Robert Hass

Some Notes on Form

Robert Hass served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, “One Body: Some Notes on Form,” from his influential book of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, winner of the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry:

I’ve been trying to think about form in poetry and my mind keeps returning to a time in the country in New York when I was puzzled that my son Leif was getting up a little earlier every morning. I had to get up with him, so it exasperated me. I wondered about it until I slept in his bed one night. His window faced east. At six-thirty I woke to brilliant sunlight. The sun had risen.


Wonder and repetition. Another morning I was walking Kristin to her bus stop—a light blanket of snow after thaw, the air thick with the rusty croaking of blackbirds so that I remembered, in the interminable winter, the windy feel of June on that hill. Kristin, standing on a snowbank in the cold air, her eyes alert, her face rosy with cold and with some purity of expectation, was looking down the road. It was eight-fifteen. Her bus always arrived at eight-fifteen. She looked down the road and it was coming.


The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself. I had been taught to believe that the freshness of children lay in their capacity for wonder at the vividness and strangeness of the particular, but what is fresh in them is that they still experience the power of repetition, from which our first sense of the power of mastery comes. Though predictable is an ugly little word in daily life, in our first experience of it we are clued to the hope of a shapeliness in things. To see that power working on adults, you have to catch them out: the look of foolish happiness on the faces of people who have just sat down to dinner is their knowledge that dinner will be served.


Probably, that is the psychological basis for the power and the necessity of artistic form…


Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Robert Hass (March 1, 1941 - ) was U.S. Poet Laureate for two terms, from 1995 to 1997. His other honors include: the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award (1972), the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America (1979), a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism (1984) and poetry (1996), a MacArthur Fellowship (1984), a National Book Award (2007), and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry (2008).