What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World


An evocative and captivating collection of essays on writers, place, poetry, and photography—with accompanying photos throughout—from Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Robert Hass

Renowned for his magisterial verse, Robert Hass is also a brilliant essayist. the New York Times hailed him as a writer who "is so intelligent that to read his poetry or prose, or to hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure." Now, with What Light Can Do, Hass's first collection...

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What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World

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An evocative and captivating collection of essays on writers, place, poetry, and photography—with accompanying photos throughout—from Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Robert Hass

Renowned for his magisterial verse, Robert Hass is also a brilliant essayist. the New York Times hailed him as a writer who "is so intelligent that to read his poetry or prose, or to hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure." Now, with What Light Can Do, Hass's first collection of essays in more than twenty-five years, the lauded author returns to and enlarges the territory of his critically acclaimed and much-loved collection Twentieth Century Pleasures, recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

These acute and deeply engaging essays are as much a portrait of the elegant thought processes of an unconventional and virtuoso mind as they are inquiries into their subjects, which range from meditations on how we see and treat the earth to the relationship between literature and religion, from explorations of the works of writers as diverse as Korean poet Ko Un, Wallace Stevens, Cormac McCarthy, and Anton Chekhov to the ways in which photography—much like an essay—embodies a sustained act of attention.

A perceptive and evocative mixture of memory, philosophical interrogation, and criticism, the essays in What Light Can Do, finely attuned to the pleasures and pains of being human, are always grounded in the beauty of the material world and its details, and in the larger political and social realities we inhabit.

Winner of the 2013 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this erudite and engaging collection of more than 30 essays, poet and UC-Berkeley professor Hass (Time and Materials) covers topics as eclectic as the lives of great writers; art’s relationship to violence; spirituality; the landscape photography of California; the underappreciated canon of black nature writing; and the experience of teaching poetry. “The essay as a form is an act of attention,” Hass writes in the introduction, and his attentions are wide-ranging; each overstuffed piece is an opportunity for meandering digression and fruitful association. Hass’s passionate admiration for his fellow men and women of letters—including Jack London, Maxine Hong Kingston, Czeslaw Milosz, Allen Ginsberg, and Cormac McCarthy—animates his prose. The best essays transcend their subject matter, becoming works of literature in their own right. These meditations, such as “Robert Adams and Los Angeles,” which reflects on the photographer’s vision of California, and “An Oak Grove,” a requiem for the felled trees of the Berkeley campus, fuse the poet’s love of language with the scholar’s interest in context, demonstrating the truth of Hass’s own claim that “the deepest response to a work of art is, in fact, another work of art.” (Aug.)
“Drawn to compelling subjects that he makes his own, Hass writes prose every bit as zestful, penetrating, and sure-footed as his poetry. . . This powerful collection affirms Hass’ stature as a philosophically attentive observer, deep thinker, and writer who dazzles and rousts.”
Library Journal
Poet Hass (English; Univ. of Calif., Berkeley), a former U.S. poet laureate, presents a selection of his lectures, reviews, and essays written between 1985 and the present. He discusses poems, poets, and photographers. Most but not all are about moderns. (There are essays on America's first poet, Edward Taylor (d. 1729), and on Jack London, as well as Anton Chekhov.) Hass's background, which includes work in academia and as a translator (including of seven books by Czeslaw Milosz) as well as his work as poet-practitioner, serves well in these essays: he intuits what poets are trying to do and what the student needs to appreciate them. Even the slightest of essays (four on photographers are more description than analysis) offer gems of insight. The best are as good as you'll find anywhere. VERDICT Lovers of poetry, especially modern poetry, will enjoy this book. It holds together more than most collections of occasional pieces.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews
A winner of just about every major literary award exercises his considerable critical chops, ruminating on the works of poets, photographers, writers and other artists. Hass (English/Univ. of California, Berkeley; The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, 2010, etc.) brings formidable gifts and experience to the art of criticism. He speaks with greatest authority about poets and poetry, as evidenced by his pieces about literary celebrities like Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Robinson Jeffers, Czeslaw Milosz (whose works Hass has helped translate) and others. Hass also introduces Western readers to the Korean poet Ko Un and to Slovene and Chinese poets. In one section, he celebrates the work of California writers Jack London, Mary Austin and Maxine Hong Kingston. He also dives into the complexities of the Gospel of John, wrestles with the relationship between poetry and spirituality, highly praises the Border Trilogy of Cormac McCarthy ("a miracle in prose," he calls The Crossing) and offers a swift, sensitive history of blacks' servitude in the sugar, tobacco, cotton and rice fields. He ends with the text of a speech he delivered at Berkeley in 2009 about the controversy at that school over the removal of a grove of oaks to accommodate the athletic facilities. For that piece, Hass walked the ground, explored natural history and read stories about the founding of the university--in other words, he did his homework. Characteristic of all of these pieces, of course, is Hass' great erudition (even bibliophiles may feel as if they've not read very much) but also a surpassing generosity of spirit, a determination to understand other writers and artists rather than to judge them. Not for all readers, but prime in its class--literate, learned and wise criticism, with scarcely a breath of cynicism or disdain.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061923913
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/30/2013
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 573,723
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Hass was born in San Francisco. His books of poetry include The Apple Trees at Olema (Ecco, 2010), Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Time and Materials (Ecco, 2008), Sun Under Wood (Ecco, 1996), Human Wishes (1989), Praise (1979), and Field Guide (1973), which was selected by Stanley Kunitz for the Yale Younger Poets Series. Hass also co-translated several volumes of poetry with Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz and authored or edited several other volumes of translation, including Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer's Selected Poems (2012) and The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (1994). His essay collection Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1984) received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hass served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997 and as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He lives in California with his wife, poet Brenda Hillman, and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

I A Miscellany of Short Pieces to Begin

Wallace Stevens in the World 3

Chekhov's Anger 14

Howl at Fifty 32

The Kingdom of Reversals: Notes on Hosoe's Mishima 40

George Oppen: His Art 52

Ernesto Cardenal: A Nicaraguan Poet's Beginnings 60

II A Longer Essay on Literature and War

Study War No More: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant 69

III Some California Writers

Jack London in His Time: Martin Eden 97

Mary Austin and The Land of Little Rain 115

The Fury of Robinson Jeffers 129

William Everson: Some Glimpses 150

Maxine Hong Kingston: Notes on a Woman Warrior 156

IV Poets and the World

Ko Un and Korean Poetry 165

Milosz at Eighty 179

Milosz at Ninety-three 186

Poetry and Terror: Some Notes on Coming to Jakarta 191

Zukofsky at the Outset 219

Tomaz Šalamun: An Introduction 251

A Bruised Sky: Two Chinese Poets 265

V Two Essays on Literature and Religion

Reflections on the Epistles of John 277

Notes on Poetry and Spirituality 291

VI Three Photographers and Their Landscapes Robert Adams and Los Angeles 305

Robert Buelteman and the Coast Range 317

Laura McPhee and the River of No Return 324

VII Three Essays on (Mainly) American Poetry

On Teaching Poetry 341

Families and Prisons 363

Edward Taylor: How American Poetry Got Started 383

VIII Imagining the Earth

Cormac McCarthy's Trilogy; or, The Puritan Conscience and the Mexican Dark 421

Black Nature 432

Rivers and Stories: An Introduction 450

An Oak Grove 459

Acknowledgments 477

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