On finishing my thesis

Today I finished my thesis: Nature, Fidelity, and the Poetry of Robert Hass. It is comprised of:

41971 words of criticism on Robert Hass and ecocriticism.
12394 words of poetry.
Four years, four weeks, and one day.
Many tears.

When my father returned to the US university where he did his PhD, he went to the library to see how many people had checked out his thesis. In just over thirty years there had been three. Since my thesis is probably going to have a similar audience (although the poems have been published in journals and I hope two will make it into my second collection), I want to blog my acknowledgments. A thesis is not a solo effort, and without these people – especially Bryan – I could not have finished.

Here you go.

Foremost, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of my supervisors, Dr Bryan Walpert and Dr Jack Ross. Their support, unending patience and guidance not only helped me to write this thesis but helped me to see the beauty in literary theory and criticism. There were tears. There were disagreements, but without a doubt it has been my privilege to work with such sharp, funny, and impressive writers.

It is important to thank Massey University for the doctoral scholarship that enabled me to undertake this thesis. Without that essential financial support this work would not be what it is today. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

I would also like to acknowledge my writers’ group: Pip Adam, Sarah Bainbridge, Dave Fleming, Chloe Lane, Bill Nelson, Lawrence Patchett, and John Summers. Along with poet Amy Brown, they are a steadfast support in my writing life.

Last but not the least, I would like to thank my logical and biological family: my parents Pauline and Nikki for their proofreading and advice, my many friends for their support, especially Matt Bialostocki, Megan Hinge, Mike Kmiec, Sam Searle, and Andrew Smith, and my sister Jennifer Barnett-Melbye. I would also like to thank my amazing proofreader, Margaret Cahill. Finally I need to thank my husband Tim Rastall and our son Sam Rastall for their love and support throughout every day of this process.

IMG_4058

Six copies of my thesis. Off into the world they go.

Thesis abstract

The submission date for my doctoral thesis is just around the corner! If you want to know what the thesis is all about, here is my abstract (although, like everything to do with the thesis, it is likely to change):

This thesis uses two methods of investigation—a critical essay on Robert Hass and a collection of poetry—to explore the relationship between contemporary poetry and the natural world.

Central to the early collections of American poet Robert Hass is the question of whether language can depict the natural world. Hass uses techniques to try to accurately describe the natural world in some poems while suggesting in others that language is limited in its ability represent the natural world. Hass’s use and refusal of poetic technique, and the tension it creates, has not previously been explored in the critical literature.

To address this critical gap, I use ecocritical approaches to examine Hass’s depiction of nature in his collections Field Guide, Praise, Human Wishes, and Sun Under Wood. During its short development, ecocriticism has fostered two main approaches for examining a text: a first-wave or realist approach, and a second-wave or evolutionary biological approach. Both approaches have been criticised for rejecting poststructuralist literary theory in favour of realism. The criticism has prompted the recent development of a nascent third-wave approach. I use two case studies to dramatise the limitations of the main approaches, respectively, and a third case study to test a third-wave approach developed for this thesis. The critical essay, then, uses three ecocritical lenses through which to examine ‘nature’ in Hass’s work, while simultaneously offering a new approach to add to the discussion about how the third wave can move ecocriticism into a stronger theoretical position.

The first-wave / realist case study explores Hass’s use of scientifically accurate names and descriptions to depict the natural world. This case study suggests that Hass sees the natural world as particular and valuable, and that he trusts language to represent the natural world. The second-wave case study concludes that Hass’s poems depict a Darwinian nature by drawing comparisons between human and nonhuman behaviour. While the parallels depict humans as animals, Hass also suggests that humans are separated from other animals by language, rational thought, and self-awareness. While both case studies usefully reveal aspects of Hass’s depiction of nature—that is, how his poems would seem to conceive of nature and the role humans play in it, they also serve to show that both first- and second-wave approaches are unable to investigate the tensions in Hass’s work between an attempt to represent nature and a scepticism about the representative powers of language; that is, these two popular ecocritical approaches are unable to address the poems in which Hass draws on poststructuralist notions of language.

A picture of a happy orangutan to encourage you to keep reading.

The final chapter of the critical essay proposes a third-wave case study, which uses an eco-performative approach to address these limitations. It concludes that Hass uses three methods—that of showing the limitations of language, qualifying language, and the theme of loss—to explore the role of the poem in our relationship to the natural world. The critical portion of this thesis concludes that, at times, Hass implies the poem is its own phenomenon, and that we should put issues of representation aside in order to take pleasure in the experience of poetry. In this way, Hass’s depiction of the natural world is a statement about poetry. The critical essay also concludes that for an ecocritical approach to have the sophistication necessary to examine a contemporary poet such as Hass, it must engage with poststructuralist notions of language. The critical essay, then, both offers a new way of conceiving of the role of nature in Hass’s poetry and proposes a means for the field of ecocriticism to move beyond its traditionally realist focus.

