Robert Hass’ essay "Families and Prisons” from the book What Light Can Do (2012) is the next essay in the David Rivard class packet. This was an interesting exploration about why American’s write about their current families more than poets do in other countries. Like their kids and wives, not just their families of origin, which all poets seem to write about (mothers, fathers, siblings).
Hass says autobiographical poetry about families is relatively new in lyric poetry although “family is one of the fundamental subjects of literature…the great Greek tragedies are about families, and so are many of the great novels of the nineteenth century.” He talks about families in great American plays (O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee) and families in Faulkner novels. But he says it wasn’t until Allen Gisnberg’s poem "Kaddish" and Robert Lowell’s book Life Studies that poets took on domestic life. The sixteenth century was all about erotic love, the seventeenth about “man’s relationship to God.”
“It is almost exclusively [an] American subject,” Hass says, having to do with American “culture and mores.” He quotes a Peruvian poet “who said he had no stomach for Americans and their little, personal poems.”
He talks about the intimacy of writing about one’s children and the “familial feeling” and “buried forms that the emotion can take.” says, “the child enters literature with romanticism…when the middle class becomes its main creator and audience...the child emerges not long after the idea of the rights of man emerged.” He notes where children and politics first merged in literature: Blake, Dickens (Oliver Twist), Hugo (Les Miserables), Dostoevsky, Chekhov. He talks about Gothic novels, sentiment, “tears and terror” and pathos.
Hass then talks about poets who self-praise themselves and poetry. He humorously (or maybe not so humorously) summarizes Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz to say “the proof of the greatness of poetry as an art is the fact that, though no one wants to read it or think about it, though it bores people to tears, and almost no one would under any circumstance short of compulsion read a long poem, and would only in moments of weakmindedness have the thought that it would occasionally be a good idea to read short ones…nevertheless by the sheer brute tactic of talking endlessly and on all possible occasions from the beginning of human utterance to the present moment about the truth, beauty, daring, wisdom, depths, sublimity, fineness, strength, power, necessity and indispensable force of poetry, that everyone else, mainly because the noise has been so incessant and they have had too many other actual concerns pressing upon them to bring the matter to the center of their minds, have more or less yielded, at least as a piety, to this barrage of propaganda from the poets and conceded to poetry the poets’ idea of its value.”
Hass says if you have any doubt about this listen to any lecture by any poet.
He then abruptly turns to talk about poets in prison. At first this subject shift made me lose my mind. There’s hardly a transition beyond “thoughts about the first subject” and “I want to turn now to the second.” I wondered if this was just an essay of disparate subjects strung together by a title? Ugh! But you have to go with the flow sometimes. I couldn’t see why we went from families to politics to self-praise, but Hass had a plan.
He lists the most famous of the imprisoned poets throughout time and some who died before a firing squad (“a gesture Gombrowicz would have found completely typical of the self-importance of poets as a breed”) and Hass says some of these poets in these cases are a “victim of their own success” and that “the only reason they are in jail is that they have succeeded in deluding their rulers into the conception of their importance.”
He then goes on to qualify the poetry of some prisoner and hunger-strike poets. They don’t all write amazing poems as it turns out. He talks about a certain Cuban poet forbidden from reading in public and imprisoned again each time he tries. “His poems, I am sorry to say, are terrible.” He says most people think so. Although martyrdom through poetry may be a respectable course, these particular bad but imprisoned poets “look more and more like the spectacle of human life, and less and less like the special distinction of poetry.” Hass says finally that
“some poets with a great gift might lack courage and some with the courage might lack the gift, that some were steadfast, some faltered, some were duplicitous and redeemed themselves, some were pure victims, helpless as crickets in a cage, and some were wrong, and some did harm. A few of their stories belong to the history of contrariness, valor, cowardice, to tragedy, and to loss so sickening and pointless it is not tragic.”
And here is where Hass makes his stand:
“The danger of this is that there is something wrong with admiring the calamitous. Also to mistake the power of poetry in our need to praise it. Writers like everyone else need examples to teach them courage and responsibility – Akhmatova waiting outside the prison wall in Moscow for news of her son, Whitman in the hospital wards of the Civil War, Ai Qing nursing the socket of his blinded eye in the wake of an attack by young Red Guards and continuing to work on his poems – but poetry needs to be able to face toward the world when no one’s suffering gives it special drama.”
He then quotes a Czeslaw Milosz poem from 1943 during the occupation of Warsaw, “The Songs of Adrian Zelinski.”
He specially notes these three stanzas, where our protagonist mostly just feels sorry for himself (far from a heroic sentiment):
"Somewhere there are happy cities.
Somewhere there are, but not for certain.
Where, between the market and the sea,
In a spray of sea mist,
June pours wet vegetables from baskets
And ice is carried to a cafk terrace
Sprinkled with sunlight, and flowers
Drop onto women's hair.
The ink of newspapers new every hour,
Disputes about what is good for the republic.
The teeming cinemas smell of orange peels
And a mandolin hums long into the night.
A bird flicking the dew of song before sunrise.
Somewhere there are happy cities,
But they are of no use to me.
I look into life and death as into an empty winecup.
Glittering buildings or the route of ruins.
Let me go away in peace.
There is a whisper of night that breathes in me."
This reminds me of how being desensitized to violence means you actually lose your sense(s).
Hass reminds us that (until recently) America was “ a space cleared of political violence, deprivation, censorship…roads without barricades…” and that American poems about current families tend to be poems about hope and poems about original families tend to be about fate. He says confessional poems were a reaction against T.S. Eliot and “the doctrine of impersonality.” But then he concedes that even Pound, Eliot and Yeats were autobiographical in their own way as “The Waste Land” is an “account of "a personal crisis….the terrible sense of sexual unhappiness and impending madness and exile from a father’s authority, with the predicament of Western civilization. The lesson of Eliot for young writers was that their most intimate suffering was a powerful metaphor.”
At the end in the final sentences Hass tries to tie American family poems (from happy cities) to a kind of bravery (a bravery of hope really) of its own kind and that this is a modest but true praise for poetry.