Robert Hass on poetry and activism

From the on-line environmental magazine Grist comes a brief but thought-provoking interview with California poet Robert Hass.

Q. You studied biology in college, but it seems like today colleges cast students as either science or literature people. In your class, do you find that people aren’t communicating between the two sides of their brain?

A. I think people do try to communicate between those two sides of their brain. I think part of the interest of the intelligent design/evolutionary biology debate is about how the implications of science talk to the rest of our feeling, affective selves. To try to figure out how to put those together is the fun of this class.

My partner, a science professor, gets the poetry people who are worried that they can’t get the science, and I get the science people who are worried they can’t do the poetry. So I’m sitting in my office with some really bright young people who can do neurobiology or astrophysics but say they can’t understand poetry. And I’m inclined to get down a poem off the shelf like Wordsworth’s sonnet, “All things that love the sun are out of doors,” and I say, what don’t you understand about that?

Can poetry save the world? Maybe – but it’s no substitute for activism, says Hass. In either case, we need to start by noticing what’s around us. I agree.

I found a longer, less focused interview with Hass, conducted right after his inaugural reading as Poet Laureate in 1997 and published in American Poetry Review, online here. At one point, Hass advances an argument that should be familiar to readers of this weblog:

I think that to praise or dispraise, to enchant or disenchant, both of which functions art has – you have to include a lot of the one if you’re going to do the other. I think poetry that says yes has to swallow great goblets of darkness; and poetry that says no has to say no in the face of the fact that there must be reasons why the poet has chosen to continue to live in order to say it. I always think in this connection of Monet because I read that his water lily paintings were begun as a response to reports he had read of the dead in the trenches in the first world war.

Grace Cavalieri: Have you used that in a poem?

Robert Hass: No I haven’t used it in a poem. I mean, I think it’s already there. It doesn’t need to be. But the reason those paintings seem to us so supremely great and not wallpaper is that they are full of the dead. They’re full of all those, all those colors, full of the colors of the bodies in the trenches as he imagined them. Poetry that praises the world has to have immense ballast.

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