When I was a college student, poet Cyrus Cassells recommended that I read Robert Hass's Praise, and Hass became one of those poets who fundamentally influenced the way I saw poetry. Over the course of thinking through the issues of a poetry of war resistance, I found my former adoration cede to a skeptical enjoyment. In a talk in which I confronted Hass' dichotomizing of the political and the pleasureable, I phrased it this way:
In the essay, “Textured Information: Politics, Pleasure, and the Poetry of the Eighties,” Rogert Gilbert describes the dominant poetic period style of the eighties as one in which pleasure and politics are polarities: “the rival claims of pleasure and politics, the aesthetic and the social, private experience and public responsibility” (243). Gilbert’s assertion is based upon two limited notions: that poetry is the lyric version of a Pez dispenser, and that politics is unpleasureable, by definition, in poetry.
Comprehending both the meaning and the efficacy of explicitly political poetry requires a new critical vocabulary, one which accounts for what might be termed “political desire”—that is, the subjective longing, even pleasure, produced by literary texts that reach beyond the bounds of the privatized, commodified self.
Hass' poetry, to my mind, sustains this dichotomy in ways that limit poetry's possibilities and reduce politics to a sphere of obligation or subjective pain. Yet this recent review of Robert Hass' new book, Time and Materials, suggests Hass continues to revisit the conundrums of a political poetry:
So it's surprising that Hass' new collection, his first since stepping down as laureate, makes poetry and politics bedfellows. Time and Materials has the look of a catchall, mixing occasional pieces, imitations, translations, and the long narrative poems that are Hass' tours de force. And while the book is, overall, unmistakably Hassian—aging Berkeleyites come to life in rocky West Coast landscapes and an erotic imagination of impressive stamina—its author is also readjusting his approach to language and poetic responsibility. Not only are there explicit anti-war poems of the sort he's disavowed; Hass seems to stray, at times, from his commitment to immediacy.