On Human Wishes
[The following excerpts have been chosen for their relevance to Hasss poems "Rusia en 1931" (in section 1 of Human Wishes) and "A Story About the Body" (in section 2 of Human Wishes). These critics respond positively to Hasss experimentation with form in Human Wishes, with one notable exception.]
Darcy Aldan (1990)
The delicacy and sensibility of Robert Hass, as exemplified in . . . Human Wishes, is a distinct joy to experience in this time when so many published works deal with violence, aberration, and alienation. His elegant gleanings of essence, often impressionist in tone, make us aware once again that beauty and meaningful silence still exist . . .
In part 2 an attempt is made to create the prose poem. Hasss is not the prose poem of Mallarmé, Poe, or even W.S. Merwin, but rather similar to those of the Swiss poet Albert Steffen, who calls his creations "little myths" . . . This section contains observations, nostalgia, memories, dreams, in sudden beautiful images . . .
From Darcy Aldan, a review of Human Wishes, World Literature Today 64:2 (Spring 1990), 313.
John Ash (1989)
[Human Wishes] raises disturbing questions about what can be said to constitute a poem today. I am not referring to the fact that the first two of its four sections are written in prose. In fact the opening sequence of prose poems is by far the best part of the book. The prose here is elaborate and compacted in such a way that we are left in no doubt that we are reading poetry, but, despite some good moments, the pieces in the second section obstinately refuse to catch fire. Inconsequential anecdotes (a visit to the doctor, an upper-middle-class dinner party, remarks the neighbors made) are recorded in prose that is unremarkable when not actually clichéd. Hass seems to have fallen victim to confused intentions and weakly sentimental failings.
Hass has made the common mistake of assuming that the details of middle-class, intellectual domesticity are innately interesting. This is writing that is confined by class, writing that routinely signals "sadness," "love" and "loss" in . . . characterless language. . .
from John Ash, "Going Metric," Book World-The Washington Post, December 31, 1989, 6.
David Barber (1989)
Despite unquestionable similarities in theme and manner, Human Wishes is at once a more ingratiating and disquieting book than its predecessors. Paradoxically, it appears as if Hasss poems now rest easier in their skins even as they feel sharper chills in their bones.
. . . Human Wishes confirms that theres more to Hass than courtly efforts to keep body and mind on speaking terms. The give and take of passionate dialectics lends this book its very grain, abstraction answering to detail, pleasure to pain, clarity to mystery, epiphany to commonplace. Then theres Hasss noted penchant for fleshing out contraries by way of the flesh itself, his candid tracking shot into bedrooms . . .
In Human Wishes, hes given himself over almost entirely to the long line and block stanza, steadfastly adhering to unadorned, prose-like rhythms throughout the sinuous paragraphs and strict prose poems of the first half of the book . . . Nothing if not resourceful, hes cultivated a more open, intimately epistolary verse that makes room for everything from strenuous metaphysics, beguiling storytelling, and wry recollections to haiku-like snapshots, flinty epigrams, and tremulous lyricism. Yet, on another level, the self-effacing withdrawal from poetic shapeliness, the occasionally stolid essayistic manner, betrays a sensibility increasingly consumed with diminishment and flux.
From David Barber, a review of Human Wishes, Boston Review 14:6 (December 1989), 6.
Don Bogen (1989)
In Human Wishes he [Hass] consolidates the strengths of his earlier work while pushing on into fresh territory. The first section of the book, for example, develops a new kind of line: lengthy, proselike in its rhythms and set off in a stanza by itself. These lines function as independent postulates in an argument, some plush and physical . . . others gnarled with abstraction . . .
The second section of Human Wishes consists of prose poems, a form pre-figured in some of the work in Praise but not developed consistently until now. Rimbaud is the father of this type of poem, and much American work in the genre still reads like a bad translation from the French. Hass has avoided the portentousness and easy surrealism that can afflict paragraphs trying too hard to be poetic. Instead, he looks to narrative modelsthe short story, the anecdoteas well as to allegory and the personal essay as guideposts . . .
Hasss sense of the interrelatedness of all human endeavor gives his book a breadth of perspective and a distinct focus . . . It is a mark of Hasss integrity as a poet that he rejects the usual consolations here. Art, nature, lovethese are certainly pleasures but not solutions.
From Don Bogen, "A Student of Desire," The Nation 249:20 (December 11, 1989), 722-3.
Mary Lynn Cutler (1999)
. . . [The poems in Human Wishes] dramatize Hasss struggle to balance the lyric impulse toward pure image with the need for philosophical reflection . . . he finds forms that allow a subtle working out of these opposing pressures. Here meditation takes precedence over lyricism as Hass adopts the longline, the sentence, as his primary mode. This extended poetic line allows him a greater range of expressive freedom and philosophical searching than he was able to achieve in his earlier poetry . . .
. . . the second part [of Human Wishes] is a splendid collection of short prose pieces. The formalistic turn Hass takes in this collection has thematic implications. Hasss capacious lines, his abundant catalogues of the everyday, and his disjunctive logic enact the flourishing yet tenuous nature of language, illumination, and eartly pleasure. In these poems Hass insits on being accountable to larger social concerns, yet clings to an awareness of the given world. Any lyric moment, then, must be balanced in relation to historical imperative . . .
The most striking quality of Human Wishes is the sense of its abundance . . . Beauty, pain . . .
joy, and despair all have their moment and then pass. This understanding is at the heart of Human Wishes: the title alludes to Samuel Johnsons verse satire The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749). The poems do not refuse human desires but rather affirm that the current between desire and fulfillment makes possible beauty and erotic pleasure . . .
from Mary Lynn Cutler, "Robert Hass," Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 206. Ed. Richard H. Cracroft. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999). 119-27.
Forrest Gander (1991)
Although it was originally advertised as "The Apple Trees at Olema," Hass retitled the book Human Wishes just before it was typeset . . .
In the first section of Human Wishes, lines spill over at the right margin; they are not stopped, just as the subject matter, a profusion of incidents and images, runs on. In mostly one-,two-, and three-lined stanzas, Hass contours the prose line toward evocation instead of event, toward brilliant moments instead of narration . . .
Throughout the poems in section 1, Hass avoids writing from the perspective of an "I." His characters range from "a man" and "a woman" to "they," "we," and "you" . . .
The multiple pronouns parallel the multiple levels of diction, the juxtaposed rhythms, and the panoply of evoked moments, images, dialogue, and thought that are rapidly and abruptly revealed in the poems . . . the poems are often synchronic experiences, or realizations of the relatedness between disparate elements contained in the in the function of any moment, memory, or image. In this aspect, they are an applied poetics of new physics; they indicate morphic fields, the connections between all things visible and invisible . . .
While the poems in section 1 are marked by a syntax that is mildly refractory to sense, the prose poems of section 2 . . . retain all the transitions ordinary to spoken stories, but in highly phrased, cadenced lines, not dead blocks of prose. Some [poems] . . . seem to be made up of glances instead of long looks, as though to emphasize the marginal and quotidian at the expense of contemporary taste for the extreme in art, as though to make clear that a poem of details relevant to the movement of thought is as significant, perhaps more significant, than the poem of overt moral statement. These poems are documents of descriptions carried along by the sensuous pleasure of language. They are striking for their ironic oppositions.
from Forrest Gander, "Robert Hass," Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 105. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991). 104-113.
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