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Robert Hass

Our poet laureate began his term facing an unruly Congress and a growing national literacy problem. As his tenure ends, he's thinking about the "small, local ways we keep ourselves alive."

In accepting the post of poet laureate of the United States two years ago, Robert Hass postponed his writing life for what he has called an "act of citizenship." Since his appointment, he has written a weekly column on poetry syndicated by the Washington Post and has traveled around the country to urge more funding for literacy and education, and to suggest the need for deeper awareness of environmental relationships.

Hass' tenure as poet laureate has been a more public expression of the lifelong concerns that inform his poetry: a close attention to the natural world, a sense of self developed in relation to the landscape, an acute awareness of both the pleasures and pains of being human. His books of poetry include Human Wishes, Praise, and Field Guide. In his latest collection, Sun Under Wood (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1996), Hass says he is writing "the poems of middle age...poems of what's irreparable in the world, things you can't change."

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Hass, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, sat for a Mother Jones interview just before the spring semester began. As his term in office wound down (it ends May 1), he was in a reflective mood, thoughtful about the condition of community in the United States, about politics, and about their relationship to the poetic imagination.

Q: What has your experience as America's poet laureate been like?

A: When I came into the job, funding for the humanities at the federal level was being drastically cut. This was the high tide of the new Republican Congress. Environmental regulation looked like it was going to be under serious attack, and they were giving all of those speeches about getting government off people's backs.

I was aware that a quarter of the children in the country are born in poverty, and that the condition of public schools in California was disastrous. I thought it was irrelevant to talk about what a wonderful thing poetry was if you didn't teach people to read. You begin to see that all of these things are connected: The kind of cuts that mean less environmental protection are also the kind of cuts that mean less musical education for the schools and that also mean more overcrowded schools.

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