Our ability to pay attention isn’t what it once was. We’ve let that muscle go flaccid. Readers now of glowing screens, we click from one page to another, following link upon link, not bothering to finish whatever it was we started. As writers, too, we’ve learned not to exert ourselves by providing details if we can link to another text that will give them for us. Even this small review, in its electronic version, offers portals to usher you elsewhere.
And so we’ve trained our brains to fidget and flit. It’s lucky for us, then, that Robert Hass’s superb collection of critical essays, “What Light Can Do,” is not tricked out with links, even in e-book format. Hass, the former US poet laureate, writes so tantalizingly and draws on so vast a range of knowledge that our impulse, mid-essay, is to dash off immediately and read, or reread, whichever book or poem or writer he’s just touched on, or gaze at more pictures by the photographers he admires, or soak up some of the considerable political history he has absorbed. Yet one also wants to remain rooted, listening to Hass’s voice. That is the desire to heed. Later, you can do the rest.
The 31 pieces here span more than two decades, and their terrain is broad: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”; the intersection of art and violence; poets and poetry from Korea, China, Nicaragua. Hass’s beloved colleague, Czeslaw Milosz, figures prominently. So does the American West, whether the subject is the photographs of Robert Adams or the tree sitters who tried to save an oak grove at the University of California at Berkeley, where Hass teaches.
In their success — and they are, almost all of them, successful — the essays in “What Light Can Do” make a case for the importance of criticism as a means of energizing our minds: impelling us to think and read more deeply, inciting us to feel and act upon our curiosity.
Here is Hass in 1990, describing an image of the Last Supper, remembered from his grade school days:
“Each of the apostles wore a robe in a different shade of bright pastel. They looked like flavors of ice cream. Judas, off to one side, was, of course, chocolate — detestable Judas, the class treasurer, who betrayed the Lord and hanged himself later in his loneliness and remorse.”
And here, in 1986, on the success of his fellow Northern Californian, Jack London:
“He is, still, the most widely read fiction writer in the world, translated into almost every language and selling briskly in most of them. And there is a reason for this. He wanted life to be large and gallant, and wanted his books to convey it, and they do.”
And, with comic incisiveness, in 1991, on a Cuban poet who was imprisoned for reading his work publicly:
“His poems, I am sorry to say, are terrible. There is fairly wide agreement among people competent to judge about this point. His story belongs to the history of courage rather than to the history of literature.”
Hass’s writing is not showy. The toothsome potency of his phrasing is a skill borrowed from his poetry, but he does not go in for ten-dollar words when he can find a simpler means of expression. His are sentences at which one must marvel: for their clarity, the technical beauty of their construction, and their author’s prowess at lucidly explaining the complex. If you are a person given to thinking about how writing is made, Hass’s prose will force you to pause, examine, admire.
What it also compels the reader to do is pay attention, and that — as the title of the book suggests — is Hass’s objective. To read him is to notice, in art and in the wider world around us, the layers beneath the surface where he coaxes us to look.