Critical Mass

Savoring Robert Hass’ Twentieth Century Pleasures


The following essay from NBCC winning winning poet Troy Jollimorebegins In Retrospect series' look at Robert Haas' 1984 NBCC winner, “Twentieth Century Pleasures,” the first of two books Hass wrote which has won our award.




Although it won the 1984 NBCC award for criticism, I don’t think of Robert Hass’s essay collection, Twentieth Century Pleasures, as a book of “criticism,” exactly. Perhaps this is because I can’t hear that word without being reminded of the passage in Lawrence Durrell’s novel Clea in which the narrator tells Clea, his lover, that he has been thinking about writing a book of criticism, and she responds as follows:

“Criticism!” she echoed sharply, as if the word were an insult. And she smacked me full across the mouth – a stinging blow which brought tears to my eyes and cut the inside of my lip against my teeth.

Beyond its negative overtones—the idea of constructive criticism is surely one we all comprehend, but the idea of a genuinely positive criticism still strikes many of us as an oxymoron—the word ‘criticism’ may to suggest an intellectual endeavor that is narrowly focused and predominantly text-oriented. Indeed, many people seem to assume that criticism, at least for genuinely gifted or significant writers, will be at most a sideline, something to engage their energies in between the major works.

But to bring these presuppositions to Twentieth Century Pleasures is to set oneself up to be pleasantly surprised. For Hass’s collection of essays is one of the few works of criticism I find myself returning to again and again, not only to see what I can learn from it—though the book is indeed rich with insight, careful observation, and, if I may say so, wisdom—but for the sheer pleasure of reading. Hass is one of a handful of critics (Randall Jarrell and Pauline Kael also come to mind) whom I read with as much deliberate slowness as I can manage, pausing to savor the music of the sentences, the elegance of the reconstructed thought patterns, and the richness of the imagery.

Indeed, Twentieth Century Pleasures is largely concerned with images—as they mean and function not only in poetry, but in life as well. The concluding essay is titled “Images,” and it is perhaps the finest piece of writing in the book: a powerful, perceptive and evocative mixture of personal memoir, philosophical speculation, and criticism in the narrower, textually focused sense, in which a survey of classical Japanese haiku can be followed by a passage like this one:

Walking through the rooms of my house on a moonlit August night, with a sharp sense of my children each at a particular moment in their lives and changing, with three or four shed, curled leaves from a Benjamin fig on the floor of the dining room and a spider, in that moonlight, already set to work in one of them, and the dark outline of an old Monterey pine against the sky outside the window, the one thing about the house that seems not to have changed in the years of my living in it, it is possible to feel my life, in a quiet ecstatic helplessness, as a low slow hurtle through the forms of things. I think I resist that sensation because there is a kind of passivity in it; I suppose that I fear it would make me careless of those things that need concentration to attend to.

Such passages remind us how many critics neglect to connect the matter of their work with the matter of their life. The connections are, perhaps, plain to them; but by leaving them unspoken, implicit if present at all, they produce books which, no matter how successful within the fairly constrained set of standards they set out for themselves, ultimately feel wan, thin, enervated. Indeed a fair number of works of literary criticism seem to treat ‘literature’ as a hermetically sealed realm, having connections with theory, perhaps (or, worse, Theory), but little if anything to do with human existence on this planet.

Hass, being himself a poet, never forgets that poems are composed by human beings, with the aim of being read by other human beings. They arise within the context of particular societies, and their nature, form, content, and success in speaking to readers can convey a great deal about the character and spiritual health of that society. In Twentieth Century Pleasures, discussion of the technical aspects of poetic practice is never disconnected from larger personal, social and political issues. Thus, in an essay like “One Body: Some Notes on Form,” a passage like this (about William Carlos Williams’ “a dust of / snow in / the wheeltracks”):

[P]eople must have felt: “Yes, that is what it is like; not one-TWO, one-TWO. A dust of / snow in / the wheeltracks. That is how perception is. It is that light and quick.” The effect depends largely on traditional expectation. The reader had to be able to hear what he was not hearing.

can lead, in about the space of a page, to an observation like this:

[T]he establishment of distinctions of personality by peripheral means is just what consumer society is about. Instead of real differences emanating from the life of the spirit, we are offered specious symbols of it, fantasies of our separateness by way of brands of cigarettes, jogging shoes, exotic food.

before being brought back to the subject of poetry:

Once free verse has become neutral, there must be an enormous impulse to use it in this way, to establish tone rather than to make form. Because it has no specific character, we make a character in it. And metrical poetry is used in the same way. [. . .] When it is graceful and elegant, it becomes, as it was in Herrick, a private fiction of civility with no particular relation to the actual social life we live.

Part of what is both distinctive and admirable about Hass is how he simultaneously recognizes the value and attractiveness of this “private fiction of civility” and acknowledges the tempting danger it poses, the way it threatens to sever us—particularly those of us who are privileged enough to have living rooms and offices with books of poems in them—from the complex and untidy realities of “the actual social life we live.”

On Hass’s view, there are many things a poem can do, and just as many avenues into a poem. Knowing the circumstances of a poet’s life, or the situation in which a given piece was composed, can contribute to one’s understanding. So, too, can knowing the details of the particular social milieu in which a given poem or book was disseminated and read; or, understanding the role a work can play in a particular reader’s life—how it can alter a person’s perceptions and change not only his aesthetic character, but his sense of who he is. (I say ‘he’ not out of convention but because the reader in question here is almost always Hass himself.)

The most moving and insightful essays in Twentieth Century Pleasures are those which combine these approaches: “Images,” for instance, or the wonderful “Reading Milosz,” which begins by suggesting that “It might be useful to begin by invoking a time when one might turn to the work of Czeslaw Milosz,” and then offers five pages of vivid and evocative description of what it was like to live with a Vietnam-haunted conscience in the Bay Area in the mid-Sixties—five pages which, read in isolation, would seem to have no obvious connection either to Milosz or to poetry. If this sounds like indulgence, it isn’t: the writing is too good, and the intent entirely sincere and genuine. Hass simply knows that there is more to life than poetry, and that we cannot speak intelligently about poetry without addressing ourselves to the larger world poetry lives in.

Poets who receive substantial consideration in Twentieth Century Pleasures include Robert Lowell, James Wright, Stanley Kunitz, Tomas Transtromer, Milosz, Rilke, Joseph Brodsky, Yvor Winters, Robert Creeley, James McMichael, and Gary Snyder. Although there has been an explosion of poetic activity since the moment captured in this book, none of these figures has gone out of date or passed into insignificance. The book also feels timely in another, far less fortunate way: the particular complexes, anxieties and paradoxes of the Vietnam era America Hass frequently looks back to will strike contemporary readers with more resonance and familiarity than the author could have anticipated—or would have wanted to believe:

That war was, perhaps, a paradigm of planning without people in the plan. The Vietnamese did not fit it and the American young who were supposed to fight the war did not fit it; and as the administration with a plan to win the war was replaced by an administration with a plan to end the war, the suffering seemed to go on forever.

At the very least, poetry can offer solace during such times. At times—though his moods vary—Hass seems to suggest we may hope for more: poetry, being inherently political, may help us grasp and appreciate the reality of what we are doing and of what can and must be done. “Rhythm is always revolutionary ground,” he writes. “New rhythms are new perceptions.” The experience of rhythm in poetry “calls us to an intense, attentive consciousness.” Of course, as he immediately adds, “the last thing many people want is to be conscious.”

Troy Jollimore won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for his debut volume, “Tom Thomson in Purgatory.”