no reason that we should not have a difficult and demanding art.
But back to the question of the spoken word movement--I think it's very healthy for an art to have strong popular roots. Any art. I'm glad that people are reading all those terrible novels on airplanes. It means that people are reading. When Brodsky died, many people were quoting him when they would call me for statements, as saying "poetry is the last defense against the vulgarity of the human heart." And I know what he means--but at the same time, literature needs to be rooted in a vulgarity. Then it can act like a Jacob's ladder to other things. Basho's definition of aestheticism: it's like a tree that bears blossoms but no fruit. You want to make sure that your art is fruit-bearing.
American Poet: Do you think our literary culture requires tending as we move into the twentieth century, or is it more of a stream that flows of its own accord?
Hass: I think that ultimately we sit and watch it. But I think that from the point of view of writers--and also of arts administrators--that it's better to do something than to do nothing. Where the arts are concerned, we are heirs to a populist American or even a socialist dream that really terrific art should be available to everybody, through a wide public education and a lively culture. I'm still committed to that idea, and I think there are lots of things we can do. To that end, I went to the Washington Post and said, "There's great poetry out there, and people would like to read it," and they said okay. So I've been writing a weekly column in which I print a poem each week and just comment on it, briefly. And people have loved it--I've been getting hundreds of letters from people, and it's being syndicated around the country.
There are things we can do. I hope--if I can find a way to institutionalize things like the high school poetry contest--that because the themes are local, the local newspapers will print the poems of the children who win, and maybe the national newspapers will print the national winners, and so on. Part of me thinks "Bob, what are you doing? Why don't you just go out to the coast and sit in your shed and write your poems--this is futile, just futile." But I think it's worth it to try to reach out in whatever ways--anyway, that's the devil's compact I agreed to when I took this job.
American Poet: Was taking the job a difficult choice for you?
Hass: Yes. I thought about it for over a month. I was really in some agony over it, partly because I knew it would mean a lot of travel. My stepdaughter is a junior in high school, she only has a couple of years left at home, and I knew I was going to be away a lot. I had seen a little bit of the way Rita Dove had attacked the job, and knew that if you were going to do it, especially at this moment, it meant being an activist in some way. When I was a student during Vietnam and the civil rights era, I was very political. And I thought I had to choose between the two lives of poetry and politics, because politics takes lots of evenings and meetings, interacting with people. I chose not to do that as my way of life, and here I am back in it. But I think if different ones of us take turns doing it, it might be of some help. I've met with organizations all over the country concerned with the environment, with literacy, with literature, and with the arts, and there are a hell of a lot of people and organizations out there doing really imaginative work to try to make this a more livable and just place to live in. When I began, I was seeing the world in some way from the newspapers and it felt like the world was being taken over by neoconservatives who were preaching Adam Smith two hundred years after the fact--free market economics in a really insane and destructive way--but really there are many people doing a lot of good work.
American Poet: Most of our readers are patrons of the arts. What else can they do for poetry in America?
Hass: Well, to come back to my other theme, we have to recognize that this is a really amazing time for poetry. There are several Nobel Laureates in poetry living and working in the United States--Seamus Heaney, Czeslaw Milosz, Derek Walcott, and until this year, Joseph Brodsky--and others in fiction. There are truly great writers living among us--some, like Joseph, came because the United States was a particularly hospitable place for poets. There are whole new kinds of poetry, the poetry of whole populations who were mute until fifteen years ago--Native American poets, lively Asian-American poetry, and there's been another generation of interesting African-American and Latino poets. There's terrific work being done. Among the language poets and others, there's a new avant-garde. And then, in the midst of all that, there's the work of people like Merrill and Ashbery and Kinnell and Snyder and Ginsberg and Rich, not to mention the writers of my generation. It's an exciting time.
There are very specific things that people can do to support poetry institutionally. One is to go to their local radio stations and television stations, and find ways to get poets on public television and on the radio. Find ways to do it. If the purveyors understand that people want it, they'll provide it. Go to your local newspaper and ask, "Why don't you print poetry?" All through the nineteenth century we printed poetry in our newspapers--why don't we have a common language anymore? Practical and simple things like that. Then, there are many organizations that provide infrastructure for the arts, in cities, and they all need volunteers, they can all use funding. Speak to local bookstore owners, make sure that they're well-stocked--and the best way to convince them of that is to buy books, and encourage people to buy books. Those are all simple, eminently practical things that people can do. I've seen that there is great hunger for poetry in the world, and if you knock on the door, it's likely to open.