A poet laureate for all time zones West meets east: Robert Hass racks up frequent-flier miles, balancing a teaching post in California with duties at the Library of Congress.

March 24, 1996|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

If Robert Hass ever writes a poem about jet lag, he won't lack inspiration.

Mr. Hass, the eighth and probably most traveled U.S. poet laureate will be the guest of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) Tuesday and Wednesday during his Columbia tour, where he'll read to the public, students and the Rotary Club.

It will be his only stop in the Baltimore area, despite a schedule that has him hop-scotching across the country at least twice a month.

Chronic jet lag may be his biggest malady. Mr. Hass balances teaching English at the University of California at Berkeley with responsibilities three time zones away at the Library of Congress in Washington the poet laureate's benefactor.

"It's the opposite of a writer's life, lots of frequent-flier miles that I have no desire to use," he said.

Lauds civic groups

Although poets typically speak to students crammed into a tiny classroom, Mr. Hass also is looking forward to having lunch with the Columbia Rotary Club. He considers such civic and business organizations an asset, helping efforts toward public literacy at a time when government programs have been cut.

"I feel panicked," Mr. Hass said. "We're squandering our inheritance."

His public reading at Howard Community College was moved from a 49-seat lounge, to a 90-seat dining room to its final stop at the 417-seat Smith Theatre.

In addition to the readings, Mr. Hass will be the guest of Maryland Poet Laureate Roland Flint on "The Writing Life," which will be shown on cable channels in Howard, Baltimore and Carroll counties. The show has featured interviews with poetry greats such as Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, W. S. Merwin and Lucille Clifton.

He is the fourth U.S. poet laureate to speak at HoCoPoLitSo, which is in its 22nd year. The previous three were Richard Wilbur, Mark Strand and Mona Van Duyn.

Mr. Hass, 55, is the first poet laureate from the West Coast. Born in San Francisco in 1941, he graduated from St. Mary's College of California and later earned graduate degrees from Stanford University. He's married to poet Brenda Hillman, who teaches at St. Mary's, and has three children and one stepchild.

Mr. Hass succeeded Rita Dove, who set the standard for dedication to her post. She collapsed from exhaustion twice during her two-year tenure.

Threefold goals

His goals as poet laureate are threefold: encouraging a growing interest in poetry, raising literacy and library issues, and shining a spotlight on American nature writing.

One result is "Watersheds," a gathering of American nature writers scheduled April 15 to 20 at the Library of Congress during the first National Poetry Month. The list of writers includes Peter Mathiessen and Wendell Berry.

Mr. Hass' work includes three books of poetry: "Field Guide," "Praise" and "Human Wishes." "Twentieth Century Pleasures" won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism.

While spending time in airplane cabins, he's revising a book of poems due to be published in the fall.

He also has translated works that range from those of 17th-century haiku poet Basho to 20th-century Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz.

Early poems by Mr. Hass are like haikus with short lines. More contemporary works have longer lines, showing the influence of Milosz and are full of detail but looking at larger issues. From "Privilege of Being" he unites the temporal and the heavens:

Many are making love. Up above, the angels

in the unshaken ether and crystal

of human longing

are braiding one another's hair,

which is strawberry blond

and the texture of cold rivers. They glance

down from time to time at the awkward ecstasy

it must look to them like featherless birds

splashing in the spring puddle of a bed

He also writes a weekly syndicated column that analyzes a poem in an effort to make poetry part of the mass media.

His advice to poets?

"Just do it. Read around and don't be too self-conscious about it," he said.

U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass will read at 7: 30 p.m. Tuesday at Smith Theatre, Howard Community College. Admission costs $5. His works will be on sale. For tickets to the reading, call HoCoPoLitSo: 730-7524. Mr. Hass will speak to the Columbia Town Center Rotary Club from noon to 1: 30 p.m. Wednesday at the Columbia Inn, 10207 Wincopin Circle. Admission is $20. Call the Rotary at 992-0001.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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