Twentieth-Century Pleasures – Robert Hass

Hass’ essays are amazing. He obviously loves what he’s talking about and often brings in life experience and family to illustrate his points.

In the essay ‘Images’ Hass looks at Haiku. Haiku seems to be the ultimate image-based poetry (even though form is also very important). The essay starts by looking at evidence of family activity: The towels drying on the fence, the note left by the daughter. These are images that are full of meaning to Hass as a parent but he says:

I had written about beach towels drying on a fence at the end of August in the early morning heat. I think it pleased me as much as anything I wrote last year, but I knew that it had seemed slight to everyone who had seen it. I had somehow not gotten it right.

Hass’ honesty in his own failing is endearing. He goes on to suggest that if he’d taken the image to Basho, he would have been accused of trying too hard to say unusual things.

This is something to keep in mind about images: is the image still interesting out of context? I feel that this image for Hass is loaded with family and holiday; an understanding that readers do not necessarily associate with towels drying on a fence.

But then it is these associations that give images more power. Hass talks about a Buson poem:

Apprentice’s holiday:
hops over kite string,
keeps going.

It is important to know that Apprentice’s holiday is associated with kite-flying and that it was a day people learning trades were given to go and visit family. Knowing this makes the action of hopping over the string and carrying on (presumably to visit family) so purposeful, and the way the string is tight suggests a whole image of the flying kite – even though we never see the kite. Similar associations can be made in Haiku as the seasons are often suggested by the colour of things: yellowing fields, blossom, snow and so forth.

‘One Body: Some Notes on Form’ again starts with a family memory. The essay is concerned with how form works with intention in poetry to create a sense or feeling. Hass writes “I am thinking of the form of a poem, the shape of its understanding. The presence of that shaping constitutes the presence of poetry.” He says it is not the tone, image or qualities of the content that create or shape the poem into existence, but form.

I found this essay so interesting and quite complicated. I’m not sure I totally understand form in this sense, as it is different to using rhythm or sound-making. I am, however, thinking quite consciously about form in terms of how a poem feels and looks on the page. If the poem is set in a wide landscape, I try to give the poem the space to fill this, often with longer lines and shorter stanzas.

Another thing I’m interested in is rhythm. In ‘Listening and Making’, Hass talks about the purpose of rhythm and how patterns can be made and broken according to content and theme. He writes that it is not the syllables or length of a line, but the amount of stresses that creates the rhythm. He looks at some cases where the pattern is created by stresses and pauses and then inverted at the end. For example, the metric pattern of Yeats’ lines

When you are OLD and GREY/ and FULL of SLEEP

And NODding by the FIRE,/ TAKE DOWN this BOOK

And SLOWly READ,/ and DREAM of the SOFT LOOK

Your EYES HAD ONCE,/ and of their SHAdows DEEP.






where the pattern is reversed in last line. Hass says “Life and death, odd and even are the terms of play.” I find this fascinating that the rhythm would be so connected with the themes of this poem. I wonder how consciously the poet creates and distorts these patterns or if it is something that just sounds right in the writing. It does seem that there should be a physical shift in the poem if the poem has shifted to a different place thematically. Often it is the change in rhythm that alerts the change in tone.

Line length is important when looking at rhythm, so that a line does not carry too many pauses, which could drag. In this sense, line breaks should occur where the stresses fit, and not necessarily where length, content or syllables are concerned.

Form and function appear crucial when looking at poetry this way. And why not? A poem should surely be created meaningfully with images, rhythm and form that suit the purpose and add up to its shaping and coming into being.


One thought on “Twentieth-Century Pleasures – Robert Hass

Leave a Reply