Time and Materials: Poems, 1997-2005 is Robert Hass' first collection of poems to emerge in the past ten years. Hass is a familiar name in the contemporary world of poetry. He has been awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award twice, and was the poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. He is a professor at the University of Berkeley and is presently a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He has co-translated the work of Nobel Prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz. The present book has lapped up a National Book Awards nomination, and received rave reviews from poets and journalists alike.
What is a poem? Is it a piece that must be interpreted on the basis of what it contains, or based on who has written it? Is the identity of the 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, the 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 Hass needs to mention Lucretis. Throughout the book, I wonder why he needs to evoke so many names and places that, unless comprehension is grasped by an erudite reader and a world traveler, the references are entirely lost. 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.