Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass admits to having a soft spot for mysteries even though most “start so wonderfully but are so disappointing.” The Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet was in town earlier this spring to speak at Boston University. His most recent book is “What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World.”
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
HASS: “King Lear” because I’m teaching a Shakespeare class at Berkeley, which I’ve never done before. I was panicked about it so I called Robert Pinsky at B.U. because I knew he’d taught one. He said teaching Shakespeare is like having a liquor store on a busy corner. He was right. It’s really fun. It’s just one of those really supremely great things.
BOOKS: What are you reading for yourself?
HASS: Italo Calvino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millennium.” These essays are delicious. Some nights I read only a paragraph or two. I’m also reading “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald. One of my favorite books of nonfiction is another English bird book, “The Peregrine” by J.A. Baker. His writing is like wondering into a Constable painting. When I was a junior at St. Mary’s College I took a biology course for which we were given binoculars and a Peterson field guide to western birds. We were told to read Aristotle’s “Biology” and Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and to watch birds for six hours a week. I fell in love with my Peterson guide. I still have that copy with my notes in the back.
BOOKS: What are your favorite environmental books?
HASS: I love John Muir’s books, Mary Austin’s “The Land of Little Rain,” and Gary Snyder’s “Earth House Hold.” Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America” is something everyone should read. Another I like a lot is Wes Jackson’s “Altars of Unhewn Stone.” The other book everyone ought to read at some point is “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold, which influenced a lot of legislation.
BOOKS: Have any books changed you personally?
HASS: It feels as if every book changes me personally in ways that I could hardly find the language for.
BOOKS: Are there poets you wish were better known?
HASS: Right now there’s an exciting new generation of Chinese poets whose work is beginning to appear in translation: Xi Chuan, Lan Lan, Zhai Yongming, and Wang Jiaxin. These are Chinese poets who have discovered modernism and postmodernism. But I mostly read American poetry. I’ve been reading Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” a remarkable book of prose and prose poetry about race in America, and a delicious and playful poetry collection by a young woman named Harmony Holiday called “Negro League Baseball.” She writes as if someone told her you could cross “Finnegans Wake” with soul music. Last summer I was talking to the poet Mark Strand, who died in November, and we were commiserating on the fact that in our 20s we could read every book of poetry published in America each year. It wasn’t that many. Poets House in New York collects every poetry book published in America, and I think last year that was 2,100. I can’t even keep up with everything by my friends and the poets of my generation that I admire.
BOOKS: Do you have any reading habits?
HASS: Not really. I never am bothered by insomnia because for me if I wake up it’s like a present because I get to read. I tend to read novels then. I’ll read a few pages of “Night Train to Lisbon” by the Swiss novelist Pascal Mercier. I have to watch it with novels because I tend to binge. Once when I was on a Graham Greene binge I called a neighbor in the middle of the night because he had a copy of “The Ministry of Fear.”
BOOKS: What’s on your upcoming list?
HASS: “Macbeth.” My habit with Shakespeare is to have one play as a bedside book
every summer. That’s a reading habit I recommend.