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This article is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.

A Whoop for the Guy with the Radish: The Prose of Robert Hass Tony Roberts
In a 1928 essay Edmund Wilson bemoaned the absence of real literary criticism that could deal seriously with ideas and art, and not simply report that the reviewer ‘let out a whoop for the book or threw it out of the window’. Reading Robert Hass’s essays, which do deal expertly with their subjects, I feel myself qualified at least to ‘let out a whoop’ from time to time. I am an admirer of Hass’s award-winning poetry, his ongoing contribution to the American cultural and ecological debate, his teaching, translations, his proselytising for poetry and his prose writing.

In fact, I would as soon read Robert Hass on poetry as almost anyone, because he strikes me as an enlightened teacher, an enthusiast, as well as a natural stylist. He has a relaxed way of offering himself up as the autobiographical conduit into his subject. This creates an intimacy with the reader and, since Hass does not profess to be all-knowing, ultimately a trust. After all, as he says in his lecture ‘On Teaching Poetry’, he is pragmatic about it: ‘I am much more interested in poems than in the nature of poetry in more or less the same way that someone might be more interested in eating than in the theory of cuisine.’

Poets often write of themselves when they write of others. In his new book (What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, 2012) Hass offers observations about George Oppen, whom he admires (‘For clear water, a scrupulousness of mind, I turn to ...

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