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Robert Hass Reads Poetry at the White House

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted June 10, 1998

Robert Hass, professor of English and former U.S. poet laureate (1995-97), recently spent an evening reading poetry to President and Mrs. Clinton and their guests in the East Room of the White House.

Hass, along with former poet laureate Rita Dove and current poet laureate Robert Pinsky, read works by American poets for the Clintons and their guests for the third “millennial evening” focusing on America’s cultural heritage. Organized at the behest of Hillary Clinton, the April 22 event celebrated American poetry and poets.

The three poets chose poems to represent the country’s history, geographical and cultural diversity, and various themes, such as family and community.

All three poets read works by Emily Dickinson. Hass selected the Dickinson poem:

    Much madness is divinist sense
    To a discerning eye;
    Much sense the starkest madness.
    ’Tis the majority
    In this, as all, prevails.
    Assent, and you are sane;
    Demur, – you’re straightway dangerous,
    And handled with a chain.

Hass also read poems by Anne Bradstreet (the first colonist to publish a book of poetry, in 1650), Robinson Jeffers, Frank O’Hara, and Robert Frost.

The millennial evening included poetry readings by both the President and First Lady, poetry recitations by attending guests, and questions about poets and poetry from around the nation via the Internet.

A complete transcript of the evening is available on the Web at www.whitehouse.

gov/Initiatives/Millennium/poets.html, and a video interview of the poets has been made available to schools.

The millennial evening capped a long day for the poets and the First Lady.

April 22 began with a lengthy press conference covering American culture. “Mrs. Clinton was impressive,” says Hass. “She talked about a range of issues, including raising public and private money for the NEA, NEH, and to preserve American culture, from old wax recordings to the Declaration of Independence to Yiddish newspapers.”

In response to a question from a San Francisco Chronicle reporter about the importance of TV and popular culture, the First Lady reeled off statistics showing that reading, and being read to, is far more beneficial for children than TV, says Hass.

She also urged the media to assign reporters to cover all of American intellectual and cultural life – including poetry readings and bookstore lectures – not only events promoted by the entertainment industry.

After a quick sandwich with Mrs. Clinton, the poets accompanied her to an inner city junior high school for a poetry slam (akin to a rap competition). Then it was back to the White House for two receptions, a dinner, and the evening poetry reading, all attended by President Clinton. The three poets and the Clintons made their entrance to the East Room to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.”

At the reading, the First Lady recited a poem by Howard Nemeroff, while the President chose “Concord Hymn” by Emerson.

“He obviously understands poetry and its rhythms,” says Hass of the President. “He’s a wonderful reader and knows a lot of Irish poetry by heart.”

The President noted that, “when I was a boy in high school, I was once required to memorize 100 lines from Macbeth – hardly designed to entice me to a public career. But then again, I learned about the dangers of blind ambitions, the fleeting nature of fame, the ultimate emptiness of power disconnected from higher purpose. Mr. Shakespeare made me a better President.”

Hass has been on leave this year, writing at his Inverness, Calif., home. His latest book is “Poets Choice,” a collection of his weekly column on poetry for the Washington Post. “Poets Choice” made the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list in April.

“I look forward to getting back to teaching and having an ordinary life again,” he says.

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