Famed poet delves into the impact of language

Photo by Nico Farrell

By Arista Engineer

Art has power. This is the statement left echoing in my mind after the Robert Hass poetry reading on Feb. 6. Hass, sensitive to the effect of poetry on an audience, uses his command over language to guide, teach and question. The reading served as a great introduction to his work because it followed a thematic arc, beginning with lighthearted interactive pieces and ending with a 3-page work on gun violence titled “Dancing.”

The first poem was full of tricks of sound and rhythm created through tongue twisters, repetition and alliteration. Hass read “aluminum linoleum,” gesturing for his audience to follow. “Aluminum linoleum” the voices replied, laughing as they stumbled over the alliteration. This piece would not have had the same effect on the page, as it would be devoid of the answering chorus of individuals sounding out the lines for themselves.

“The difference between poetry readings and reading poetry is that you do not know what is going to come next.” Hass said. That is what contributes to the excitement of the event. Hass’ relaxed presence on stage paired with frequent images of trees, birds and countrysides lull you into a sense of security. Then the happy moment is pulled away from you in the next instant as sharp images, like the footprints of a dead boy in the sand, are set against the comforting ones.

This last example is from a piece on death in childhood. It is part of a sequence of poems that resulted from Hass’ reflection on the deaths of young people. The others were based on death in infancy, adolescence, 20s and 30s. Each poem had its own mood and effect on the audience. Hass expertly combines the political with the personal, touching on topics like bullying and homophobia through his own experiences and those of people close to him.

The last poem, “Dancing,” was an emphatic and haunting piece on gun violence. Hass records the history of guns, beginning with humans’ first introduction to fire. It moves quickly to modern warfare, when the next challenge was “how to construct machine guns / A man or a boy could carry: lightweight, compact, easy to assemble.” Finally, it becomes “a portable weapon a child can operate. / The equalizer.” The consequences of firearms throughout history have been just as horrific: European imperialism, the World Wars, the Orlando shooting and worse. In the end, people are just left “throwing powders in the fire / And dancing.”

Police brutality, gun violence, environmental awareness, literacy and immigration are just a few of the issues Robert Hass has addressed in his long and prolific career. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. He has won the National Book award, the Pulitzer Prize and has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

He is currently a professor of English at UC Berkeley. His recent book, “A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into the Formal Imagination of Poetry,” is a collection of essays on the writing. This last work was written as a result of the time Hass taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Mary Szybist, a professor from Lewis & Clark’s English Department, was one of his students.

The reading was punctuated by Hass’ advice for students at LC.

“I feel like I am on holy ground,” Hass said. “This was William Stafford’s place. I have always wanted to come here.” Stafford, National Book Award recipient and Poet Laureate of Oregon, taught at LC for nearly 30 years. “If you haven’t checked out his poems from the library, you must,” Hass said. The William Stafford Archives were donated to LC by the poet’s family and contain his teaching materials, private correspondences, recordings and more. They are housed in Watzek.

Hass’ second piece of advice was for the aspiring writers in the audience.

“Record your dreams,” Hass said “they are a great place for ideas.” But his last instruction, in summary, was simply to “write your way into the kind of poet you want to read.” The rest works itself out.

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