Robert Hass: On Poetic Relevancy

Asha Gutierrez
6 min readNov 19, 2020


Robert Hass in his book Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on poetry essay emphasizes the importance of what is necessary in poetry writing. In the chapter named “One Body: Some Notes on Form”, he argues that everyday experiences and practices are the most efficient to use on one’s own writing of form. He induces that the schema of one’s own perception is what actually matters when writing. “Though predictable is an ugly little word in daily life, in our first experience of it we are clued to the hope of a shapliness in things” (56).

Hass tells that poetry forms made him remember the moments in which the life phrases of children accentuates the power or sense of daily sequence with one’s own perception on things and events in life. He exemplifies the point in which babies look around when they first came home from the hospital with protruding eyes that seemed to want to absorb everything around them as a way of recognizing themselves. Here, Hass tries to prove the idea that there are strong feelings of wonder and repetition which each newfound experience. It is, actually, the psychological basis for the power and necessity of artistic form.

Further showing the idea of one’s own recognition of surroundings Hass says that, “One would gradually have the sense that looking-out-of-the-eyes was a point around which phenomena organized themselves; thinking this is going to happen and having it happen might be, then, the authentic source of the experience of being, of identity, that word which implies that a lot of different things are the same thing” (57). He says that the first experience of form is the experience of one’s own formulation. Examples given that demonstrate this thought is firstly the poem “The drunken boat” by Arthur Rimbaud because here the persona imagines his own perception on what Europe is like. The other example would be “The lost son” by Theodore Roethke because he depicts the natural elements into portraying another meaning by using his own point of view.

Hass focuses not of poems about form but instead focuses on thinking about the form of the poem and the shape of its understanding. He concludes that it is the shaping itself that becomes the equivalent of the poetry presence. Because the tone and the imagery alone cannot compromise without this presence of understanding. Hass points out that the play “The Sphinx’s Riddle” made by Oedipus was an example of lacking this significant concept. Oedipus was able to narrate with a well tone and show images yet was not able to have an occuring poem because of its lack of perception of being a part of the idea/story that the persona should support. “In this poem, he found an interesting perception, an important perception, but the stance has thrown him off himself. He has not found for himself the form of being in the idea” (59). Here, he was able to explain as to why the poem did not exhort the feeling of being seen or felt.

Hass has the belief that the sense of form should be both the echo of that experience and a clue to the larger rhythms of a possible order. It means that it should be original yet it should be clarified as to which perception it was derived from whether from himself or from someone else. “It seems to me, rather, that we make our forms because there is no absolute continuity, because those first assurances are broken. The mind in the act of recovery creates” (63).

In regards to form, he first brings about the value of seeing or perception over the the musicality of the poem along. Hass said that, “Meter has the authority of a profound formal order. I think the human voice without music required it; otherwise it was just individual noise in the universe” (67). He refutes the idea that musicality alone makes a poem worthy. Stanley Plumly criticized that contemporary verses prioritize tone just like Browning did in his dramatic monologues. However, these were not monologues but are stories made by the poets based on their own lives. This shows that tone has the capability to indicate one’s own personality.

In regards to images, Hass expresses that images have the competence to make a memory alive, “Images are powers” (303). It is a relation to one’s own perception or the ‘individual revelation’ in which the physical components become images. It is the representation of one’s experience properly from what is happening in one’s life. It is what keeps writing alive and memorable.

Hass recalls on the stories told to him by a deceased old friend as he noticed that the stories in itself created power for it gave him a better understanding of his friend’s totality of being. The stories made Hass think that, “It seems to me that we all live our lives in the light of primary acts of imagination, images or set of images that get us up in the morning and move us about our days” (303). Images are the claiming of this trait in which it is both a recreation of the conscious and the unconscious. It is the making of stories from what can be seen from the world. Such as what Buson did when creating lasting meaning in imagery, by capturing the necessity.

Images make a story concrete. They give a strong impact to the readers because of the nostalgic concept derived from them. Images create a sentimental retention that creates a lasting effect. “And it is something like that, some feeling in the arrest of the image that what perishes and what lasts forever have been brought into conjunction, and accompanying that sensation is a feeling of release from the self” (275). This strengthens the idea that readers vote for the poignant strong imagery because of its eternal facet.

Images create balance between the sense of being arbitrary and being a fact. An image that is connected to one’s own experience and expressed by using metaphors or relating your story from another story. Here, it creates a greater impact of imagery and understanding. An example of this was the commentary of Buson about the life of poetry, “The high stage of my dream hovers over the withered fields is impossible for me to reach” (276). Buson refers to the writing and experience of another writer named Basho whose poem also talks about a similar sensation:

Sick on a journey,

my dream hovers

over the withered fields

Here, Hass shows that Buson’s work creates a strong emotional effect as he used a sense of incompleteness of existence and its capacity to create a better image. “It is one of the conventional phrases of seasonal reference that almost all haiku contain. It identifies the time as late fall. Here it also means, I think, “the traditional phrase ‘withered fields.’ ” His dream wanders in the world and in the poem indistinguishably” (277).

Upon reading the essays of Hass, I realized that writing poetry is not as simple as it sounds. You cannot just write it without creating a structure first. You need to have the awareness of form and proper imagery as well while connecting to yourself and to the other’s perspective. It is about making art from your daily experiences. You cannot create a work that lacks musicality and concrete perspectives of one’s own experience.


Written on: July 2016



Asha Gutierrez

A writer of poetry and prose. She is also a vegan, art, and fitness advocate.