Bryan R. Monte
AQ31 Summer 2021 Book Review
Robert Hazel, Praise and Threnody, Circling Rivers Press, ISBN: 978-1-939530-15-8 (trade paper), ISBN: 978-1-939530-16-5 (hardback), 210 pages.
Recently it was my pleasure to discover the work of Robert Hazel, an influential, post-WWII American poet, who, unfortunately was never mentioned during my undergraduate lit. courses at Berkeley nor in my graduate writing seminars at Brown. As I read Circling Rivers’ recent edition of Hazel’s collected poems, entitled Praise and Threnody, I became fascinated by the richness of his poetic voice, which draws on the traditions of Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Dylan Thomas, among others. I was also amazed to discover that this poet’s students included Wendell Berry, Rita Mae Brown, and Bobbie Ann Mason, and that he was briefly The Nation’s poetry editor.
Hazel’s poetry harkens back to Whitman’s and Crane’s in his description of America and New York, especially, warts and all. In her Foreword, editor Jean Huets quotes Robert Buttel who says that Hazel’s ‘post-symbolist, surreal poems … are the most haunting, brilliant, dramatic and resistant.’ In addition, Huets mentions Wendell Berry’s citation of a section of Hazel’s ‘Celebration Above Summer’:
Hear dark the priestly insects of my endless summer coast down to cells
and kind weeds bend my flowers to their colors’ end
which she reports ‘can be read chaotic as an overgrown vacant lot in high summer, chaotic as a disintegrating love affair, chaotic as poetry can be.’
Hazel is also good at character studies, especially those related to poverty and social protest. However, he also records the joy and beauty he finds in city- and landscapes. In addition, his social themes and their presentation styles also remind this reviewer of Muriel Rukeyser’s attention to the working class and the underprivileged, to John Dos Passos and Alfred Döblin sometimes newsreel or police blotter narrative techniques, to report of social problems, and finally of Allen Ginsburg’s wanderlust in his loving description of America, especially the South.
In her expanded foreword to Praise and Threnody, Huets adds important facts about Hazel’s childhood and teens including his father’s academic background as ‘at Indiana University’ and later at Kentucky University, where Hazel developed ‘his great love for writing and poetry’. Huets also notes Hazel’s three-year military service in Korea, his Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with Karl Shapiro and where he met his first publisher, Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
In her Afterword, Huets explains her organizing principle for Hazel’s collected poems. She decided not to order them chronologically or biographically, but rather thematically: to ‘gather poems loosely based on themes that carry through Robert’s entire corpus of work. I’ll leave it at that; it seems best to allow “who touches this” to discover (or ignore) what those themes might be.’
I think this method has worked very well. I would divide the parts of Hazel’s collected poetry into four life stages, each prefaced by a prologue or poetic ‘Ceremony” poems I-IV as Huets calls them. The first section is primarily about childhood, youth, family and his early explorations of the world. The second is about young love and youthful adventures. The third section is about mature love and loss including the death of his parents, wife, and child. In addition it has a national focus containing for example, poems about the funeral of US President Kennedy. Finally, the fourth is about preparing for the end and contemplating the meaning of life, with a strong dose of naturalistic nihilism.
As mentioned above, Hazel’s poetry owes an enormous debt to Whitman, Crane, Thomas, who are sometimes mentioned directly in his poems or in the dedications. This excerpt from ‘Ceremony at Dawn’ demonstrates Hazel’s debt to Thomas:
east where my fathers worshiped a young dying god
a chapel of shingles settles in a stillness of bells;
the tombs on the hill spool fine spiders and ferns;
immaculate bones turned salt are licked by wild mares
Hazel’s Hopperesque family home and his strict upbringing is described very well in his very short ‘The Pinched Face of Virtue’ quoted here in its entirety
A correct parlor, a correct wall-clock, a 60-watt light
corrected by a plastic shade
& the sofa dustless & on a dustless end-table
the Standard Revised Bible
Suddenly my father’s bloodless face, legacy of privation
& endless correction
His strained family relations are further defined in ‘What Do I Know’:
What is my knowledge? Parents I can’t find?
Brothers I visit once a year? A sister who
is a Pauline Christian? A wife anointed by pain?
And a child who was taken away?
However, in this section is also included Hazel’s awareness of the deleterious effects of social and racial inequality in his poem ‘Who Touches This’, one of Hazel’s finest:
crying, “Whore of Babylon!”
Near sleep I heard something
perfect as a dream
so certain that I felt
it would survive my waking.
