New Laureate Wields Bully Pen for Poetry

Article excerpt

PERHAPS everyone is at the football game nearby. At any rate, the cafe is unhurried. Robert Hass bites a sandwich, crunching its wedges of green-skinned apple. He pauses, then recalls the heroes of his youth, none of whom wore cleats.

"One thing about growing up in the Bay Area in the 1950s was the Beat thing in San Francisco," he says. "There were poets around. It seemed like something you could be."

Today's youths may feel differently. In a culture where heroes are increasingly defined by their shoe contracts, poetry may seem out of place, a quaint art from the days before MTV.

Mr. Hass, who today becomes the nation's eighth poet laureate, hopes to change that perception. He wants to make his art more accessible - via everything from poets in schools to more verse in newspapers.

An English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hass is considered a skillful translator of classical haiku and, more recently, the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. As a poet, his influences range from Beat to bebop to Bob Dylan.

He has long found art in the distractions of the ordinary. From neglected apple trees along the Pacific Coast, to couples eating drowsily in museum cafes, to the simple act of picking up his children after school, it is day-to-day detail that drives Hass's poems.

"Hass is able to talk in a conversational way about everything from the mushrooms he's picking one minute to heavy philosophical subjects the next," says Dan Halpern, an editor at Ecco Press, which publishes the poet's works.

Broadening poetry's reach

As poet laureate, he may be able to bring to a wider audience the joy he finds in language. From his earliest days of discovery, when he and his brother would stay up late on summer nights reading Robert Lowell and Rudyard Kipling to each other, Hass was captivated by the musical aspect of verse.

Poetry "has a feeling of true things being said in powerful ways that are very measured," he says in an emery-board voice. If it hits home, he says, "something happens to you and you say, 'Oh, it would be great to make other people feel it.' "

Hass's central theme is his perception of the coincidence of pleasure and pain in the human experience, a mixture he calls "bewildering."

Admirers, such as Lee Briccetti of Poet's House in New York, call Hass's works "nourishment for the soul and mind." They count him among the leading influences for young poets.

Critics say he is too sentimental, prosaic, and self-conscious. "Hass thinks about Jacques Lacan while picking blackberries," notes Boston poet William Corbett. "He's reaching there. I don't think all poets mull over things like that."

But few who are familiar with either his work or the man himself doubt that Hass, in his capacity as laureate, will make an eloquent spokesman for his art. The American poetry community is vibrant, spreading through the Internet and urban cafes in as many different directions as there are political and social interest groups.

Following African-American poet Rita Dove, Hass's selection as the first laureate from the West Coast continues a celebration of that diversity. Yet the poetry community remains, in large part, a community of participants, overshadowed by Brad Pitt and Hootie & the Blowfish.

"There's lots of activity in American poetry," Mr. Corbett says. "But it's an art in search of an audience outside itself. The energy and vitality that used to go into poetry is now going into movies and rock-and-roll."

With a demeanor as easy as well-worn jeans, Hass has a gentle, witty way of making poetry accessible. "He is a great thinker on American culture," Ms. Briccetti says, "one of the best essayists on the art. He reaches out to a broad audience."

As laureate, Hass has four ideas about how to make poetry more accessible. One involves giving inner-city students in Washington the same kind of models he found in the Beat poets. …