Hass On Prose Poems, Political Poetry, And "Rusia En 1931" Essay, Research Paper
Excerpts from an interview with Hass by the Iowa
Review in 1991
Question: Why a prose poem, and what is a prose poem?
Hass: I haven’t arrived for myself at any very satisfactory
formulation of what a prose poem is. Certainly it has something to do with condensation .
. . I don’t know how to define it in terms of genre, and when I was working, I guess
I just stopped trying to think about that. What I did think about was what the
conventions of the prose poem were. At the time that I was starting to write them, the
prose poem, as it had been revived in America, was used almost entirely for a kind of
wacky surrealist work, and I think that nervousness about using prose was that then you
had to put a lot of what people thought was poetic—that is to say, wildness
and imagination and free association—into it to make sure that it was poetry, because
if it got too near the conventions and sentence sounds of expository prose or narrative
prose . . . then it really wasn’t poetry. So almost as soon as I started working, I
got interested in those boundaries: what the prose poem wasn’t supposed to
sound like . . .
It almost seemed like photography to me, and it gave me a feeling that I wanted to
experiment with the form . . . I wrote a whole lot of them, and I got interested in
textures, the way that you would with a given palette . . . I felt excited because I knew
it [a particular prose poem, "Churchyard"] was exactly what the prose poem
wasn’t supposed to be. It was too much like the sound of expository prose. . .
Later, something else occurred to me: I was working in these forms because they had a
certain outwardness that verse didn’t have. I think I was at a time . . . when things
were going on in my life that I didn’t want to look at, didn’t want to feel. And
I wanted to keep writing, so I unconsciously started writing prose to avoid the stricter
demands of incantation. When I was doing it, it seemed to be exploratory; in retrospect,
it seems a sort of long escape . . .
. . . the whole time I was working on the prose poem I knew that somehow I never
particularly loved the idea of the prose poem. But it was interesting to me to
think about a larger form that might mix verse and prose . . .
Question: I wonder what your thoughts are about being a poet in
America in the ‘90s, and particularly in terms of politics.
Hass: Well, it’s a dilemma to know how to be political now and
also how to think about politics, but it’s a dilemma whatever you are . . . When I
was in graduate school, I was very involved in politics. In Palo Alto, a group of us
started a newspaper, a community self-help organization, and a free university, and there
was a polticial organization that went with all of this. When I finished all my graduate
work, I had to make a decision, whether to stay there and figure somehow to make a living
while continuing this work, or go be a professor and get on with my life as a writer . . .
The job, itself, my own writing, and the kind of emotional issues I deal with in the
writing all took me away from politics outside my immediate community . . . The social
world returns a bit in Human Wishes . . . I think that if you’re somebody who
thinks about that stuff, it enters your writing. And for some writers—if you’re
South African or something like that—it’s an inescapable subject. The problem
for American writers, particularly for white male American writers, is that it is an
escapable subject . . . I think we’re all haunted by the martyrdom of Mandelstam out
of a kind of bad conscience . . .
Anyway, I think about politics a lot; I go through periods when I don’t think
about it at all, but then at other times I think about it a lot, and I’ve written
about how one things about it. I don’t think that there’s any easy solution to
the present retreat . . .
I think political writing is problematic . . . People say that being antipolitical is
ultimately subversive, but there’s always Oppen’s example hovering over
one’s head, saying that subversive is a dime a dozen, all artists think they’re
subversive. Don’t flatter yourself . . .
So it’s puzzling. I know what I hate, but I know less and less about how to change
it. That’s why I said in "Rusia en 1931": "Poetry proposes no
solutions: it says justice is the well water of the city of Novgorod, black and
sweet." Mandelstam’s great political ideal was the Italian city-state, and the
most Italian city-state in the Russia of the Middle Ages was Nizhni Novgorod, and it was
famous for being a free place because they didn’t tax you for the well water.
Anybody, citizen or not, had access to the well water at any time. It was his image of a
just, small society. And I think that’s right; I think the task of art is to over and
over again make images of a livable common life . . .
Another task is to make images of justice: make ideal images or make outraged images or
just do witness. There are all the usual tasks . . . It’s part of the job of being a
poet, but you’ll always feel a little bit like a voyeur and a tourist writing those
poems. And a little uneasy reading them. But the choice is that or silence, and so you do
it . . . The trick—I’ve seen it in Milosz’s work especially—is to
write very honestly about the actual dilemmas, which means thinking about them clearly,
which means not flattering yourself that you know what the solutions are . . .
Not writing from knowing the answers . . .
I guess a lot of the questions in poetry can only be answered by poetry. That is they
can only be answered by dramatizing and intensifying the contradictions which we suppress
in everyday life in order to get on with it . . .
from "An Informal Occasion with Robert Hass," Iowa Review 21:3 (1991),
Excerpt from an interview with Hass by Sarah Pollock in 1997
Pollock: In your poem "English: An Ode," from your current
volume [Sun Under Wood], you write, "There are those who think it’s in
fairly bad taste/ to make habitual reference to social and political problems/ in poems.
To these people it seems a form of melodrama/ or self-aggrandizement, which it no doubt
partly is." It seems you’re railing against certain constraints about being
political in your work.
Hass: I thought a long time about whether to cut that from the poem.
It’s myself I’m arguing with—the part of me that thinks it’s just in
bad taste because, finally, you’re preaching to the converted. I suppose there’s
something to be said for the sheer reinforcement of our beliefs, but really I think poetry
is more useful as disenchantment than enchantment. And the record of peotry in the 20th
century isn’t all that great anyway. Most of the poets who weren’t fascists were
The poem that comes closest to what I think is the one in Human Wishes called
"Rusia en 1931." This poem is about Mandelstam, who was a great poet and
an anti-Stalinist, and Vallejo, who was a great poet and a Stalinist. Mandelstam was
killed by Stalinist forces. Vallejo was at least metaphorically killed by fascist forces,
in the sense that he wore himself out raising funds for the Republicans in the Spanish
Civil war and got sick and died. Poetry, when it takes sides, when it proposes solutions,
isn’t any smarter than anybody else.
But Mandlestam, who wasn’t a poltical thinker, loved the idea of the city-state.
One of the emblems in his poetry of the politics he imagined, over and against the
universalizing politics of Marx, was the medieval city of Novgorod, which had in its
center a public well where the water was free to everyone. That became for him a figure of
justice. So I say, "Poetry proposes no solutions: it says justice is the well water
fo the city of Novgorod, balck and sweet," because
I think that the job of poetry, its political job, is to refresh the idea of justice,
which is going dead in us all the time
From Sarah Pollock, "Robert Hass," Mother
Jones 22 (March/April 1997), 18-22.