Robert Hass is a writer who disproves the idea that people can’t write great poems anymore. This is one of his best-loved works. Hass grew up in California, went to college, and pursued a graduate degree from Stanford University. He then put his head down and began to write poems until his first big break, when his work was recognized by the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series. He has worked as a university professor, a translator, and (twice) as the Poet Laureate of the United States.
The themes in "Meditation at Lagunitas" are universal enough that the poem feels like it could be set anywhere, but upon closer inspection, the influence of Hass’s native California is everywhere. From its images of birches and blackberries to its easygoing, conversational style, the poem is an example of how the places where we grow up continue to influence us throughout our lives.
"Meditation at Lagunitas" was published in 1979 as part of Hass’s second collection of poems, titled Praise. Since then, it has been included in several anthologies of American literature, which bring together the best work by American writers. Because of his commitment to other causes, like environmentalism and his translations of Polish Nobel-laureate Czesław Miłosz’s (don’t even ask us how to pronounce this) poetry, Hass doesn’t publish new books very often. His most recent work from 2008, Time and Materials, won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Even though he served as America’s Poet Laureate for two consecutive terms and won several of the nation’s top literary prizes (including the Pulitzer Prize), we’re guessing that most people have never heard of Robert Hass. Welcome to the tiny world of contemporary American poetry, where Hass is something of a rock star. That is, a rock star who performs to small groups in bookstores. Are we selling you on this guy yet?
OK, so poetry isn’t the kind of career you get into to become famous. But, Hass’s poetry, especially this work, will likely last for a long time. In "Meditation at Lagunitas," he achieves a great feat: he writes a contemporary poem that is both complex and easy to read. His work is like having an intense, late-night conversation with a really smart, but laid-back person. Just like you, he thinks that stuffy people who insist that the ancient philosophers were right about everything need to get out more often. Just like you, he sometimes walks around repeating funny words to himself. Just like you, he remembers going fishing as a kid.
Although most poets – or, at least, most good poets – don’t intentionally try to confuse their readers, Hass goes out of his way to make his poems fun and accessible to read. Forget all the ancient-sounding rhyme schemes and complex meters you learned in English class. Hass writes poems for people who are used to reading prose every day (which, nowadays, is pretty much everyone). So, even when "contemporary poetry" is no longer contemporary, we guess that "Meditation at Lagunitas" will still be widely read.