It was like any other poetry reading — Robert Hass had attended hundreds at this point. But after he finished reciting poems from a recent book, someone from the audience approached him and pointed out to the Pulitzer Prize winner something that had never crossed his mind.
All the poems he read were about scars.
Hass, 73, never intended for scars to make their way into his poetry. It was only after a stranger told Hass — a UC Berkeley English professor and former U.S. poet laureate — that he realized how frequently they made their way into his work.
“When you’re young, you think you can repair most things that go wrong, but at a certain point, you realize there are things you just can’t fix,” he says.
Since childhood, there were pieces of Hass’ life over which he had no control, no chance to fix. In recent years, it was the passing of his younger brother and sister. In his early years, it was an alcoholic mother — though “sweet-natured” and “never mean or cruel” — whose troubles seeped into the family.
“I was trying to make everything right so that everything would be OK,” Hass says. “I thought that if I were good, my mother would be OK.”
Born in San Francisco, Hass fittingly recalls that his earliest memory was the sound of a foghorn and the sight of a cloudless sky. When the United States entered World War II, Hass was somewhere between baby and toddler, although he still remembers that his house along the Presidio was divided up into apartments and rented out to army generals.
Sometime later, his family moved 20 miles north, to San Rafael, where Hass did most of his growing up. Like most children, he was curious about the world and invented playtime scenarios near the creeks and in the forests.
“You’d see a swordfighting movie, and you didn’t want to be the guy who wrote the swordfighting movie,” he says. “You wanted to be the hero of the swordfighting movie.”
Though Hass calls his early years at times “terrifying” and “insecure,” his curiosity for and imagination of the world were insatiable. Without him realizing it, writing became inextricably tied up with his mental fantasies. Being the swordfighter and writing about the swordfighter became one and the same.
After graduating from high school, Hass flitted around the Bay Area, attaining an education and acquiring a taste for political activism. Like many students his age, he dreamed of fixing society and its inequality.
But Hass was not always as politically oriented as he is today. Raised on a “steady diet of John Wayne movies,” Hass says patriotism framed his state of mind up until his undergraduate years at Saint Mary’s College, located just a stone’s throw east of Berkeley.
Hass remembers the times he and his friends would come out to Berkeley on the weekends “to see movies and to meet girls.” In the midst of a rigorous classical education, Hass saw the students of UC Berkeley — the protests and the beginnings of the Free Speech Movement — as superficial.
“Probably, I was just jealous,” he says. “It looked like they were energized and having fun and also doing something useful.”
Soon after, pledging allegiance morphed into pledging activism. While receiving his graduate education at Stanford University in the late 1960s, Hass edited and leafleted a liberal publication that was originally titled the “Graduate Coordinating Committee Newsletter.” Its name was later changed to “Commitment” and, in the face of opposition, “Resistance.”
The issues of the day were diverse, but Hass was particularly concerned about gender and racial inequality. He recalls that female students were required to return to their dormitories at a certain curfew but that male students were permitted to stay out late. If white women dated people of color, Hass says, a dean would write home to their parents.
During a sit-in at the university president’s office, Hass and his peers were arrested and later put on trial by a student court. Institutional transformations, however, were just around the corner. Soon, programs in ethnic and feminist studies would be offered. Curfews for women and restrictions on female enrollment would be lifted.
“Everywhere, things were changing,” Hass says.
Decades later, during his 1995 to 1997 tenure as U.S. poet laureate, his determination to fix the world had not died down but presented itself in new ways. At the top of his laureate list were saving the environment and promoting literacy.
“I didn’t want to go around telling people poetry is great because there’s good poetry and bad poetry,” he says. “But I did want to talk about reading and education.”
In his almost five decades of teaching, Hass has never grown tired of the profession or his students. Hass still finds it incredible that he gets paid for the work he calls a daily “adventure.”
While serving as poet laureate, Hass continued holding classes. During those two years, Hass would lecture Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, take a Wednesday afternoon flight out to Washington, curate a literary series on Capitol Hill, host the series Thursday night, give a talk Saturday and fly back Sunday afternoon to rest up for Monday’s lecture.
Today, in between teaching and countless reading engagements, Hass sets aside a few hours almost every day to write.
“My experience is, if you wait for inspiration, the moments of it are fewer and farther between,” Hass says. “The main thing for writers is to show up — to say, ‘Muse, I’m here.’ ”
Hass never knows the direction of his poems when he first sits down to write. His work, he says, does not precisely fit into a specific category that defines modern poetry — confessionalist, formalist or experimental.
In fall 2011, UC Berkeley students launched their own installment of the Occupy Wall Street movement — Occupy Cal — in a series of protests centered on Sproul Plaza. During the demonstrations, which resulted in the arrest of more than 30 students and fierce condemnation of police use of force, students rallied against budget cuts and rising tuition.
A veteran protester, Hass was curious about where the energy of Occupy Cal would take the movement. Encouraged by his wife, Brenda Hillman, the two attended the Nov. 9 “day of action” protest that resulted in more alleged police brutality than any other day.
Night fell, and a line of police beat throngs of protesters with batons as they made their way through the crowd. An officer shoved Hass’ wife, knocking her to the ground, and Hass was hit several times with batons. Hass says he was angry, not afraid, and detailed the experience in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Poet-Bashing Police,” which added a voice to the national outrage against police conduct.
“I would think that you would at least say to yourself, we don’t bring students here and encourage them to celebrate this tradition but then beat them up if they practice it,” he says, referring to UC Berkeley’s history of civil disobedience.
Still, his view on Occupy Cal was nuanced. He saw the protesters as the privileged, educated class and the police as the less fortunate group. As he watched Occupy unfold, Hass realized that although he and his comrades set out to change the world in the 1960s, there was still work to be done.
In the last eight years — the exact time is hard for Hass to pinpoint — his younger sister committed suicide. Two years later, his younger brother, who was born with cerebral palsy, died from a drug overdose.
“My younger siblings were much more scarred, I think, than I was or my older brother by the instability of our family,” he says. “You grow up as a child of an alcoholic, and your main impulse in life is to save people. Then it turns out you can’t, and I’m still learning that.”
Hass feels their absence every day, even though he and his brother lived starkly different lives.
“He was always getting into trouble. When I was an adult raising children, I didn’t need my brother to call me up and say, ‘I’m broke and I’m in jail and need you to help me,’ ” Hass says. “He was a pain in the ass. I loved him a lot.”
Today, Hass has children of his own and an older brother. He says he is still figuring out in what ways his siblings’ deaths have affected him. To heal, Hass says that it’s work — not art — that provides therapeutic comfort.
After his younger brother passed away, Hass wrote a series of elegies that reflected upon his loss. He didn’t sit down to write elegies, but one day, words just spilled onto paper. The poems, though written in verse form, are more akin to prose. “August Notebook: A Death” begins with a series of typos and then describes what happens to a body in a medical examiner’s morgue.
Hass sums up the distinction: “Grief is the poetry of the world. What happens to bodies is the prose.”