The creative component of the thesis—a collection of poetry—has been shaped and informed by the investigation of the critical essay. Similar to Hass, the creative work uses a series of strategies to explore the relationship between poetry and the natural world. While less polemic than Hass’s work, the poems call attention to the way our depictions of the natural world are constructed.

A central strategy of the creative work is the use of technical language and terminology from the fields of geography and geology. Rather than rely primarily on traditional lyric imagery, the poems use scientific discourses to suggest human emotions and situations. The unexpected and out-of-context use of technical language creates surprise in the poems, which highlights the constructed nature of scientific discourse. As the discourse has become part of the poem, the strategy suggests that—when also viewed out-of-context—other discourses about the natural world will reveal themselves to be equally constructed.

Other strategies used by the creative work include: depictions of the evolved human animal (with a focus on sexuality, mortality, and procreation), and a self conscious use of metaphor and double denotation in order to suggest how we conceptualise the natural world in terms of our own needs, for example, nature as a place of solace, as ‘other’ and ‘wild.’ While the strategies are used both explicitly and implicitly in the poems, as with the critical essay they call attention to the way poetic depictions of the natural world reflect human culture and intention, rather than the physical world.

Tuesday Poem: “Mowing” by Robert Frost

Mowing

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

(Source: http://www.sonnets.org/frost.htm#004)

I discovered “Mowing”, a wonderful sonnet by Robert Frost, while reading an article about using field trips to help teach nature writing (for my PhD–this is not my usual bedtime reading!). In the article, the teacher taught his students how to mow a field using a scythe. Fun. The article also talks about Frost’s dedication to factual description of the countryside. For example, he names the flower in the poem as “Pale orchises”, not accidentally, but because he wanted to be true to the field that he has mown. “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak”, he says. Robert Hass, who is the focus of my PhD thesis, is also persistent and specific in his descriptions of the natural world. I see it as a sort of homage; a purposeful naming to make others notice.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: “Smells” by Jane Buxton

Smells

I love . . .
The smell of the rain on the warm footpath,
the smell of our baby all clean from her bath,
the smell of clean sheets when Mum makes
XXmy bed,
and the smell in the kitchen when Dad’s
XXmaking bread.

I love . . .
the smell of the sea, all sharp, fresh and briny,
the smell of our Christmas tree, pungent and piny,
the smell of sweet peas climbing over the wall.
But the warm smell of horses I love best of all . . .

This sweet and nostalgic poem by Jane Buxton comes from the book 100 New Zealand Poems for Children (Random House, 1999), edited by Jo Noble and illustrated by David Elliot. Jane Buxton is a New Zealand children’s author who was born in Otaki, but currently lives in North Canterbury.

I bought 100 New Zealand Poems for Children a few month ago because I am trying to build up a library for (my son) Sam of childrens’ writing about New Zealand. I want at least some of the books he reads to be about the place he lives. And because a PhD is inescapable, being able to read about your home relates to my doctoral research on Robert Hass, who is known for writing about his home, California. In conversation with Claire Miller from GRIST magazine, Hass talks about the connection between understanding the history of a place, and our careful treatment of the land:

It felt to me then that American culture existed in a kind of dream of itself, not particularly connected to reality. One of the qualities of that dream in California was this absence of any real and fixed sense of history. It was in the 1960s that some developers out in Contra Costa county decided to name a new subdivision San Diablo, turning the devil into a saint. The historical roots of language were so shallow here. That seemed to me a symptom of our carelessness in the way we treat the American land. (Miller, par. 12)

It seems that Hass’ poetry tries to engage with “our carelessness” by writing about the natural and cultural history of California. I think that the subject allows him to represent the landscape of his home. He goes on to say: “Since most books in my childhood were published on the East Coast … my nature wasn’t represented in the world. And so one of the pleasures of writing about California and reading the few writers who were writing about California was that this world was represented” (Miller, par. 21).

I think it is important that our nature and identity are represented in the world, and for me Buxton’s poem reminds me of Christmas in Christchurch, summer sun showers, and riding my friend’s horse on Banks Peninsula. I tried to get permission to use the poem, but found it impossible to track down Buxton. In the unlikely chance that her publisher reads my blog, I ask for forgiveness in lieu of permission.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: “The Gazelle” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Gazelle

Gazella Dorcas

Enchanted thing: how can two chosen words
ever attain the harmony of pure rhyme
that pulses through you as your body stirs?
Out of your forehead branch and lyre climb,

and all your features pass in simile, through
the songs of love whose words, as light as rose-
petals, rest on the face of someone who
has put his book away and shut his eyes:

to see you: tensed, as if each leg were a gun
loaded with leaps, but not fired while your neck
holds your head still, listening: as when,

while swimming in some isolated place,
a girl hears leaves rustle, and turns to look:
the forest pool reflected in her face.

