Robert Hass on Writing as Attention

Ten years ago, I took a poetry workshop with Robert Hass. One winter afternoon when half of the class, sitting along one side of a rectangular table, watched the snow fall through the windows behind the other half, Hass made a comment about a student’s poem as if looking at the poem through binoculars. The student had referenced a bird in their poem, the name of the bird I don’t remember, but Hass, an avid bird watcher, noted how that particular bird would not be in that particular landscape in that particular season that the poem inhabited. His correction was not to teach us ornithology, or to be petty, but to show us a flaw in the integrity of details. In all earnestness to this day, I try to apply this lesson to my writing. I try to call myself out on googling some unknown fact, incorporating the quick information into my writing. I try to ask: do I understand the ecosystem of this bird?

This fall’s ALOUD season kicked off with Hass conversing on his new book of essays, What Light Can Do. Again he showed there is little satisfaction in perfunctory answers as he read passages from the essays, sampling the breadth of topics he has wrestled with over the last 20 years—from war and his grandsons’ entrancement with armor, to the barren beauty of Robert Adams’ photographs of Los Angeles. His prose is not unlike his poetry, as moderator Carol Muske-Dukes remarked, in that the reader is aware that they are undergoing an experience. Perhaps that is the poet at work—honoring the experience—historical, literary, personal—handling the details with careful precision until they find something luminous.

Photo by Gary Leonard.

Listen to the podcast of the reading and conversation with Robert Hass here.

–Posted by Bridgette Bates

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