Photo: Jeff Kearns.
Readers of Robert Hass’s poetry are familiar with his fine-tuned and tender attention to the natural world. What they may not know so well are his efforts to take that devotion off the page and into boardrooms and classrooms.
As United States Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997, Hass turned the post into a pulpit. He cofounded River of Words, a nonprofit that connects children to their environment, and created the Watershed conferences, which explore the connection between writing and nature. He currently brings his literary outlook to the board of the International Rivers Network. And at the University of California-Berkeley, where he is an English professor, he started an innovative interdepartmental class that explores the intersections between poetry and science.
Hass, 64, says his collections — which include Field Guide, Human Wishes, and Sun Under Wood — don’t have an agenda. But he also argues that poems, despite having a tiny audience, can be a valuable tool for environmental activists, on both a political and personal level. At his home in Kensington, Calif., Hass spoke with Grist about how to make politicians listen to poets, why he comes down on the side of dunes and streams, and what has him enraged at his fellow Americans.
Do you consider yourself an environmentalist in addition to a poet?
Environmentalist is a hazy term. There isn’t any way to tell whether you’re an environmentalist or not, like you can tell if you’re an artist or not, because either you’ve made art or you haven’t. I’ve been actively involved in working institutionally on environmental issues, so I guess that means I’m an environmentalist.
How do you think poetry makes a difference in activism?
It’s definitely a trickle-down theory. A relatively small number of educated people read poetry, and written poetry affects songwriting, and songwriting affects masses of people. Poetry becomes an expression that filters into the world slowly.
Wordsworth read the German Romantics, [who transformed the perception of wilderness into] a place for the soul’s great adventures. … Wordsworth, more than anyone else, articulated this new vision. So Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Muir preached the gospel of Yosemite, and we got our national-park system. Ideas matriculate slowly through poetry into the general culture, but they eventually matriculate into the general culture.
How does what you do in your nature poetry differ from your environmental activism?
Writing about feelings of connection to and disconnectedness from the world around us, natural and cultural, is certainly one of my subjects. And I think other people respond to it. In my environmental work, for example with the River of Words, my explicit purpose is to help teachers teach kids enough natural history that they’re literate in the natural history of their own region, so that they will be better protectors of it. And in that work I have a very definite agenda. In my poetry, I don’t.
In several poems, you seem to have doubts about how poetry can serve as a mode for an activist. For example, in “Rusia en 1931,” you write, “Poetry proposes no solutions.”
There have been poems and novels that have inspired political movements. But I don’t think that’s what poetry’s particularly good at, and it’s not in the end what people go to poetry for. People are apt to read poems about people who stub their toes, or smell the flowers, or get into an argument with their girlfriends … There are rare poems that have things to say about politics that are permanently smart and useful, and those poems I find myself still reading.
Overall, do you think poetry’s role in environmental activism is more about developing an appreciation of nature?
I do. The great poet of the environment of this era is Gary Snyder. He’s thought deeply about our perceptions and ways of thinking about our relationship to animals, to forests, to stone. By drawing on lots of sources, including Native American mythology and Asian religions and their attitudes toward the natural world, he has really brought new ways of seeing. So I think heightening and changing consciousness is something poetry can do, and it can do it about our relationship to the natural world, which is after all always an ongoing puzzle.
Do you think that kind of attention to the natural world influences poets who don’t write explicitly about nature?
I think almost all poets are soaked consciously and unconsciously in the language and imagery of place, so that even poets who you don’t associate with close attention to the external world are in one way or another full of the imagery of the places that they know about.
How does that affect your writing?
My first book, Field Guide, was quite self-consciously a book that tried to write about the natural world of California. This was partly because it was something I was interested in, and partly because in those days, the 1970s, specialized interest in conservation was turning into the environmental movement and recognition of how much damage we’re doing.
So … I not only got to name the names of the place I loved, but in some way I was trying to bend the culture’s cognitive attention. … It felt to me then that American culture existed in a kind of dream of itself, not particularly connected to reality. One of the qualities of that dream in California was this absence of any real and fixed sense of history. It was in the 1960s that some developers out in Contra Costa county decided to name a new subdivision San Diablo, turning the devil into a saint. The historical roots of language were so shallow here. That seemed to me a symptom of our carelessness in the way we treat the American land.
Do you identify more with the preservation movement than the environmental-justice movement?
