Feb 27, 2009

Materials and Time Mostly Wasted

I suppose it’s about time to take on the wearisome chore of discussing Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, the book of poetry that won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2007. I know, I know, I’m a little slow in taking up this matter. But if the book is important and valuable, then a review should matter as much now as it did a year ago, at least. (And if it’s highly important, it should matter 50 or 500 years from now, right?)

You may well guess that I didn’t find much to admire about Hass’s latest work. (Does any classicist out there? Please let me know, one way or another. The photo is of Hass reading from the book.) So why, you might ask, bother with this dreary chore at all? Only because Hass was once a student of Yvor Winters’s and has thought himself competent to speak about Winters from time to time in print, even though he has distorted and misrepresented Winters’s ideas.

So what do I think of his prize-winning collection? Very little. There are a few strong turns of phrase, a few good lines, some snatches of good prose (broken into, in the common affectation of our literary culture, lines), some dimly memorable moments, but not a single wholly successful poem -- and certainly not one good or great poem.

This is Hass’s his first collection since stepping down as U.S. Poet Laureate. For the first time that I know of in Hass’s career he makes poetry and politics bedfellows. But Time and Materials is a mish-mash. It stirs together occasional pieces, imitations, a couple translations, some long narrative poems that are Hass's trademark, and a couple of prose poems.

I won’t cover much in the book, but I think the best writing in this slim volume is on politics. In the face of the controversial Iraq War that George IV dragged this country into, Hass has clearly decided not to keep his poetry free from political argument. I find this commendable, even though William Logan challenged this in his review of the book in the New Criterion. At least Hass is trying to communicate some ideas clearly and sharply. When it comes to the four anti-war poems in Time and Materials, they do “fall like bombshells,” as some reviewer wrote, in the latter half of the book, dropping upon readers quite unexpectedly, given Hass’s previous books. Other pieces take up other political causes, such as the human cost of global finance. Many of these poems stuck in my mind, however briefly. The most compelling, I thought, is "Bush's War," a long meditation on innocence lost to violence, a poem which shows Hass trying to write polemically:

I typed the brief phrase, "Bush's War,"
At the top of a sheet of white paper,
Having some dim intuition of a poem
Made luminous by reason that would,
Though I did not have them at hand,
Set the facts out in an orderly way.
This isn’t poetry, nor even verse, in my judgment, and it still appears that Hass is skeptical of poetry that has this kind of subject matter. He admits to arguing from facts he doesn't possess, but at least he’s trying to think, rather than to offer more of his customary blather about the fragments of his trivial personal life, which are ever drifting along the brackish, sluggish stream of his experience. True, his call to the light of "reason" even seems to stir with sarcasm, and the poem is written in very loose, almost wholly inappropriate language, a flaccid, mealy prose. But, as I say, he does take a shot at an important subject and at a rational argument of some sort:

The rest of us have to act like we believe
The dead women in the rubble of Baghdad
Who did not cast a vote for their deaths
Or the raw white of the exposed bones
In the bodies of their men or their children
Are being given the gift of freedom
Which is the virtue of the injured us.
It's hard to say which is worse, the moral
Sloth of it or the intellectual disgrace.

As William Logan pointed out, Hass sounds like he’s lecturing. But contrary to Logan, I find this something to take seriously. Nonetheless, Hass clearly hasn’t thought too well about situation he describes and judges. For every war, just or unjust, leaves in its wake many dead and suffering who did not deserve to suffer or die. Yet honorable and virtuous human beings have judged that some acts of mass governmental violence are worth the cost in lost lives and human suffering, as is the common judgment concerning the Second World War and the American Civil War, to consider only two examples. Hass shows little sign that he has a mind that can help us get beyond liberal cant, however much I happen to agree with the cant as applied to this one instance. Can Hass think less slothfully than the prosecutors of the Iraq War, think deeply about a difficult subject? It doesn’t seem so. But at least he’s doing a little bit of thinking through poetry, for goodness sake. For that I applaud him.

But what of the poetry in those lines I just quoted? They have a nice rhythm and several sharp turns of phrase. They give the feel that the poem has structure because of the stack of prepositional phrases that Hass erects and because all the lines end at natural grammatical breaks. But there is no meter. Overall, in contrast to a lot of Hass’s poetry, these lines have the feel of near-verse. They certainly are better than a lot of the trivial blather in this book.

Hass may wish he'd tried thinking in poetry a lot sooner than now. "Bush's War" and the similar political poems in this volume give attention to World War II, Vietnam, and the Korean War. These poems are fast-paced and disjunctive, lurching from horrific moment to horrific moment with little pause where contemplation can focus. As "Bush's War" reels from Nazi death camps to 9/11 to Iraq, Hass laments "a taste for power/ That amounts to contempt for the body." He seems to be fighting not political war-hawks or the moral dangers of state violence, but the destruction of physical being itself. But, alas, and predictably, you can’t quite be sure (a typical weakness). Still, at least, for me, he’s fighting for something, anything!, in verse.

I will only turn to one other poem amid all the very minor works to be found in Time and Materials. This is the only poem that has really struck me, though it is a prosetic musing, not a poem. It’s a prose narrative:

When I was a child my father every morning --
Some mornings, for a time, when I was ten or so,
My father gave my mother a drug called antabuse.
It makes you sick if you drink alcohol.
They were little yellow pills. He ground them
In a glass, dissolved them in water, handed her
The glass and watched her closely while she drank.
It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,
A social world, in which the men got up
And went to work, leaving the women with the children.

This is a cruel story, confessional and disturbing. You dearly want to know whether Hass has something important to say about this material, though I was worried as I read it that the poem would fall flat. The father here is a vague figure, someone of cold practicality whom we can’t quite understand without more information. But just when Hass might begin to explore his mother’s drunken benders, which have given rise to his father’s treatment of her, Hass calls up rather, with supreme pretentiousness, the scene of Aeneas escaping the flames of Troy with his father astride his shoulders. After that nonsense comes the denouement:

Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world -- about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things -- from somewhere.

Whuh? you stammer. That’s it? That’s what he has learned, what he wants us to learn from the wrenching scene he describes at length in this poem. What a waste. Hass appeared to building toward something. But typical of his work, perhaps typical of most modern poetry, the poem almost makes a flatulent sound as it falls flat, as Hass refuses to offer anything truly insightful about an arresting and compelling subject.

As usual -- as is typical of modern art, in fact -- Hass seems to expect us, his readers, to decide what to make of this disturbing family story, thereby forsaking his role as the visionary of life that we should expect our artists to strive to be. The poem takes a typically diffident, weak-kneed approach. Yet I give credit to Hass for trying, however feebly, to fathom big ideas, like justice and power. He even looks at what we now call “gender.” These aren’t trivial themes, though William Logan said in his New Criterion review that he thinks little of them, especially the matter of gender (“What was a harrowing family portrait finishes as a lecture on gender”). But to my mind the problem is not that Hass wants to explore the issue of “gender” in light of this old family incident; it’s that he finds almost nothing to say. The lecture is empty. Hass is such a meager thinker, at least as he is willing to reveal in poetry, that he has no compelling insight to give us based upon the striking and valuable anecdote. What are we to think about gender issues in light of this anecdote? What gender issues is he even talking about? In the poem, Hass betrays no pity for his father, the man guilty of a terrible crime, who did not want to leave his son with a drunk. Or is there? Are we expected to feel pity for the father as well as the mother? Well, you can feel any way you wish about anything in the poem. What does Hass want us to think? What evaluation of the theme are we meant to take with us, what vision of life? Hass leaves it to us to answer such questions, another instance of one of the most typical and worst errors of modern writing.

The writing in this poem isn’t stupid. It’s just weak. It’s unconscionably hesitant. True poetry, great poetry, seeks so much more. Readers should want more from their poets. I want poets who declaim, who are hortatory, who’ve got something to say, agree or disagree. They should seek to enlighten us, guide us to understanding. That was what Yvor Winters was after, a point I could discuss at quite great length. Hass seemed about to let go and really lecture. But he seems to have locked himself in the prison of modernism, where all he was allowed to do was mumble his way to a close.

As many have pointed out, poetry for Robert Hass has started to become a matter of conscience. But he has not found a way to get past the late modernist conventions that flatten and weaken his thought. And what he’s writing, all in all, is not poetry, except by self-definition. It’s prose, or what I call prosetic musing. It’s often not even good prose, as William Logan also pointed out in his review. The syntax is badly wobbly. The movement from thought to thought is often pointless, sometimes even silly. Modifiers dangle and phrases are strung out. Logan seems to think that Hass is avoiding the “poetry of witness” -- Logan considers this deadly contemporary genre -- to write the “poetry of lecture.” Contrary to William Logan, whom I read and respect, I wouldn’t mind some lecturing, if the lectures were sound and well executed in good verse.

And what, finally, of the much-praised descriptive passages of Time and Materials? One poem that received a good deal of attention, “State of the Planet” (yet another polemic of sorts) starts with one of Hass’s pastoral moments that he is so fond of:

Through blurred glass
Gusts of a Pacific storm rocking a huge, shank-needled
Himalayan cedar. Under it a Japanese plum
Throws off a vertical cascade of leaves the color
Of skinned copper.

This is not poetry. It’s descriptive prose. But things actually get better when he starts droning on about chlorofluorocarbons, passages which William Logan finds weak. He preaches a bit about the destruction of the ozone layer, which ain’t a bad thing to write about (though probably not the best subject matter for poetry to get a grip on). Logan thinks this kind of thing is just plain boring, the preaching that is. But I rather think, again, that Hass’s problem is that he has nothing to say, nothing that even has a shot at persuading us. It’s mostly the usual clichés, jumbled together and boiled until they’re turned into a grayish pulp. Another poem offers a potted history of aerial bombardment in Vietnam and another an account of the horrors of the Korean War. Neither is a poem. The piles of facts are not properly organized or explored. Hass seems to want them to serve as parables. But he winds up with muddles that fail to advance our understanding of any of these matters one whit.

It's disappointing that Hass didn’t accomplish more with this new effort to infuse poetry with politics. There are many other poems in Time and Materials on other matters, but I don’t wish to take up any more of them, none of which are very distinguished. He offers poems about poetic impotence, and some meditations on time the destroyer and time the error-maker. There are other poems about vague boomer disappointments. Overall, there’s not much to any of it. I don’t think the book is worth reading. But if you want to put yourself through some frustration, go ahead. Rather quickly, I think, Hass’s musings in this book will be forgotten.

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