Natural poet

US poet laureate Robert Hass on Hebrew literature, environmental writing and water politics.

robert hass 88 224 (photo credit: Ilana Teitelbaum)
robert hass 88 224
(photo credit: Ilana Teitelbaum)
It was evening in Tel Aviv and already dark, but for California-based poet Robert Hass, who had landed at Ben-Gurion Airport just hours before, it was a different time entirely. Gamely concealing the weariness he must have felt, Hass sipped from a glass of white wine offered in the hotel lobby and reflected upon the events that had brought him across the Atlantic. A two-time poet laureate in the US and recent winner of the National Book Award, as well as a known environmental activist, he probably doesn't need the publicity that poetry readings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem may afford him. Hass's poetry is weighted with intense contemplation, and in person he is much the same: His blue eyes are intent and his speech deliberate as he considers each sentence. "I'm interested in Israel," he says, "because I think that after St. Petersburg, it's the place on earth I have read the most about without having ever been there." With an ironic smile he adds, "That's not excluding the Old and New Testaments." The catalyst for Hass's visit is a literary conference at Tel Aviv University that took place this week, entitled "Poetic Natures: The Environment, Literature and the Arts." He guest lectured at the conference and read from his poetry on the theme of "trees" against the backdrop of the university's botanical gardens. A professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hass is in his element in an academic setting. Born in 1941, he cites additional reasons for being interested in Israel, ranging from the notable impact of the movie Exodus with Paul Newman on his generation to the fact that his wife, Brenda Hillman - also a poet - worked on a kibbutz in her early 20s. On the environmental side, Hass observes that there are geographical and historical parallels between Israel and his native California, which in turn means that the environmental concerns in both places are similar. "Both [Israel and California] are intensely remade agricultural landscapes," he notes, adding that both places owe their agricultural advancement to "ingenious but ecosystem-altering water projects." Hass professed to be excited about the conference because "I'm curious about water politics [in Israel]. In California all politics are water politics - scratch any surface, and underneath it's usually about who gets the water and how. "Have people talked about ecological consequences of the wall?" Hass has spent his entire life in California, and consequently his poetry is often evocative of the wildlife and terrain of the US West Coast. As poet laureate, Hass was intensely active, initiating an educational program called "River of Words" in schools across the country. "There are now tens of thousands of kids who have participated in the program," says Hass. "They write poetry and make art out of their experience of natural surroundings." The idea of the program, he explains, is to heighten children's environmental consciousness. At the same time, he is wary of attempts to enforce attitudes upon children, because "poetry is the opposite of propaganda." In this sense, Hass practices what he preaches; his poems could hardly be called environmental, which he says is the result of a conscious decision. His realization, he says, was, "I don't want to write poems about how great the mountains are." While much of his poetry teems with descriptions of nature, these descriptions are most often reflective of themes that are deeply personal, or bound to a broader philosophical meditation. On the other hand, his marveling attention to minute details in nature bespeaks an abiding love. As he speaks about writing, Hass's speech becomes rhythmic, as if he were composing a poem on the spot. "People have been [in California], speaking the English language, for such a short time. I just want to live my life. If I fall in love, have children, friends die and the world around me provides images, I will be doing a beginning work of this landscape." He elaborates that the images evoked by events in life, within the surrounding landscape, "will become a natural language." To Hass, language and literature becomes connected over time with a sense of place - and in this regard Hebrew literature, he observes, is just getting started. "Another thing Israel and California have in common is that the writers are relatively new to the place. They are still finding a language for it and its weathers," he comments. This is, he notes, a marked contrast to the Chinese and Japanese, who have been "looking at and refining their sense of landscape... for 20,000 or 30,000 years." At the conference, Hass planned to address the relationship between postmodernism, poetry and science. Literature about nature is nothing new, Hass observes, citing the Romantic poets and Henry Thoreau as examples. The difference, he explains, is that postmodernism has altered the approach to nature in poetry and the arts in general. "I think there's enormous power and possibility in the fact that one main thing that science has taught us in the 20th century is the limits of the human understanding of nature," explains Hass. "It's a great mystery... E.O. Wilson, the philosopher of biogeography, says that every creature lives in its own sensory world. We can never understand what happens in an animal's head." Before postmodernism, says Hass, many poets assumed they did know the thoughts of animals, because their worldviews were shaped by their religious beliefs. "Poets went to nature because they thought of nature as a divine book written in divine hand," he says. "I don't think that metaphor is dead anymore, but the feeling is that our sacred books and churches told us what divine was, and then we read it into nature." Discovering the divine outside the boundaries that have been defined by churches and sacred books is this century's challenge, according to Hass. A secular man who was raised Catholic, he acknowledges the irreplaceable role that religion can fill in a life. "Literature doesn't go as deep as religion," he says. "It doesn't tell you how to welcome a child into the world, how to get married, bury the dead, bring food to the sick. Not that religions do a great job at these things, but they aim to." Postmodernism, he adds, is "skepticism put to work, the work of the imagination." Hass regards the postmodern perspective of nature as relatively unexplored territory in poetry, concluding, "It seems to me that the fact that we don't know how to read the world, and that most of the old ways of looking at it need reexamining, means that the subject matter of poetry seems inexhaustible."