Most readers know the San Francisco-born former U.S. Poet Laureate and literary award-magnet Robert Hass for his poetry, but every now and then he puts out a dense, delicious collection of essays. The new one, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, seems aptly named and trades in all manner of illumination.
Hass likes Simone Weil's idea of attention as prayer, and his book is accordingly devotional. That counts for a lot in our era of unholy-seeming inattention. It sets a fine example of erudition as a path to enlightenment. Not an easy path, necessarily, but a worthy one. "In essay," Hass told Michael Krasny on Forum yesterday, "you're climbing the cliff bare-handed." Indeed, he makes deep reading and thought gathering seem like a white-knuckle feat of oneness with the world.
The essential pleasure of any essay is intellectual companionship, and Hass reveals himself working out his ideas, be they about correspondences between Chekhov and Naipaul or between Robert Buelteman's Coast Range photographs and "something like the formality of bereavement." Even in self-conscious approximation, Hass strives for exactness. He resists taking his readers' companionship for granted.
Yet he also allows that he's had to make some effort to understand people who find poetry boring or intimidating. This is a man once made nauseous by his own nagging incomprehension of T.S. Eliot. This is a man first drawn to poems because he detected "more life in them than seemed available to me." Importantly, and in fact graciously, this is a man who won't dignify an illiterate world.
So of course in addition to writing he's been teaching literature at UC Berkeley, where not long ago a grove of oaks gave way, via a heated and lengthy tree-sitting standoff, to plans for a new athletic facility. To prepare for his public address on that development, the text of which concludes the new book, Hass obtained the Environmental Impact Report, toured the site, researched and ruminated on the history of his university -- which, as he also noted on Forum, has a complicated habit of "glamorizing civil disobedience and then beating people up if they try it out."
With all due historically attuned humility, Hass understands brilliance as a matter not just of visibility but also of comprehension. "Often in both the arts and sciences, we see what's there in a flash," he writes near the end of that final piece, "but it has taken us hours or years of patient labor to get there and then to name what we have seen." That's the usefulness of a poet's essayistic scrutiny: the power to permanently light things up.
Robert Hass reads from and discusses What Light Can Do at 7pm Tuesday, August 28, 2012, at Book Passage in Corte Madera. For tickets and information, visit bookpassage.com.
Listen to the August 22, 2012 Forum interview with Robert Hass: