Robert Hass' Time and Materials.

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Nov. 1 2007 7:35 AM

When Poetry Meets Politics

Robert Hass' poetic journey.

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In one sense, this insecurity seems misplaced. Hass' best efforts in Time and Materials are as lithe and surprising as anything he's written. A perfectly pitched daydream of a poem called "Art and Life" explores how art can be timeless when it reifies fleeting experience. "After the Winds," a bittersweet portrait of Hass' unmoored generation, ends by brushing aside religious dogma for a grasp on the immediate: "For Magdalen, of course, the resurrection didn't mean/ She'd got him back. It meant she'd lost him in another way./ It was the voice she loved, the body, not the god ... " In another sense, though, Hass' diffidence is apt. Time and Materials contains explicit statements on public issues, throwing him into uncertain new territory. It also brings him face-to-face with his decisions as a younger writer. Given the disastrous new war under way, should he still keep language free from political argument?

The poet seems to think not. Four anti-war poems, in forms ranging from free verse to haibun, fall like bombshells near the end of the new book. Other pieces take up related political causes, like the human casualties of global finance. "Bush's War," a long meditation on innocence lost to violence, shows him learning to write in a new, polemical mode:

I typed the brief phrase, "Bush's War,"
At the top of a sheet of white paper,
Having some dim intuition of a poem
Made luminous by reason that would,
Though I did not have them at hand,
Set the facts out in an orderly way.

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Hass still appears skeptical of poetry like this. He admits to arguing from facts he doesn't possess. And his avidity for the light of "reason" flickers with sarcasm. This is loose language, but he gives it his best shot:

The rest of us have to act like we believe
The dead women in the rubble of Baghdad
Who did not cast a vote for their deaths
Or the raw white of the exposed bones
In the bodies of their men or their children
Are being given the gift of freedom
Which is the virtue of the injured us.
It's hard to say which is worse, the moral
Sloth of it or the intellectual disgrace.

Someone who lectures about democratic abuses, moral sloth, and "intellectual disgrace" has left the immediate world for a place where language sets rules and makes arguments. Hass may wish he'd done so sooner. Together, "Bush's War" and its peers give more attention to World War II, Vietnam, and the Korean War than to Iraq. This broad chronology matches the poems' style—fast-paced and disjunctive, lurching from horrific moment to horrific moment with little pause where consciousness can set itself. As "Bush's War" reels from Nazi death camps to Sept. 11 to Iraq, Hass laments "a taste for power/ That amounts to contempt for the body." In the end, he isn't fighting hawkish politics or the immorality of violence. He's fighting a mentality that holds his project—honoring subjectivity, physicality, directness—in disdain.

Hass' poetic confidence may be tempered, and his political ire roused, but his priorities haven't actually changed. Loosening his language and jumping into the rhetorical ring is a new way of defending old territory. There's directness, after all, in acknowledging one's political stance. And a portrait of consciousness in the world can hardly be complete, or honest, if it fails to show a mind wrestling with "large issues." Hass has been negotiating a standard of public candor ever since he started writing. And while Time and Materials acknowledges forces stronger than poetry, forces that can be engaged only on their own terms, he hasn't stopped struggling to stay true to his audience and himself. It's an example the leaders of this country might learn from.

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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