On HUMAN WISHES Essay, Research Paper
[The following excerpts have been chosen for their relevance to
Hass’s poems "Rusia en 1931" (in section 1 of Human Wishes)
and "A Story About the Body" (in section 2 of Human Wishes). These
critics respond positively to Hass’s experimentation with form in Human Wishes,
with one notable exception.]
Darcy Aldan (1990)
The delicacy and sensibility of Robert Hass, as exemplified in . . . Human Wishes,
is a distinct joy to experience in this time when so many published works deal with
violence, aberration, and alienation. His elegant gleanings of essence, often
impressionist in tone, make us aware once again that beauty and meaningful silence still
exist . . .
In part 2 an attempt is made to create the prose poem. Hass’s is not the prose
poem of Mallarm?, Poe, or even W.S. Merwin, but rather similar to those of the Swiss poet
Albert Steffen, who calls his creations "little myths" . . . This section
contains observations, nostalgia, memories, dreams, in sudden beautiful images . . .
From Darcy Aldan, a review of Human Wishes, World Literature Today 64:2
(Spring 1990), 313.
John Ash (1989)
[Human Wishes] raises disturbing questions about what can be said to constitute
a poem today. I am not referring to the fact that the first two of its four sections are
written in prose. In fact the opening sequence of prose poems is by far the best part of
the book. The prose here is elaborate and compacted in such a way that we are left in no
doubt that we are reading poetry, but, despite some good moments, the pieces in the second
section obstinately refuse to catch fire. Inconsequential anecdotes (a visit to the
doctor, an upper-middle-class dinner party, remarks the neighbors made) are recorded in
prose that is unremarkable when not actually clich?d. Hass seems to have fallen victim to
confused intentions and weakly sentimental failings.
Hass has made the common mistake of assuming that the details of middle-class,
intellectual domesticity are innately interesting. This is writing that is confined by
class, writing that routinely signals "sadness," "love" and
"loss" in . . . characterless language. . .
from John Ash, "Going Metric," Book World-The Washington Post, December
31, 1989, 6.
David Barber (1989)
Despite unquestionable similarities in theme and manner, Human Wishes is at once
a more ingratiating and disquieting book than its predecessors. Paradoxically, it appears
as if Hass’s poems now rest easier in their skins even as they feel sharper chills in
. . . Human Wishes confirms that there’s more to Hass than courtly efforts
to keep body and mind on speaking terms. The give and take of passionate dialectics lends
this book its very grain, abstraction answering to detail, pleasure to pain, clarity to
mystery, epiphany to commonplace. Then there’s Hass’s noted penchant for
fleshing out contraries by way of the flesh itself, his candid tracking shot into bedrooms
. . .
In Human Wishes, he’s given himself over almost entirely to the long line
and block stanza, steadfastly adhering to unadorned, prose-like rhythms throughout the
sinuous paragraphs and strict prose poems of the first half of the book . . . Nothing if
not resourceful, he’s cultivated a more open, intimately epistolary verse that makes
room for everything from strenuous metaphysics, beguiling storytelling, and wry
recollections to haiku-like snapshots, flinty epigrams, and tremulous lyricism. Yet, on
another level, the self-effacing withdrawal from poetic shapeliness, the occasionally
stolid essayistic manner, betrays a sensibility increasingly consumed with diminishment
From David Barber, a review of Human Wishes, Boston Review 14:6 (December
Don Bogen (1989)
In Human Wishes he [Hass] consolidates the strengths of his earlier work while
pushing on into fresh territory. The first section of the book, for example, develops a
new kind of line: lengthy, proselike in its rhythms and set off in a stanza by itself.
These lines function as independent postulates in an argument, some plush and physical . .
. others gnarled with abstraction . . .
The second section of Human Wishes consists of prose poems, a form pre-figured
in some of the work in Praise but not developed consistently until now. Rimbaud is
the father of this type of poem, and much American work in the genre still reads like a
bad translation from the French. Hass has avoided the portentousness and easy surrealism
that can afflict paragraphs trying too hard to be poetic. Instead, he looks to narrative
models—the short story, the anecdote—as well as to allegory and the personal
essay as guideposts . . .
Hass’s sense of the interrelatedness of all human endeavor gives his book a
breadth of perspective and a distinct focus . . . It is a mark of Hass’s integrity as
a poet that he rejects the usual consolations here. Art, nature, love—these are
certainly pleasures but not solutions.
From Don Bogen, "A Student of Desire," The Nation 249:20 (December 11,
Mary Lynn Cutler (1999)
. . . [The poems in Human Wishes] dramatize Hass’s struggle to balance the
lyric impulse toward pure image with the need for philosophical reflection . . . he finds
forms that allow a subtle working out of these opposing pressures. Here meditation takes
precedence over lyricism as Hass adopts the longline, the sentence, as his primary mode.
This extended poetic line allows him a greater range of expressive freedom and
philosophical searching than he was able to achieve in his earlier poetry . . .
. . . the second part [of Human Wishes] is a splendid collection of short prose
pieces. The formalistic turn Hass takes in this collection has thematic implications.
Hass’s capacious lines, his abundant catalogues of the everyday, and his disjunctive
logic enact the flourishing yet tenuous nature of language, illumination, and eartly
pleasure. In these poems Hass insits on being accountable to larger social concerns, yet
clings to an awareness of the given world. Any lyric moment, then, must be balanced in
relation to historical imperative . . .
The most striking quality of Human Wishes is the sense of its abundance . . .
Beauty, pain . . .
joy, and despair all have their moment and then pass. This understanding is at the
heart of Human Wishes: the title alludes to Samuel Johnson’s verse satire The
Vanity of Human Wishes (1749). The poems do not refuse human desires but rather affirm
that the current between desire and fulfillment makes possible beauty and erotic pleasure
. . .
from Mary Lynn Cutler, "Robert Hass," Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Vol. 206. Ed. Richard H. Cracroft. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999). 119-27.
Forrest Gander (1991)
Although it was originally advertised as "The Apple Trees at Olema," Hass
retitled the book Human Wishes just before it was typeset . . .
In the first section of Human Wishes, lines spill over at the right margin; they
are not stopped, just as the subject matter, a profusion of incidents and images, runs on.
In mostly one-,two-, and three-lined stanzas, Hass contours the prose line toward
evocation instead of event, toward brilliant moments instead of narration . . .
Throughout the poems in section 1, Hass avoids writing from the perspective of an
"I." His characters range from "a man" and "a woman" to
"they," "we," and "you" . . .
The multiple pronouns parallel the multiple levels of diction, the juxtaposed rhythms,
and the panoply of evoked moments, images, dialogue, and thought that are rapidly and
abruptly revealed in the poems . . . the poems are often synchronic experiences, or
realizations of the relatedness between disparate elements contained in the in the
function of any moment, memory, or image. In this aspect, they are an applied poetics of
new physics; they indicate morphic fields, the connections between all things visible and
invisible . . .
While the poems in section 1 are marked by a syntax that is mildly refractory to sense,
the prose poems of section 2 . . . retain all the transitions ordinary to spoken stories,
but in highly phrased, cadenced lines, not dead blocks of prose. Some [poems] . . . seem
to be made up of glances instead of long looks, as though to emphasize the marginal and
quotidian at the expense of contemporary taste for the extreme in art, as though to make
clear that a poem of details relevant to the movement of thought is as significant,
perhaps more significant, than the poem of overt moral statement. These poems are
documents of descriptions carried along by the sensuous pleasure of language. They are
striking for their ironic oppositions.
from Forrest Gander, "Robert Hass," Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Vol. 105. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991). 104-113.