The Magazine

Two Routes to Reality

Kennedy sings, Hass describes, poetic truth.

Apr 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 29 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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She sees her own avidity

To live then, or not to not have lived might be more accurate,

From a distance, the way a driver might see from the road

A startled deer running across an open field in the rain.

Wild thing. Here and gone. Death made it poignant, or,

If not death exactly, which she'd come to think of

As creatures seething in a compost, then time.

One of the great modern themes has been time, plus a hallmark of modernist poetic method has been use of the image and allusion. Thus, Hass opens his book with the two-line poem "Iowa, January": "In the long winter nights, a farmer's dreams are narrow. / Over and over, he enters the furrow." The poem's brevity imposes its visual power, and with January there is allusion to the Janus, double-facing god of gates and doorways (and furrows). But one sees in the passage from "Then Time" quoted above that a great deal more than imagery and allusion is at work with Hass. There is the aggregating power of description by which he builds linearly. Hass is like Elizabeth Bishop in that readers recognize the visual influence of modernist practice, but seeing such influence makes the originality of the poetry that much more impressive.

Before anything else, one returns to Hass for the same reason one returns to Bishop: Both see what others miss. Robert Hass is one of our very best poets. And X.J. Kennedy? He ought to be declared a national resource and excused from taxation.

Wyatt Prunty, Carlton professor of English at the University of the South (Sewanee), is the author, most recently, of Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems.