Hass On Prose Poems Political Poetry And

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.



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