Robert Hass — Berkeley beat in the Berkshires

Down Addison Street in Berkeley, Calif., between University Avenue and Strawberry Creek Park, steel panels set words under foot: “Let us climb the sugar pines. / We shall move out at dawn. / You will set up camp. …” C’iidaymiya, a Yana woman sang 100 years ago.

In the 1890s Gertrude Stein was a teenager writing in the hills. In the 1920s Robertson Jeffers was in Big Sur. In the 1930s, Berkeley faculty wives kept house and organized a poetry group — and one faculty wife, Margaret Schevill, ran off with Frank Lloyd Wright to write on Navajo and Zuñi poetry.

Robert Hass recalls finding these stories and bringing Berkeley voices into the streets, from a Chinese immigrant on Angel Island to Oakland blues. Former National Poet Laureate, National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, he edited this Addison Street Anthology with Jessica Fisher, a poet and now professor of English at Williams College. Now she is bringing him here to read his work at Williams.

Through his own poetry, Hass has earned as wide a recognition as the country holds. He is known for a sense of place and community, clear images, driving rhythm and shifting time.

Walking down Addsion Street could feel like walking through one of his own poems. In shifting, vivid rhythm they may move, as in his “July Notebook: The Birds,” from intense sunlight on an old blue house to hikers in the dusty hills, to a woman killed in Poland in 1942, to the memory of a day at Puerto Escondido and a woman with bright eyes and a head shaved from chemo watching as “the young pelicans came swooping in / to practice their new awkward skill of fishing / on the small, terrified, silvery river fish.”

Fisher had read Robert Hass’ work for a decade before she met him. She studied his poems in high school, and as a college student at Swarthmore she heard him read his work aloud.

“Not everyone reads in a way that transforms you,” she said.

He did.

He wrote poems that seemed utterly distinct to her as a young woman, she said. He wove attention into the natural world, intimate memory, history, the unthinkable violence of the 20th century. As in all strong poetry, in his she finds something mysterious, a permission to feel without knowing why.

“There are poems throughout his books that mean the world to me,” she said.

She chose Berkeley as a graduate school partly because Hass had become poet-in-residence there, and the chance to work with him exhilarated her. He became her professor and mentor her as she became a poet. She grew to know his understanding and analytical criticism. And she continued to learn his poetry.

He writes openly about his own pain as a child, about his mother’s alcoholism, Fisher said.

He writes about the way his brother encouraged him to find his way into poetry, and the way he walked through San Fransisco as a boy, electrified, saying aloud Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

Reading Robert Lowell on New England and living in California gave a job and a subject, he said, and he began to turn his own place and past and present into words.

Fisher remembers hearing him read “Dragonflies Mating” — moving through California history, natural history, intimacy and a meditation on the mother and finishes with an image, a moment of acute attention.

He was teaching a seminar on translating poetry when he and Fisher met, and they went on to work together on translations with Czesław Miłosz.

Miłosz was Hass’s neighbor, a Berkeley professor and Polish poet who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland, helping and sheltering Warsaw Jews.

“As a teenager he canoed through Germany through the rising of the Nazis,” Hass said.

“He was a freelance writer and pariah. He came to Paris in the 1950s … I was very curious about his poetry because of what he’d seen and been through.”

He did not expect to spend 25 years in this friendship, sitting with Miłosz over his English translations, finding ways to make the language feel more natural. He realized Milosz had won the Nobel prize in literature and people wanted to know all of his writing.

Reading an intense, conflicted, passionate poet witnessing all this and putting it into English — and working with him — “as one of the old Chinese poets said … ‘It’s like being alive twice,’” Hass said. “In some ways it feels that way, all reading, all translation, looking over the shoulder of someone’s experience.”

He has turned to Japanese haiku with the same wonder. Reading in translation, he began to study the language. Haiku are short and all have traditional phrases, he said — spring rain, early autumn. As he read translations of Basho, Buson, Issa, when he found a poem he liked he would get out the Japanese dictionary.

He recalled a verse by Kobayashi Issa, “In this world / we walk on the roof of hell, / gazing at flowers.”

The poem’s actual rapid speed in Japanese slows in English, he said, like pitching at softball.

The sound and shifting speed of a poem matter to him, Fisher said. He has written (in his essay collection “Twentieth Century Pleasures” about the sound in language — rhythm, patterns, shifts in beat and emphasis, in free verse or in meter — lines that feel right.

He thinks hard about the forms his own poems take, she said.

Written or spoken, form and sound has force. Hass talked of his wife, poet, translator and professor Brenda Hillman, who will memorize poems and say them aloud on hikes in the Sierras. It used to jar him, he said, to hear “Sailing to Byzantium” as they looked out at the peaks, but now he loves it — words and rhythm in magical places.

When he and Fisher put words into Addison Street, the panels were black with white letters. The steel has rusted to rose, Hass said, with lettering like old ivory. The panels run down the sidewalk toward the high school, where students walk by them every morning and read Hass’s own “Song” —

“… On the oak table / filets of sole / stewing in the juice of tangerines …”


At the top: The Golden Gate Bridge crosses the bay in the distance from Tilden Park in Oakland. Robert Hass, Berkeley professor and former national poet laureate, is known for bringing his home ground alive in his work. Photo by Kate Abbott

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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