Bay Area poet Robert Hass admits his infatuation with The City started young, when Beat writers were causing a stir, and he was a teenager in Marin.
“When I was in high school in the ’50s you were supposed to be an Elvis Presley, a James Dean, a Marlon Brando or a Kingston Trio type in a button-down shirt headed for the fraternities at Stanford or Cal,” Hass recalls. “But there was this other group of people who were interested in the arts and stood in line at foreign movies and really looked sexy, like they were having a good time.”
Fittingly, Hass is participating this week in Litquake, San Francisco’s 9-day literary festival. Part of the rambunctious Lit Crawl in the Mission on Saturday’s closing night, he appears in a Threepenny Review program hosted by the magazine’s deputy editor Jennifer Zahrt and featuring writers Rick Barot, Charlie Haas, Katharine Michaels, D. Wystan Owen and Elizabeth Tallent.
The event is a literary bar hop the Beats would have loved. But while the Beats were enticing, they weren’t the only voices drawing him to poetry as a young writer.
He says, “There were so many other interesting poets at the time, like Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and others, that I found myself reading lots of poetry and at some point found myself hearing lines in my head and starting to write them down.”
By listening to the muse, 71-year-old Hass has become one of America’s most decorated men of letters, winning a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for poetry and serving as Poet Laureate of the United States. Also a noted translator, he worked closely with the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz.
His new book, “What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World” collects more than 30 Hass essays written over 20 years on various topics, including Allen Ginsberg, Cormac McCarthy, Anton Chekhov, war, Christianity and Robert Adams’ photography.
The erudite book invites readers to dip in and out, and visit when the mood suits them. With it, Hass, who has taught at UC Berkeley for decades, proves he is just as interested in learning as his students.
“The kids who come into my classroom now are not intimidated by poetry,” Hass says. “They’re very interested, and as a teacher, I get to do college all over again.”