nabinadas13

Do You See?

>Reading Robert Hass and Kay Ryan

>

Two different names, two different expressions. Robert Hass (above, left) and Kay Ryan. Hass won the Pulitzer this year in poetry (shared it with Philip Schultz’s “Failure”) for his collection “Time and Materials”. I started reading Hass even before the Pulitzer was announced, from a review of his aforementioned book in Boston Review. It serves little to say that Hass‘ work enthused my own imagination a lot. It also put me to think about the way poets in the Indian subcontinent have been writing since ages, combining their respective contemporaneity with epical, classical, mythological allusions. That Hass was doing precisely that all throughout his work has been pointed out by some (American) critics as an “educated” approach to writing verse. I think educated is a snobbish word, at least for our own “Western-educated” sensibilities and there’s no denying that we tend to use it as a tool for either conscious rejection of others or a vague alignment with other ‘educated’ milieu about which we have little or no idea. Therefore to me, reading Hass seemed less of an educated act, more of a reconciliation with the motions of history. The way it does reading any poet from the classical ages to the present times in the Indian subcontinent. Is it because Hass was influenced early on by Hinduism and Buddhism? Not sure yet, I’ve just discovered him!
Before I pen my thoughts further, I must say this is no scholarly article. Really, these are just my inner ramblings, my vagrant thoughts. So read it that way!

I reproduce one of my favorite Hass poems:

THAT MUSIC

The creek’s silver in the sun of almost August,
And bright dry air, and last runnels of snowmelt,
Percolating through the roots of mountain grasses
Vinegar weed, golden smoke, or meadow rust,
Do they confer, do the lovers’ bodies
In the summer dusk, his breath, her sleeping face,
Confer –, does the slow breeze in the pines?
If you were the interpreter, if that were your task.

So this is where Robert Hass is a poet of interaction, in the last line. And this is where my interest gets aroused and I read the poem backwards again and again. He leaves it to the reader, the ‘interpreter’ to say and see what the poem and its idea does. Here I remember that Hass is a naturalist with passion for environmental concerns and hence, the topography is alive with descriptions of the sky, creek, air, grasses, trees, “almost August” being the hallmark of his nature iconography. But wait, you may say, every poet evokes descriptions of nature. I do too! But this is Hass‘ California/West Coast nature and like it or not, last runnels of snowmelt, vinegar weed etc. (real or not), are pretty much his poetic decoration of that nature.

Now that as readers we already know the poem is about “that music”, the notational relationship between the items of nature, the lovers (“his breath, her sleeping face”), the slow breeze etc. is highlighted by his leitmotif of interrogation (sounds really bad, this word): “Do they confer”. The verb conferring immediately determines the indeterminate act of hearing, playing, feeling ‘that music’. I cannot analyse this any more, because as the ‘interpreter’, my task was only to say how much I am in tune (pun intended!) with this little poem.

Another poem that I will not reproduce here in its entirety is FUTURES IN LILACS. Just consider the opening lines:

“Tender little Buddha,” she said
Of my least Buddha-like member.
She was probably quoting Allen Ginsberg,
Who was probably paraphrasing Walt Whitman.

Here, I was ready to notice some mock-scornful tone about the lady — she — in question, who would, with all seriousness, quote an erudite source, to the extent of risking bathos! And even when in the heat of seduction

She was taking off a blouse,
Almost transparent, the color of a silky tangerine.

the sound of the syllables here and the tangerine texture evokes the tenderness that ‘she’ refers to in the beginning, but I thought by this time Hass‘ tone was far gone meandering into the parables of American history (not so much in the lady who is romantically engaged with the poet), where Walt Whitman’s romance with a “trolley conductor” is recalled almost casually and dismissively:

He was in love with a trolley conductor
In the summer of — what was it? — 1867? 1868?

I’m still pondering about the title. Hence, no comment on that.

Now the last poem by Hass I’ll refer to here is ENVY OF OTHER PEOPLE’S POEMS. The very first line tells of a story displaced temporally and historically:

In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.

