New Year’s morning –
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average
From After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa
By Robert Hass
The poet I’ve started the year with is Robert Hass, my interest piqued by an essay on him in Tony Hoagland’s fascinating Real Sofistikashun (Graywolf Press, 2006).
…Hass might be described as a speculative describer who has made a tender tentativeness part of his style. Even moving through his own mind, it seems, he has the delicacy of an ecologist who wants to record an environment without disturbing a leaf. At the same time that Hass is tonally tentative, he is also resourcefully inquisitive, ever probing into other sources and pockets of consideration. It is the paradoxical blend of these qualities – gentility combined with a probing persistence – that best describes his poetics. His ability to register and collate the subtleties of subjective and objective is exceptional.
That overlapping of subjective and objective is a tricky thing to pull off – anchoring the imagination in the real without getting its feet wet – but it lies at the heart of everything we perceive and might write about.
All knowledge rests on the coincidence of an object with a subject.
I was immediately drawn to one of Hass’s poems called ‘The Problem of Describing Trees’:
The Problem of Describing Trees
The aspen glitters in the wind
And that delights us.
The leaf flutters, turning, because that motion in the heat of August
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.
The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.
It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.
Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.
The aspen doing something in the wind.
I recognize that struggle of saying ‘what is’ without adding or subtracting anything, while still holding true to the I/eye’s response. I particularly like the line:
It’s good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.
I seem to keep coming across talk about the need for ‘re-enchantment’, based on the idea that we have lost our sense of the mystery of things. While that may be true, it is also possible to look at our current situation another way: that we are burdened by too much enchantment, bewitched by the media and the material world so utterly we have lost any sense of what’s underneath all the glitter and hunger. Despite its capacity for truth-telling and clarity, poetry (as an expression of our cluttered, foggy, polluted minds) can also tell it so slant that it tells it wrong. Just so much more smoke and mirrors.
Coleridge again, in 1796:
Poetry – excites us to artificial feelings – makes us callous to real ones.
We mistake words for the things themselves and hold onto them only inasmuch as they serve our particular view of things. The words don’t care – they’re only words. Aren’t language, views, poems all just our own open questions? On a good day we hear them singing and can dance.
In the long winter nights, a farmer’s dreams are narrow.
Over and over, he enters the furrow.