Sunday, November 11, 2007

Time and Materials by Robert Hass

Time and Materials: Poems, 1997-2005 by Robert Hass is his first collection of poems to emerge in past ten years. Hass is a familiar name in the contemporary world of poetry. He has been awarded National Book Critics Circle Award twice, and was the poet laureate of the US from 1995-1997. He is a professor at University of Berkeley and is presently a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He has co-translated the work of Nobel-winner, Czeslaw Milosz. The present book has lapped up a National Book Awards nomination, and received rave reviews from the poets and journalists alike.

What is a poem? Is it a piece that must be interpreted on basis of what it contains, or based on who has written it? Is the identity of poet important? Do his past achievements bias us to read his poems more favorably? Great poets and artists, irrespective of their reputation during their lifetimes, manage to produce works that transcend time, space, language and meaning. The toolbox is words, workstation is a solitary, barely visible corner chair and table, and the audience is firstly the writer's innate desire to create, and then maybe, a slew of readers who open the book. For a poet with the credentials of Hass, the audience is ensured, and what I wish to examine is if his poems justify the applause for a reader like me. I wish to read his poems with a wonder and appreciation that reviewers have expressed everywhere.

Here is excerpt from one of the poems "State of the planet", and this is representative of typical lines in Hass poetry and the arguments I am about to make:

"Poetry should be able to comprehend the earth,
To set aside from time to time its natural idioms
Of ardor of revulsion, and say, in a style as sober
As the Latin of Lucretis, who reported to Venus
On the state of things two thousand years ago....."

In reading poems by Hass, I found myself at lines which gave me intense feelings: I ravish the first three lines in this example, and then I begin to wonder why does Hass need a mention of Lucretis. Throughout the book, I wonder why he needs to evoke so many names and places that unless it is an erudite reader and a world traveler, the references are entirely lost on the reader. We, as beginning poets, are often asked to write self-contained poems, where images and metaphors stand on their realization by readers. We, as beginner poets, are asked to shun the abstract words, and the mention of painters, philosophers, poets and mythical figures, for cameos contaminate attention. In the poems by Hass, these rules are set aside. We watch paintings by Vermeer, we hear of Czeslaw Milosz, Horace, Whitman, Stevens and Nietzsche. We are at times in Mexican desert, in Bangkok and then we are entirely in the world of Dostoevsky. While at times, I enjoy these interludes, I want to know how Hass or the critics would react to a Hass-like poem written by a poet without Hass-like reputation.

Time and Materials strikes to me as a fairly unusual set of poems, where my own sensibilities as a poet are set aside. I am thrust into long, winding sentences, abstract and quirky details, forty-fifty line poems without stanzas and ten-fifteen words before line-breaks. Here as an example, I quote a line from Hass (and I loved this line): "The human imagination does not do well with large numbers." In another poem, he says, "It must be a gift of evolution that humans/Can't sustain wonder." So given he expresses these sentiments in his poems, I cannot comprehend why he has chosen this style. But a poem "Bush War" (featured in Best American Poetry last year) contains some remarkable and honest reflections on past wars, and strikes me an example of how the Hass-poems can work in spite of their verbosity.

Hass has translated great Haiku masters in the past. His own poems carry many Haiku-like phrases - where an apt image illustrates an emotion and an idea tersely. There are poems where he lets me breathe, stop, gasp, repeat lines to myself. There are lines where I shake my head vigorously and cannot appreciate the idea, the wordplay, the metaphor. I judge him more harshly than I would judge most poets, for he is one of the foremost poets of the country. After Robert Frost, America has not produced a poet who can transcend borders and cultures, and perhaps his poems can provide us a notion of why. Overall, I would still ask you to read Time and Materials, savor the humane moments and the montage of experience plastered all over the poems. I will leave you with the opening poem of the book:


In the long winter nights, a farmer's dream are narrow.
Over and over, he enters the furrow.

(Also on


Vivek Sharma said...


#1 — November 13, 2007 @ 18:20PM — Natalie Bennett [URL]

This article has been selected for syndication to , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Nice work!

#2 — November 13, 2007 @ 21:45PM — Vivek Sharma [URL]


How do I figure out when and where it will be published?


Vivek Sharma said...

The Book review was syndicated and appears today on

and on

Vivek Sharma said...

It seems to have found itself on other places:)