For Robert Hass, the celebrated poet, translator and essayist, poetic and ecological literacy go hand in hand.
As U.S. poet laureate from 1995 through 1997, Hass pushed to expand literacy, taking poetry to schoolchildren, business circles and civic organizations. Protecting the natural environment is a mission he shared with the late poet W. S. Merwin, who lived on Maui for 40 years.
They were friends, said Hass, 78, speaking in a phone interview from his home in Berkeley, where he is a professor at the University of California.
Hass appears with fellow environmentalist, translator and Pulitzer prize-winning poet Forrest Gander in a special event in the Merwin Conservancy’s “Green Room” lecture series on Wednesday. Having spoken at Merwin’s memorial service in New York last year, Hass said he is looking forward to commemorating him in Hawaii.
“It’s such a beautiful and blessed place, and William saw that and moved there, and took root there,” he said.
On this trip, Hass said he was also excited by the prospect of visiting the arboretum and collection of native Hawaiian plants created by Merwin and his late wife, Paula Merwin on abandoned sugar plantation land they restored in Haiku, Maui.
“It was thrilling, the way he and Paula built that garden and saw it through, set up programs for kids, teachers, writers’ residencies — exactly what education should be doing these days,” Hass said.
THE TWO poets first met in 1974, when Hass, then a 23-year-old graduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, invited Merwin to give a reading on campus.
It was the height of the Vietnam antiwar movement, and to get paid, the university required Merwin to sign a loyalty oath. Merwin didn’t sign and wasn’t paid, but he gave the reading and visited with young draft resisters who had taken sanctuary in a church.
Merwin had just published “The Lice,” which Hass found “very haunting and beautiful and meant so much to me,” he said, “because of the way he engaged the politics of the time by going deeper into himself.”
Although Hass is best known as a poet of nature and landscape, war and other cruelties are also themes in his work, alongside lyrical, incandescent images of wildlife, children, flowers and trees, fog, summer sun, the oceans, rivers and bays.
While raising a young family during the Vietnam War, he found “the relationship between how gorgeous the world is, and how crazy and violent — kind of an inescapable subject,” he said.
The poems in his many books, including 1973’s “Field Guide” (which won a Yale Younger Poets Award), “Time and Materials” (2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner for poetry), and 2011’s “The Apple Trees at Olema,” shine with humor as well as lyricism. Hass’ conversational, colloquial voice coexists with formal structures, such as the Dantean terza rima in his elegy for a troubled younger brother in “August: A Death,” which also summons the blues.
“And I thought of Mississippi John Hurt’s
great song about Louis Collins and its terrible
tenderness which can’t be reproduced here
because so much of it is in the picking
of the six-string guitar and in his sweet,
reedy old man’s voice: ‘And when they heard
that Louis was dead,
Angels laid him away. ‘”
In other poems, Hass explores and abjures violence against women.
In response to the violence of their era, he felt, “a generation of older poets: Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, sought to be in the present moment. Not to look in nature for something that transcends nature, but just to be there.”
He recited a haiku by the Japanese poet Basho, whose work he has translated along with that of Buson and Issa and Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz.
“A cool fall night — getting dinner we peeled cucumbers, eggplants.”
The poem expressed domestic peace, said Hass, who is married to the poet and activist Brenda Hillman.
IN THE 1970s Hass, a San Francisco native, visited Molokai, where a friend, Bay Area feminist and poet Diane Wakoski, was living at the time.
“I visited classes in a high school, got to hear Hawaiian kids talk, listen to the music of their speech,” he said.
Praising the Merwin Conservancy’s educational programs, he said schools should provide opportunities for children to experience and write about their natural environment. “We won’t be able to take care of the world if we don’t know it, and if we don’t know it we won’t love it.”
At the Green Room, he planned to read from his forthcoming book “Summer Snow: New Poems.”
In summer in California’s High Sierra, he said, there’s often “still a little snow in saddles between peaks, even in these global warming years (alongside) incredible neon green new growth and wildflowers just leaping up.”
Climate change really is happening, Hass said — but while “there’s no reason not to be worried, it would be crazy not to enjoy the world, which is spectacularly beautiful,” referring to children today, noting that he has seven grandchildren and an eighth on the way.
ROBERT HASS AND FORREST GANDER
>> Where: Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Museum of Art
>> When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
>> Cost: $20
>> Info: 532-6097, honolulumuseum.org