Think Poetically, Laureate Hass Tells Freshmen

by Fernando Quintero

It's not every college undergraduate who gets an introduction to the wonderful world of poetry by the nation's Poet Laureate himself.

For the roomful of mostly freshman students at the Unit 1 residence hall, an evening lecture Sept. 29 by English Professor and newly appointed Poet Laureate Robert Hass served as an example of the kind of educational experiences that await them at Berkeley.

Reading from a number of poets other than himself, Hass mesmerized his young audience with samples of works from such poetic luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Berkeley's own Czeslaw Milosz, 1980 Nobel Prize winner and professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures.

"Whether you're a business major, or studying engineering or law, poetry is a terrific way to think," Hass said.

"It's a valuable exercise to bring to life unexpressed feelings and unexpressed thoughts."

The first poem read by Hass was a moving piece about lost youth written by Milosz and dedicated to his students.

"This is for you," Hass said afterward with a faint quiver in his voice, as if he had just presented the students with a family heirloom of great sentimental value.

Another poem by Milosz, about a young boy at an amusement park who goes on a ride that rises over a fence and allows him to see a group of Jews being led to a concentration camp, was used by Hass to illustrate metaphor in poetry.

"It's a metaphor for life," Hass said of Milosz's poem.

"Someone somewhere is eating pineapple sherbet while people are being raped in Bosnia."

Hass said it was "the freshness of thought while its emerging" that interested him in poetry early on.

"The job in poetry is to take language where it's freshest. It's the best kind of history--content at its best."

Hass said the joy of teaching poetry was taking poems from the canon and "waking their freshness up again."

Hass titled his talk "The Last Lecture" because he will spend much of the coming year at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., striving to bring attention to the many great works of American poets.

Of course, reading new works by students was also cited as one of his job's great rewards.

Reading off a partial list of well-known writers who have studied at Berkeley including Frank Norris, Robert Penn Warren, Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, Hass told his audience that great writing was their legacy.

"All of you have it within you to write great poetry.

"You all have childhoods that will disappear. You all will fall in love. Some of you will make your experiences come alive," Hass said.

"I hope that while you're at Berkeley, you will take the chance to discover your writing potential."


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