It was only the hoarse
repetitions of a drunk man
shouting, cursing, weeping
how this nation was killing
all his innocent children.
Yet strangely when he stood
pounding the garbage cans
and imploring, “America!”
the words sounded beautiful
as if he believed it
This description is very close to my almost weekly experience in Haight-Ashbury in the early ‘80s, when, in the middle of the night, someone went off his/her meds, or was just fed up with his/her marginal life, until someone from the Free Clinic, across the street, brought them inside.
The second section begins after ‘Ceremonies II’, and describes his first loves and corporeal experiences in the world, and the changing role of his parents in his life. In ‘Not by Bread’ the poet laments: ‘My father and mother have become my own / children’ It also includes poems about his East Coast exploits such as ‘To A Young Woman of Twenty I Carried On My Shoulders at Five’ which I consider to be one of his clear-voiced poems, possibly influenced by the New York School, about adults exploring roles and costumes, perhaps in the funky dress up days of the Summer of Love:
I was glad to see you
despite your Cowboy boots
Western jacket and hat
and your air of being interested
in nothing at all
and ends with:
I might have said, “Timothy Leary
loves Doris Day” and you would
have had to run me through
with your Army Surplus bayonet
Praise and Threnody’s third section reveals a more mature poetic voice with poems that represent his grief over the loss of his parents, a wife, a child, some friends, and a president. It is a more earnest exploration of the world, including it social and political problems. His robust travels in the American South as a vagrant poet in the back of a truck, in ‘Shenandoah’ reminds me of Allen Ginsberg’s picaresque adventures.
In the rack of a cattle truck
calves scratch my hands with little tongues
I make my own music
I catch a hatful of whispers like old rain
that will not fall as long as I
It also contains six poems about President Kennedy’s funeral in the subsection ‘Guard of Honor’, parallel to Whitman’s reverence for President Lincoln including Hazel’s poem from ‘Riderless Horse’ with its iconic imagery
Above the muffled drums, the high voice
of a young soldier
tells the white horses how slow to go
before your widow and children, walking
behind the flag-anchored coffin—
and one riderless black horse dancing!
Huets saves the best for last in the ‘Love, Thou, At Once’ section, when Hazel is at the height of his poetic insight and technique. His lines are no longer overgrown with Thomasesque natural symbolism, but rather pruned to short and powerful lines and stanzas where he has just the right amount of greenery to get his point across.
This section has finely crafted poems which discuss such weighty issues as President Johnson’s foreign policy in ‘Lines in Praise of Myself, a Frederic Thursz painting in ‘The Red and the Black’, the British Empire in ‘Empire’, and Dachau in ‘Star’. Hazel’s famous ‘Letter to a Kentuckian’ dedicated to his former student, Wendell Barry, is also included here along with ‘Under A Florida Palm’ with a reference to Wallace Stevens and the Sermon on the Mount in ‘Consider the Lilies’. It also comes with a strong dose of naturalistic nihilism and honesty. One such poem, ‘Death Flowers Are’, I imagine depicts a suicide.
My flowers fan tall on wrists, their fragrance
as the odor of powder from a fired gun.
In ‘For the First Day of Benjamin’ Hazel collapses all of the history of human aggression in three short lines:
All times are evil
From the first stone thrown
To the high-blown atom
Finally, this section is crowned with one Hazel’s longest poem, ‘Clock of Clay’, which I think should be considered as his consummate achievement. Here, the poet realizes he is at the end of the road:
I have no future The river
is flowing backwards
My present is my past
& retort to Charcot, Freud, Husserl
Binswanger, Heidegger, Buber,
You tone deaf piano tuners
He continues a few lines later with ‘I am becoming nothing’, and a few more lines after that with the observation:
I am the man who cannot exceed himself
Threnody is my name
He reports further that: ‘Christ isn’t there/only a dead Jew my people pray to’ and that ‘I run a treadmill / level with evil – no gain into good’. Hazel also refutes the Bible. ‘The last shall never be first’ and his imagined escape plan from end-of-life-care ‘Before my life is reinvented by tubes / in imitation of the living cord / I shall cut free’. He also mentions that he is grappling ‘in the handcuffs of language’, an appropriate image for the difficulty of the writing process and the limits of language.
Praise and Threnody is an impressive collection that successfully recapitulates Hazel’s themes as well as his artistic journey. It adds another voice to the landscape of American poetry from the 1950s-70s, which is sorely missing. It is a book by a poet who merits renewed and further consideration. AQ