Former poet laureate Hass offers lyrical essays

"What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World" (HarperCollins), by Robert Hass

The generous and gentle Robert Hass has titled his retrospective collection of essays and talks with a reference to a theme that always sets his work apart: the act of attention.

Visible from the first essay, written 27 years ago, through the last are the lush layers of Hass' rare combination of brilliance, erudition and self-awareness. He is unusually present, able to ponder "what light can do," and he notes with just enough modesty that this can sometimes overtake him in the form of "digression inside the digression." But he offers his thoughts with surpassing clarity and circumspection. His passion for the subjects he surveys, dissects and gleefully honors is more tender than fiery — whether he is celebrating the complexity of Anton Chekhov's short stories, giving Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" the full cultural context it merits, or exploring the overlooked back story of a protest at the University of California at Berkeley.

A reader never feels ill-equipped, as so often happens with literary criticism. Instead, we're all welcomed to the party Hass throws in honor of great creativity. Hass often builds this openness on personal anecdotes, setting a critique of the Wallace Stevens poem "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" among his recollections of an impromptu drive with seven fellow students to Carmel, Calif., for example. Recounting how he and his friends read and reread the work enables Hass to mention the evolution of his own thinking and naturally include differing views of the poem.

Hass, a UC Berkeley professor who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1995 to 1997 and has received major awards for his poetry and a previous essay collection, writes with the confidence of deep familiarity instead of a sense of superiority; nearly every piece teaches us something, though he rarely instructs. He is clearly frustrated with the simplistic news coverage of — and community response to — the fight over cutting down part of a planted grove of trees at UC Berkeley to make way for the football stadium's renovation. So, asked to deliver a research lecture, which appears as "An Oak Grove," the book's final entry, Hass reveals the many lessons about the area's rich botanical and cultural history and even the Arts and Crafts movement that the conflict could have provided.

If the collection includes perhaps too many essays and talks, or a reader finds one or another a bit too long, it's easy to skip ahead. Savoring just one of these life-giving morsels is memorable, even transcendent.

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