Thursday, 31 January 2013

What Light Can Do: Robert Hass

Essays on Art, Imagination and the Natural World.

I've always loved the poetry of Robert Hass, (I have his Apple Trees at Olema) though I had never read any of his essays.  Now, this is rapidly becoming one of my favourite books - on Kindle - and I'm buying a hard copy to read and re-read and underline and scribble in the margins - it's that kind of book.  What he says, and the way he says it, makes it a must-read.

In a week when Sharon Olds won the TS Eliot prize for poetry I re-read an essay sub-titled 'Poor Monkeys and the White Business in the Trees'.  It's a thoughtful discussion of autobiographical poetry about families.  Hass points out that it was a new subject when Robert Lowell published 'Life Studies' in 1959.  'It is a fact,'  Hass observes, 'that [you] can learn nothing about the aunts or the grandmothers of John Donne, Thomas Traherne, Anne Finch, Alexander Pope... John Keats, Emily Dickinson or Robert Browning' from their poetry.  He also feels that it may be a particularly American phenomenon.  'American poetry is full of aunts and grandmothers, but French poetry isn't, or Serbian poetry or Arabic or Brazilian or for that matter, English poetry'. Robert Hass takes us through some theories of Why this might be, which I found fascinating.

One of the essays is a deliberation on war - particularly the Iraq war.  'How did this happen?' Hass asks.  'And why are ordinary Americans not being driven crazy by it?'  The answer he supplies is 'fear, anger and ignorance'.   How could ordinary people be expected to know that 'bombing Saddam Hussein because of a terrorist act perpetrated by Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Muslim terrorists would seem to the people in the Middle East an act of pure aggression against all Islamic cultures by a power that could not distinguish among them.'  But government and the educated media should have been able to and Hass castigates them for their failure to do so, accusing them of 'morally culpable ignorance'.  He states that  'The moral and intellectual failure of American journalists and of political and policy intellectuals was breathtaking'.

There are several 'major' essays in the book;  one of them on 'Chekhov's Anger', which told me quite a lot I didn't know about the author's life as well as providing an illuminating analysis of the work.  Chekhov apparently began his career writing for comic newspapers and magazines in 19th century Russia - the same kind of 'penny dreadfuls' that Herbert Allingham wrote for in Britain.  Chekhov's grandfather had been a serf who had bought his freedom and become a bailiff - the classic case of poacher turning gamekeeper.  Chekhov's father was a small shop-keeper who went bankrupt when he was only 16 and the family moved to Moscow.  Chekhov began publishing stories, sketches and jokes to pay his way through a medical degree.  Soon he was keeping the whole family.

Robert Hass is very good on these early mass-market stories which were the 'equivalent of newspaper cartoons'.  it taught Chekhov a lot about writing - particularly economy.  This is Chekhov writing to Gorky - 'cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you like.  You have so many modifiers that the reader has trouble understanding and gets worn out'.

Hass points out that these early commercial stories have the same structure as the later stories that Chekhov is famous for.  'They depend on a surprise ending, usually, though not always on dramatic reversal, and the surprise in in one way or another wounding . . .  The gasp that the story evokes, the little cry of surprise and discovery, comes out not just because the ending surprises, but because it fits'.  The stories are also witty and it is 'the terrible presence of wit' that takes the stories from pathos into tragedy.  Chekhov knew what he was doing in his fiction and his drama.  'I finish every act as I do my stories;  I keep the action calm and quiet till the end, then I punch the audience in the face.'

Chekhov's anger came from the violent treatment meted out by his father, which he couldn't forgive, as well as the social injustice he witnessed in a Russia building up to civil war.  Anger, Hass observes, can be 'the wellspring of art'.  It reminds me of  Katherine Mansfield, who said that one of the 'kick offs' for her was a 'cry against corruption'.  Anger motivated many of her stories, and Chekhov was one of her big influences.   She too, wrote only short stories, never a novel.

There are other wonderful essays in this book - 'Howl at Fifty' takes another look at Ginsberg 50 years on and compares the style of it to passages from the Waste Land (I'd never made the connection with Eliot before, but it's so obvious I now feel stupid!).  He describes Howl as 'a kind of exploded, hallucinatory autobiography'.  He talks about the genesis of Moloch and observes that 'Moloch has still got hold of a good chunk of the American soul'.

I also loved 'Imagining the Earth' - his essays on eco-poetry and literature, and one on 'Teaching Poetry' which I can't even begin to precis.  It touches on the oral nature of poetry on the page - poetry is 'a kind of speech that's meant to be said by others'.   In other essays he explores the connections between poetry and the natural world. He is pessimistic about our generation's custodianship of the planet. 'What a depleted world our students are inheriting'.  Will they be able to save it? 'The task may be beyond us.'   But  'We have to act as if we can accomplish it, as if we can preserve that richness and diversity.  We have to act as if the soul gets to choose.'

I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves literature - it's a great companion volume to Robert Hass's collected poems too.  Thoughtful, profound, outspoken - the writings of a compassionate individual who is also a great poet.

What Light Can Do:  Essays on Art, Imagination and the Natural World.
Robert Hass.

The Apple Trees at Olema:  New and Selected Poems
Robert Hass.

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