Okay, I am game for the other version! And Hass doesn’t disappoint.

It was only a sailor’s story that they could.

The layering of the ‘non-story’ on the ‘story’ itself is the marvellous craft of this poem. It’s worth reading this poem again and again to see language create a quasi-logic of reasoning. So, yes, read it on your own. As for envy? Yes, I have so much of that for Hass‘ work!

My other favorites are HEROIC SIMILE (more about this superb poem later), BETWEEN THE WARS and AFTER GOETHE.

You may find his poems online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/.

Reading Kay Ryan (above, right), the current US poet laureate, was like looking into a mirror where an infinitely magnificent me stared back at this pathetic ‘me’. Uh, oh, it sounds narcissistic again, my “mood favori“! No, but really yes, Kay Ryan’s poems are something that should have been written by me, not her. The very ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and angular quality of her poems I find is amazing and strangely ‘alter-egoistic’. But to say that, is to make a pedestrian comment about Ryan’s work. Her poems open up to me amazing sounds in their twists and turns, indignantly flavorsome phrases and a fable-like prophetic capability, a cool recollection of quaintly impressionistic images presented in compact little forms glittering like fine Persian jewelry! I read this poem (bold mine) and was stoned, literally:

AMONG ENGLISH VERBS

Among English verbs
to die is oddest in its
eagerness to be dead,
immodest in its
haste to be told –
a verb alchemical
in the head:
one speck of its gold
and a whole life’s lead.

Tell me what is unpredictable here…

For me, Ryan’s etching of just one “verb” sums up her prophecy about all other verbs — “to die is oddest in its/eagerness to be dead”. This is a spectrum within which she speaks of all other actionable acts that life may hold. And yes, that verb is alchemical. It literally and physically is in a haste to be dead, to be over with, to be told. at the same time it sums up a life and the material and moral quests that accompany it.
Now:
GREEN HILLS
Their green flanks
and swells are not
flesh in any sense
matching ours,
we tell ourselves.
Nor their green
breast nor their
green shoulder nor
the langour of their
rolling over.
The reader can see how Ryan’s topography, as compared to Hass‘ topography, is a continuous changing, rolling, engulfing entity quite akin to the anatomical flexing of human or rather, animate forms. For Hass, the icons of nature are signposts of a mood, time (history) and things that constitute the specific moment for his poetry (is this why the title Time and Materials?). Ryan nature, as well as any other topography she considers, is a thoughtful, even erratic, actionable entity that competes with her own declared sense of compactness and prophetic conclusions (fable). In THE LIGHT OF INTERIORS, this relationality comes alive when she writes:

… But, in
any case, the light,
once in, bounces
toward the interior,
glancing off glassy
enamels and polishes,
softened by the scuffed
and often-handled, muffled
in carpet and toweling,
buffeted down hallways,
baffled in equally
by the scatter and order
of love and failure
to an ideal and now
sourceless texture which,
when mixed with silence,
makes of a simple
table with flowers
an island.

I’ll not point to the lovely and obvious alliterative craft at work in this part of the poem. What strikes me is the kinetic force of her words embodied by the description of ‘light’ that lights up her topography almost meandering and running through a clutter of objects, finally to rest upon the final poetic imagery of a “table with flowers/an island”, so Vermeer-like, a static image throbbing with calm energy. Again you may find Ryan’s poems listed on http://www.poetryfoundation.org/. Do let me know how you find these two poets if you read them.
About these ads

One comment on “>Reading Robert Hass and Kay Ryan

  1. Bluefins Moonflower
    August 27, 2008

    >fleuveyour thoughts sbout these two poets is very refreshing… I think I’ll like Kay Ryan more, given my own angular disposition! Post more and thanks for inviting me on Facebook blog networks…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on August 16, 2008 by in california, kay ryan, poems, poet laureate, poetry, pulitzer, robert hass, words.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers

%d bloggers like this: