Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Robert Hass, aka The Bard of Berkeley

American Poet, Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Environmentalist and Teacher, United States Poet Laureate, Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley,

"A Faint Music - Maybe you need to write a poem about grace. When everything broken is broken, and everything dead is dead, and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt, and the heroine has studied her face and its defects remorselessly, and the pain they thought might, as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves has lost its novelty and not released them, and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly, watching the others go about their days— likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears— that self-love is the one weedy stalk of every human blossoming, and understood, therefore, why they had been, all their lives, in such a fury to defend it, and that no one— except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool of poverty and silence—can escape this violent, automatic life’s companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light, faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears. As in the story a friend told once about the time he tried to kill himself. His girl had left him. Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash. He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge, the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon. And in the salt air he thought about the word “seafood,” that there was something faintly ridiculous about it. No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass, scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp along the coast—and he realized that the reason for the word was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise the restaurants could just put “fish” up on their signs, and when he woke—he’d slept for hours, curled up on the girder like a child—the sun was going down and he felt a little better, and afraid. He put on the jacket he’d used for a pillow, climbed over the railing carefully, and drove home to an empty house. There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed. A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick with rage and grief. He knew more or less where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill. They’d have just finished making love. She’d have tears in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. “God,” she’d say, “you are so good for me.” Winking lights, a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay. “You’re sad,” he’d say. “Yes.” “Thinking about Nick?” “Yes,” she’d say and cry. “I tried so hard,” sobbing now, “I really tried so hard.” And then he’d hold her for a while— Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall— and then they’d fuck again, and she would cry some more, and go to sleep. And he, he would play that scene once only, once and a half, and tell himself that he was going to carry it for a very long time and that there was nothing he could do but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark cracking and curling as the cold came up. It’s not the story though, not the friend leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,” which is the part of stories one never quite believes. I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain it must sometimes make a kind of singing. And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps— First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing."

"When everything broken is broken, and everything dead is dead, and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt, and the heroine has studied her face and its defects remorselessly, and the pain they thought might, as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves has lost its novelty and not released them, and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly, watching the others go about their days— likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears— that self-love is the one weedy stalk of every human blossoming, and understood, therefore, why they had been, all their lives, in such a fury to defend it, and that no one— except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool of poverty and silence—can escape this violent, automatic life’s companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light, faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears."

"After a while I understood that, talking this way, everything dissolves: justice, pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman I made love to and I remembered how, holding her small shoulders in my hands sometimes, I felt a violent wonder at her presence like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat, muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her. Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances."

"Another problem about writing about politics in the ?age of globalization? is that so much of the violence in the form of war and also in the forms of institutional violence?sweatshops, child labor, victimization of people economically?happens elsewhere and out of sight. And when we do know about it and need to witness it, it?s always mediated by images of one kind or another, so you?re kind of stuck trying to write about what it?s like trying to be you living your life thinking about and experiencing this stuff in that way. That is, one way to escape the universe in which everything is a kind of media cartoon is to write about the part of your life that doesn?t feel like a cartoon, and how the cartoon comes into it."

"All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking."

"But usually not. Usually she thinks of the path to his house, whether deer had eaten the tops of the fiddleheads, why they don't eat the peppermint saprophytes sprouting along the creek; or she visualizes the approach to the cabin, its large windows, the fuchsias in front of it where Anna's hummingbirds always hover with dirty green plumage and jeweled throats. Sometimes she thinks about her dream, the one in which her mother wakes up with no hands. The cabin smells of oil paint, but also of pine. The painter's touch is sexual and not sexual, as she herself is....When the memory of that time came to her, it was touched by strangeness because it formed no pattern with the other events in her life. It lay in her memory like one piece of broken tile, salmon-colored or the deep green of wet leaves, beautiful in itself but unusable in the design she was making"

"August is dust here. Drought stuns the road, but juice gathers in the berries."

"Golf is a worrier's game, inward, concentrated, a matter of inches, invented by the same people who gave us Presbyterianism."

"I find Pound difficult to teach because I always feel as though I have to include the caveat that he was a virulent anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer."

"I wouldn?t feel guilty about not writing about Baghdad if I didn?t have any good ideas about how to write about it."

"I think that the job of poetry, its political job, is to refresh the idea of justice, which is going dead in us all the time."

"It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us."

"Imagination runs through the places where we live like water. We need both things-a living knowledge of the land and a live imagination of it and our place in it- if we are going to preserve it."

"It is like the keening sound the moon makes sometimes, rising."

"It?s not the story though, not the friend leaning toward you, saying ?And then I realized??, which is the part of stories one never quite believes. I had the idea that the world?s so full of pain it must sometimes make a kind of singing. And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps? First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing."

"It?s a taste for power that amounts to loathing for the body. Perhaps it?s this that permits people to believe that the dead women in the rubble of Baghdad who did not cast a vote for their deaths or the glimpse afforded them before they died of the raw white of the splintered bones in the bodies of their men or their children are being given the gift of freedom"

"It's hell writing and it's hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written."

"In California in the early Spring, There are pale yellow mornings, when the mist burns slowly into day, The air stings like Autumn, clarifies like pain - Well, I have dreamed this coast myself."

"If you were making poetry out of convictions?you were in the territory of rhetoric, and that wasn?t the territory of poetry."

"Like everyone else, I was at least peripherally involved in the antiwar movement. You woke up every morning feeling tormented about what was going on in Vietnam. It seemed to a lot of us like a catastrophe from the very beginning, inflicting immense and needless suffering on not only the American soldiers but on a lot of innocent peasants who were caught in a Cold War proxy battle?two million Vietnamese died during those years, and you woke up every morning knowing that that was going on. So the question of how and whether one could write political poems was very much in the air, and there were lots of examples out there. Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Robert Duncan?to think of writers who I thought of as representing the new poetry then, the generation of poets I was reading when I was starting to write. They were writing about war and about politics. So there?s that, but also, in the Bay area where I was growing up, and among the Beats, there?s the example of a lot of terrible, self-righteous political poetry that didn?t seem very helpful. So I guess I came of age with two prejudices: that one ought to try to think about those things and include them in your work if you can, and that politics is not the area where poetry is likely to do what it does best. The quote that we all had in our minds was Yeats: ?Poetry is a man arguing with himself; rhetoric is a man arguing with others.? If you were making poetry out of convictions?trying to convince other people?you were in the territory of rhetoric, and that wasn?t the territory of poetry. I think that?s pretty smart. I think that it doesn?t need to be altogether true, but that was my starting place. One of the interesting things about the history of poetry in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries is that people who read liked getting their information in rhyme just as much as in prose. The genre that we would think of as nonfiction often was written in verse in forms like the Georgic when people thought that one of the tasks of poetry was conveying arguments and information in a pleasant way."

"Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances."

"No one said landfood. He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch he?d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass, scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp along the coast?and he realized that the reason for the word was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise the restaurants could just put fish up on their signs, and when he woke?he?d slept for hours, curled upon the girder like a child?the sun was going down and he felt a little better, and afraid. He put on the jacket he?d used for a pillow, climbed over the railing carefully, and drove home to an empty house."

"Nostalgia locates desire in the past where it suffers no active conflict and can be yearned toward pleasantly."

"One of the things I felt like with ?Bush?s War? is that it wasn?t so much the argument of weapons of mass destruction that made me feel so crazy about the war?even though I knew, and almost anybody I knew also knew, that there weren?t any weapons of mass destruction?but that he was able to stand up in public and say that he, personally, had made the decision to liberate the Iraqi people. That meant he made the decision to get?let?s say he had conservative estimates at that time?10,000 to 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians killed in order to liberate the nation of Iraq and bring them democracy. Let?s say that the Pentagon told him that they thought that they could bring this thing off with only 10,000 civilian casualties. At least, he ought to have had to line them all up on the White House lawn and shoot 10,000 people and say, ?You didn?t get to vote on this, but the rest of Iraq is going to get to be free, and I think this is the greater good.? It just made me crazy, that argument, and I didn?t see anybody contesting it. Maybe the left didn?t bother to contest it because it was so outrageous, but I just wanted to say someplace in plain English that those people didn?t get to vote on their deaths."