My fear about environmental policy in this country is that each time it’s going to be a question that will get debated by the talking heads, and there will be the people in the middle who will find the compromise, and compromise after compromise after compromise will devastate the world. So my impulse is always to be the advocate for animals and grasses, streams and ecosystems.
As a simple example, friends of mine are working on the preservation of … a rare dune system. They’re starting to worry about the expansion of a trailer park. Some people take the position that this is snobbery of well-off liberals wanting to save dune systems at the expense of working-class people and their trailer homes. Which side do you come down on? I come down on the side of the dunes, because every single time you say, “We should think about the people,” there goes that dune system. And then the next dune system and the next until they’re all gone. At what point does the argument against the radical destruction of all the living ecosystems on the planet kick in, the argument that we can’t go any further? For me, that argument starts now.
You were one of the first poet laureates to take the role and open it up beyond literacy to activism. Have you changed the position for future poets?
I think we all have collectively done it over time. In the early days, it didn’t really have much impact beyond whoever would be interested in going to a poetry reading in the evening on Capitol Hill. It’s gradually evolved into a more activist post. I don’t necessarily think that every poet should treat it that way — you presumably pick people because they’re good poets, and what they want to do is write poetry, not be converted into politicians.
What I felt then, that I got a formulation of when I read Aldo Leopold, is that you can’t be stewards of a place that you don’t love, and you can’t love a place that you don’t know. Actually you can love a place that you don’t know. All kinds of Americans think they love America as a place without actually knowing what’s there, so the problem is … opening or reopening people to the life of their senses and the rich life of the planet going on around them.
You studied biology in college, but it seems like today colleges cast students as either science or literature people. In your class, do you find that people aren’t communicating between the two sides of their brain?
I think people do try to communicate between those two sides of their brain. I think part of the interest of the intelligent-design/evolutionary-biology debate is about how the implications of science talk to the rest of our feeling, affective selves. To try to figure out how to put those together is the fun of this class.
My partner, a science professor, gets the poetry people who are worried that they can’t get the science, and I get the science people who are worried they can’t do the poetry. So I’m sitting in my office with some really bright young people who can do neurobiology or astrophysics but say they can’t understand poetry. And I’m inclined to get down a poem off the shelf like Wordsworth’s sonnet, “All things that love the sun are out of doors,” and I say, what don’t you understand about that?
You’ve said that in your class, you’re trying to get students to describe the natural world more accurately — instead of saying the bird sings, describing how it sings.
[At the first class,] I said, “As you walked into this building, were there trees on either side of you as you walked down the path?” About a third said yes, a third said no, a third said I don’t know. That’s one kind of noticing. And I said, “OK, of those of you that think maybe there were trees on the path, were they the kind of trees that have needles or the kind of trees that have leaves?” … None of them knew. Because what they were doing was monitoring their own brain roof chatter. It’s what people do a lot walking around.
Does living on the West Coast bring a particular sensibility to your nature poems?
It does for me. There is the historical sense that California is the end of the line. It’s geologically a young landscape, so it looks older. The landscapes of the East look green and smoothed out compared to West Coast landscapes. In California, you can see the recent geological formation of the Sierra, and you can still see the lava flows up in northeastern California. It’s as if the earth were still cooling. So there’s a way in which the California landscape feels more primordial than the East Coast.
Do you think Western poets have brought about a change in nature poetry?
Wendell Berry in the Southeast and Gary Snyder on the West Coast are poets I think of as teachers in this way. Since most books in my childhood were published on the East Coast, Dick and Jane put on their boots and went out and played in the snow or jumped up and down in all the colored leaves. My nature wasn’t represented in the world. And so one of the pleasures of writing about California and reading the few writers who were writing about California was that this world was represented. Then it became possible to think about it, know it, worry about its preservation. So the environmental movement and the development of the literature in California both happened at the same time, out of the same currents that brought conservation and the environmental movement into existence.
Are you discouraged by the Bush administration’s environmental policies?
I’m not discouraged — I’m enraged. And I’m not even enraged at them anymore. I’m enraged at my countrymen. I’m sickened and disgusted that the American people brought this on. I’m angry at the way they’ve just turned loose the old-fashioned, exploiter resource-Republicans to try to repeal the basic bill of rights that we got in the 1960s. From the Republican Party, by the way, we got the Environmental Protection Agency, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act. We created the brilliant beginnings of a really admirable environmental bill of rights. And these Texas oil resource-Republicans have been trying to destroy it so they can mine the last desert and the last drop of oil, and I’m sickened by it. I think that what it calls for is very practical political activism — right now.