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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hass’

Overheard Haiku

November 18, 2014 | by

The rhythms of overheard speech.

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Photo: NARA

In Martin Walser’s 1987 book Brandung, about a German professor teaching abroad at the very un-German University of California, Berkeley—a novel really not worth reading unless you are interested in German-English translation and able to read it in the Berkeley sun, to a whiff of eucalyptus or a glimpse of Mount Tamalpais, and even then I didn’t finish it—the professor overhears a bit of dialogue. A student steps into an elevator and says “Going up?”; the one in the elevator says “Trying to.” The professor, “who did after all teach English back home, was crushed to realize, yet again, that he would never master this language.” Not long afterward, he sees a campus newspaper headline, “Sex Blind Admission,” and tries and fails to reconstruct the line in German. “English is a language for headlines,” he thinks.

I saw a headline myself in Berkeley, on the unbelievably trashy San Francisco Examiner: “Cops Fear Pimp Turf War.” Five punchy syllables, each pretty much any part of speech—it took me a moment to understand what it meant, then I knew I had witnessed greatness. (I’m not the only one who noticed: a weekly DJ night called “Cops Fear Pimp Turf War!” sprang up a few months later in San Francisco.)

It was walking in downtown Manhattan, on the other hand, past the new construction of, according to the slogan around the scaffolding, TWENTY INDIVIDUALLY-CURATED FINELY-CRAFTED CONDOMINIUM RESIDENCES, that a couple hurried past and we heard the man say, “The problem is in this country people believe they deserve something ... ” Whether his complaint targeted the members of the 1 percent who were building or planning to live in these super-creative residences, or the passersby resenting that they couldn’t, or other groups altogether, it was also a classic example of American speech:

The problem is in
this country people believe
they deserve something

It’s not a haiku—the haiku form has demands besides 5-7-5 syllables: seasonal key words (kigo), one image, two moments with a turn or jump cut between them indicated by a “cutting word” (kireji). It’s the serendipitous, spoken, American form: the overheard haiku. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Stèles, Cellpoems, Converse

November 30, 2012 | by

I’ve been nosing around in Robert Hass’s recent collection of essays, What Light Can Do, which itself noses around in such subjects as writing from California, Korean poetry, landscape photography, and Immanuel Kant. There are some pleasurable moments in essays on the poet Ko Un and on Laura McPhee’s photographs of the Salmon River, which winds through the Rockies and into Washington. But I found bliss in Hass’s mediation on Robert Adams’s photographs of the Los Angeles Basin in the late seventies and early eighties. Just before the end, Haas includes a haiku—so appropriate to the city’s spare, industrial haze—whose author he has forgotten: “Cut flowers / in the drainage ditch— / they’re still blooming.” —Nicole Rudick

What does classical Chinese sound like when imagined by a French modernist poet and translated into English? Victor Segalen, a medical doctor and theorist of exoticism, published the first edition of Stèles in 1912, in Beijing. (A stele is an upright slab with an inscription; a stèle is a genre invented by Segalen.) Each poem in the book is surrounded by a black border and reads—spookily—like a lyric carved into stone: “To fuse everything, from the east of love to the heroic west, from the south facing the Prince to the too-friendly north—to reach the other, fifth, center & Middle // Which is me.” —Robyn Creswell

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Michael Robbins on ‘Alien vs. Predator’

March 27, 2012 | by

Michael Robbins.

Reading the poetry of Michael Robbins is kind of like driving around the parkways and frontage roads of America’s suburbs. His poems have a Best Buy, a Red Lobster, a Kinko’s, a Pizza Hut, and a Guitar Center; they reference the slogans of Christian billboards and the bumper stickers of hippies; they offer the choice between Safeway and Whole Foods and between the corporate classic-rock station, the corporate urban-music station, and All Things Considered. The poems are heavy with concern for the elephants, the whales, and the freedom of Tibet. They have a Rhianna song stuck in their heads.

Among poets, Robbins follows in the footsteps of Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon in writing about contemporary life using more traditional poetic forms and rhyme. He also references and sometimes even quotes Philip Larkin, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Wordsworth, and others. But Robbins is more playful and less grandiloquent than his sometimes-grim forefathers: after reading his first book, Alien vs. Predator, the two things I kept thinking of were not poetry at all, but rather the short stories of George Saunders and the video art of Ryan Trecartin. As Saunders did with marketing jargon and Trecartin with reality television, Robbins congeals his suburban idyll, transforming its vacant vernacular into unsettling poignancy. And sometimes it’s even funny.

I reached Robbins by phone in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We spoke the day after Rick Santorum’s victory in that state’s Republican primary.

Where are you working right now?

I’m a visiting poet at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, which is where I’m staying and just waiting until I get out of this city.

You don’t like it?

The people are great at the university, my students are great, but Hattiesburg is … it’s just like if you opened a university in a Taco Bell, basically. It’s just the ugliest place I’ve ever seen in my life. Read More »

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