"Poetry is a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter."

"Sometimes from this hillside just after sunset the rim of the sky takes on a tinge of the palest green, like the flesh of a cucumber when you peel it carefully."

"One may prefer spring and summer to autumn and winter, but preference is hardly to the point. The earth turns, and we live in the grain of nature, turning with it."

"Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry."

"One way to escape the universe in which everything is a kind of media cartoon is to write about the part of your life that doesn?t feel like a cartoon, and how the cartoon comes into it."

"So few things we need to know. And the old wisdoms shudder in us and grow slack. Like renunciation. Like the melancholy beauty of giving it all up. Like walking steadfast in the rhythms, winter light and summer dark. And the time for cutting furrows and the dance."

"Take the time to write. You can do your life's work in half an hour a day."

"The awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever on their rocky waste of island by their imagination Of his imagination of the song they didn't sing."

"The basis of art is change in the universe."

"The Earth forgives the previous year every year."

"The first book that really knocked me out was the 'Brothers Karamazov.' I read it when I was a senior in high school."

"The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself. I had been taught to believe that the freshness of children lay in their capacity for wonder at the vividness and strangeness of the particular, but what is fresh in them is that they still experience the power of repetition, from which our first sense of the power of mastery comes. Though predictable is an ugly little world in daily life, in our first experience of it we are clued to the hope of a shapeliness in things. To see that power working on adults, you have to catch them out: the look of foolish happiness on the faces of people who have just sat down to dinner is their knowledge that dinner will be served. Probably, that is the psychological basis for the power and the necessity of artistic form...Maybe our first experience of form is the experience of our own formation...And I am not thinking mainly of poems about form; I?m thinking of the form of a poem, the shape of its understanding. The presence of that shaping constitutes the presence of poetry."

"The love of books is for children who glimpse in them a life to come, but I have come to that life and feel uneasy with the love of books. This is my life, time islanded in poems of dwindled time."

"The proliferation is good. The professionalization of poetry, or the balkanization, has come out of the fact that when you apply to most creative writing programs, you have to choose your genre. And so, at twenty-one, someone who wants to write is signing up for two years of committing themselves to write poetry or fiction or nonfiction. There are very few programs in which you can cross over. On the one hand, the reasons make sense to me. If you?re going to take your shot for two years at writing something, concentrate and write something, and of course many people who begin in one genre end up in another. But on the whole, it probably funnels people into a specialty too soon."

"The whole difference between the nineteenth century and the twentieth century could be summed up in two words, graveyard and cemetery."

"There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed. A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick with rage and grief. He knew more or less where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill. They?d have just finished making love. She?d have tears in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. God, she?d say, you are so good for me. Winking lights, a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay. You?re sad, he?d say. Yes. Thinking about Nick? Yes, she?d say and cry. I tried so hard, sobbing now, I really tried so hard. And then he?d hold her for a while? Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall? and then they?d fuck again, and she would cry some more, and go to sleep. And he, he would play that scene once only, once and a half, and tell himself that he was going to carry it for a very long time and that there was nothing he could do but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark cracking and curling as the cold came up. It?s not the story though, not the friend leaning toward you, saying And then I realized?, which is the part of stories one never quite believes. I had the idea that the world?s so full of pain it must sometimes make a kind of singing. And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps? First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing"

"There are moments when the body is as numinous as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry."

"What would you do if you were me? she said. If I were you-you, or if I were you-me? If you were me-me. If I were you-you, he said, I'd do exactly what you're doing."

"When I was in college, I lost my scholarship one year. I had enough money for tuition, but not room and board. So I camped in the hills."

"When I was in high school in the '50s you were supposed to be an Elvis Presley, a James Dean, a Marlon Brando or a Kingston Trio type in a button-down shirt headed for the fraternities at Stanford or Cal."

"Writing is an incessant process of discovery."

"When you are composing a verse, let there not be a hair's breadth separating your mind from what you write. Quickly say what is in your mind; never hesitate a moment."