It’s always fun when friends win prizes. So with great pleasure I announce what you may already know (I just found out): former poet laureate Robert Hass has just won the $100,000 Wallace Stevens prize for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry” from the Academy of American Poets. We’ve written about him here and here and here, and for San Francisco Magazine here, and for Stanford Magazine here. It’s been a good year for the Hass family – Bob’s wife Brenda Hillman won the Griffin Award in Canada earlier this summer (we wrote about that here).
Bob is a MacArthur Fellow, and won a National Book Award in 2007, and a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and two National Book Critics Circle Awards, among other prizes. (Read two of his poems here.) We met over a common interest: Czesław Miłosz. Bob, who met the Polish poet at Berkeley in 1978, became his foremost translator into English, and diverted much of his own creative energies to collaborate with the elderly poet laureate. “So by accident, in the course of this, at an age when I was really too old to have a master anymore, I got to apprentice myself to this amazing body of poetry,” he told me.
When I received his manuscript for Time and Materials, I predicted it would go on to win every possible national prize, and it did. In the 2008 San Francisco Magazine piece, I ask: “Hass’s latest poems remind us that to be fully human is itself an act of political subversion. What could be more Californian?”
From my piece:
All morality is banal. To write that war is bad, honesty is the best policy, death imminent for us all is to court cliché. It’s all true, but to make it felt? The art of poetry is making the obvious become lovely and new again, coaxing it into memorable speech. Robert Hass’s poems, especially in his long-awaited fifth collection, Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005, can have just that effect.
“Art and Life,” for instance, an extended riff on Vermeer’s “Woman Pouring Milk,” explores art, restoration, light, paint, and rebirth—almost in one long, miraculous breath. Hass, who teaches at UC Berkeley, resists the quick quote or easy quip: the wonder of this remarkable poem is how it quietly circles round and round back into itself over three-plus pages.
What’s rarer still is the quiet moral authority that speaks through the new poems, the assuredness of a voice that can take on the horrors of war and the huckleberries of Inverness in the same measured way, without hysteria or hyperbole. Each poem resists the obvious showstopper line, instead incorporating slow effects that build momentum over the whole collection, measuring our actions and choices against a backdrop of silence and death. Hass has always attempted to link the historical moment with the intimate, but here the fusion is close to perfect. The voice that speaks through these poems is wiser, more seasoned, more certain of itself and its terrain.
Tracy K. Smith, who in 2012 won the Pulitzer Prize for “Life On Mars,” is also a winner in the same award cycle. The Academy of American Poets also announced the winners of six other awards, including Tracy K. Smith, who won the $25,000 Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Rigoberto González, who won the $25,000 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Read about other awarded poets here.
When I interviewed her after her Pulitzer, she was bubbly and courteous. She had celebrated the Pulitzer on her 40th birthday, with champagne. She talked about her upbringing and her father, who had been one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Science and space infuse and inform her poetry. From her oft-quoted “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” in which the universe is:
. . . sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
Or this, from the same poem:
Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Award winners will be honored at a ceremony on Oct. 17 at the New School in New York City.