From New Poems (1907; 1908). Translated by Stephen Mitchell

As my undergraduate studies were in fine arts and museums, I don’t have an academic background in literature. This might be why I am just discovering the work of Ranier Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet who lived from 1875-1926. He wrote in German, his melodic poetry talked about the inner life, emptiness, and solitude, and he had a love affair with a woman to whom Nietzsche once proposed. It is also said he wrote poems in French because German didn’t have an exact word for absence.

My discovery of Rilke’s work came about by accident. I had ordered Stephen Mitchell’s The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, because the introduction is written by Robert Hass, one of the poets I am studying for my doctorate (I find poets can be revealing about their own work when writing about other poets). So far I am surprised by how modern Rilke’s poetry seems, at least in translation. This especially applies to his prose poetry, poetic sketches and exploration of form. I find it interesting that the original version of “The Gazelle” does not rhyme the first and third line of the last stanza. I would say this rhyme makes the ending quite powerful in the English translation. On the other hand, the original version rhymes the last two lines. This must be the compromise and complexity of translation.

For other Tuesday Poems, check out the hub.

Poetry as pick-up line?

A wonderful comment about my favourite poem in a New Yorker article about the poetry of Mark Strand and Robert Hass:

“Meditation at Lagunitas” wields its chasteness like bait: it would be just the poem to get a chaste person to go to bed with you.

Here is the full article “Late and Soon” by Dan Chiasson. If you need an in-road with a “chaste person,” here is the poem. If you would like to learn more about the poem, I suggest the chapter in the book Poetry in person : twenty-five years of conversation with America’s poets, where Hass talks about the poem.

Tuesday Poem: A few lines from Robert Hass

Robert Hass: US poet laureate from 1996 to 1997, professor, poet, environmentalist, and he’s not afraid to write about sex. Hass is by far my favourite poet. This is partially for the way he balances sentimentality with a self deprecating awareness; he never goes too far, or when he does he looks wryly back on his words. But it is also because I find his poems so easy to love. In saying this, not everyone is a fan. The review, “Are you smeared with the juice of cherries?” by Michael Robbins in Poetry Magazine, which I found on The Poetry Foundation website, slammed Hass’ work and elicited a series of responses that eventually turned into name calling in the comments (and thanks to Joan Fleming for putting me onto the debate).

Hass is the second poet I am studying for my doctorate, and I am currently reading Field Guide (1973), Hass’ first book that was written during the Vietnam War. Although the poems dwell on marriage and the Californian landscape, they also touch on violence. In the forward to Field Guide, editor Stanley Kunitz said: “Reading a poem by Robert Hass is like stepping into the ocean when the temperature of the water is not much different from that of the air. You scarcely know, until you feel the undertow tug at you, that you have entered another element” (xi). Instead of posting a poem by Hass as my Tuesday Poem, I want to talk about some lines from Field Guide that show the effortless that Kunitz’s suggests.

Of the sea, in “On the Coast near Sausalito” Hass says: “I won’t say much for the sea / except that it was, almost, / the color of sour milk.” In “Palo Alto: The Marshes” he opens with “She dreamed along the beaches of this coast. / Here where the tide rides in to desolate / the sluggish margins of the bay, sea grass sheens copper into distances.” Hass uses simple language to create his images – the sea is the colour of “sour milk”; the grass “sheens copper.” For me, his descriptions rarely feel over-written.

I think that Hass manages to write about love and sex in the same way. In “Adhesive: For Earlene” he opens: “How often we overslept / those grey enormous mornings / in the first year of marriage.” He goes on to say “By spring your belly was immense / and your coloring a high rosy almond.” In “At Stinson Beach” Hass describes his wife: “How the flower of her body / Danced her dresses into light.” There is nothing overly striking about a large pregnant woman, but the words “spring”, “immense”, “belly” (compared to the more clinical stomach), and “rosy” create an innocent and almost wondrous tone. The “enormous mornings” at the start of the poem pair with the “immense” belly to suggest the possibility the poet feels.

I think my favourite lines are from “The Pornographer, Melancholy”, a poem that is part of a series about a pornographer. The poem concludes: “His friends are gone and he is reflective. / The essence of seasons is repetition. / The die and shine, die and shine.” The repetition in the last line might feel cliché had Hass not warned the reader it was coming: “The essence of seasons is repetition.” The pornographer’s emotions are quietly tied to the seasons — he is “reflective” just as the seasons “shine.” It is a clever and understated ending.

That’s all from me this fortnight. For more poems check out the Tuesday Poem blog.