Hass on Prose Poems, Political Poetry, and "Rusia en 1931"
Excerpts from an interview with Hass by the Iowa Review in 1991
Question: Why a prose poem, and what is a prose poem?
Hass: I havent arrived for myself at any very satisfactory formulation of what a prose poem is. Certainly it has something to do with condensation . . . I dont know how to define it in terms of genre, and when I was working, I guess I just stopped trying to think about that. What I did think about was what the conventions of the prose poem were. At the time that I was starting to write them, the prose poem, as it had been revived in America, was used almost entirely for a kind of wacky surrealist work, and I think that nervousness about using prose was that then you had to put a lot of what people thought was poeticthat is to say, wildness and imagination and free associationinto it to make sure that it was poetry, because if it got too near the conventions and sentence sounds of expository prose or narrative prose . . . then it really wasnt poetry. So almost as soon as I started working, I got interested in those boundaries: what the prose poem wasnt supposed to sound like . . .
It almost seemed like photography to me, and it gave me a feeling that I wanted to experiment with the form . . . I wrote a whole lot of them, and I got interested in textures, the way that you would with a given palette . . . I felt excited because I knew it [a particular prose poem, "Churchyard"] was exactly what the prose poem wasnt supposed to be. It was too much like the sound of expository prose. . .
Later, something else occurred to me: I was working in these forms because they had a certain outwardness that verse didnt have. I think I was at a time . . . when things were going on in my life that I didnt want to look at, didnt want to feel. And I wanted to keep writing, so I unconsciously started writing prose to avoid the stricter demands of incantation. When I was doing it, it seemed to be exploratory; in retrospect, it seems a sort of long escape . . .
. . . the whole time I was working on the prose poem I knew that somehow I never particularly loved the idea of the prose poem. But it was interesting to me to think about a larger form that might mix verse and prose . . .
Question: I wonder what your thoughts are about being a poet in America in the 90s, and particularly in terms of politics.
Hass: Well, its a dilemma to know how to be political now and also how to think about politics, but its a dilemma whatever you are . . . When I was in graduate school, I was very involved in politics. In Palo Alto, a group of us started a newspaper, a community self-help organization, and a free university, and there was a polticial organization that went with all of this. When I finished all my graduate work, I had to make a decision, whether to stay there and figure somehow to make a living while continuing this work, or go be a professor and get on with my life as a writer . . .
The job, itself, my own writing, and the kind of emotional issues I deal with in the writing all took me away from politics outside my immediate community . . . The social world returns a bit in Human Wishes . . . I think that if youre somebody who thinks about that stuff, it enters your writing. And for some writersif youre South African or something like thatits an inescapable subject. The problem for American writers, particularly for white male American writers, is that it is an escapable subject . . . I think were all haunted by the martyrdom of Mandelstam out of a kind of bad conscience . . .
Anyway, I think about politics a lot; I go through periods when I dont think about it at all, but then at other times I think about it a lot, and Ive written about how one things about it. I dont think that theres any easy solution to the present retreat . . .
I think political writing is problematic . . . People say that being antipolitical is ultimately subversive, but theres always Oppens example hovering over ones head, saying that subversive is a dime a dozen, all artists think theyre subversive. Dont flatter yourself . . .
So its puzzling. I know what I hate, but I know less and less about how to change it. Thats why I said in "Rusia en 1931": "Poetry proposes no solutions: it says justice is the well water of the city of Novgorod, black and sweet." Mandelstams great political ideal was the Italian city-state, and the most Italian city-state in the Russia of the Middle Ages was Nizhni Novgorod, and it was famous for being a free place because they didnt tax you for the well water. Anybody, citizen or not, had access to the well water at any time. It was his image of a just, small society. And I think thats right; I think the task of art is to over and over again make images of a livable common life . . .
Another task is to make images of justice: make ideal images or make outraged images or just do witness. There are all the usual tasks . . . Its part of the job of being a poet, but youll always feel a little bit like a voyeur and a tourist writing those poems. And a little uneasy reading them. But the choice is that or silence, and so you do it . . . The trickIve seen it in Miloszs work especiallyis to write very honestly about the actual dilemmas, which means thinking about them clearly, which means not flattering yourself that you know what the solutions are . . .
Not writing from knowing the answers . . .
I guess a lot of the questions in poetry can only be answered by poetry. That is they can only be answered by dramatizing and intensifying the contradictions which we suppress in everyday life in order to get on with it . . .
from "An Informal Occasion with Robert Hass," Iowa Review 21:3 (1991), 126-45.
Excerpt from an interview with Hass by Sarah Pollock in 1997
Pollock: In your poem "English: An Ode," from your current volume [Sun Under Wood], you write, "There are those who think its in fairly bad taste/ to make habitual reference to social and political problems/ in poems. To these people it seems a form of melodrama/ or self-aggrandizement, which it no doubt partly is." It seems youre railing against certain constraints about being political in your work.
Hass: I thought a long time about whether to cut that from the poem. Its myself Im arguing withthe part of me that thinks its just in bad taste because, finally, youre preaching to the converted. I suppose theres something to be said for the sheer reinforcement of our beliefs, but really I think poetry is more useful as disenchantment than enchantment. And the record of peotry in the 20th century isnt all that great anyway. Most of the poets who werent fascists were Stalinists.
The poem that comes closest to what I think is the one in Human Wishes called "Rusia en 1931." This poem is about Mandelstam, who was a great poet and an anti-Stalinist, and Vallejo, who was a great poet and a Stalinist. Mandelstam was killed by Stalinist forces. Vallejo was at least metaphorically killed by fascist forces, in the sense that he wore himself out raising funds for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil war and got sick and died. Poetry, when it takes sides, when it proposes solutions, isnt any smarter than anybody else.
But Mandlestam, who wasnt a poltical thinker, loved the idea of the city-state. One of the emblems in his poetry of the politics he imagined, over and against the universalizing politics of Marx, was the medieval city of Novgorod, which had in its center a public well where the water was free to everyone. That became for him a figure of justice. So I say, "Poetry proposes no solutions: it says justice is the well water fo the city of Novgorod, balck and sweet," because
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
From Sarah Pollock, "Robert Hass," Mother Jones 22 (March/April 1997), 18-22.
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