Robert Hass and the River of Words

Never let it be said there is no cultural life east of the Caldecott Tunnel. (That's a local Bay Area joke.) Robert Hass, former U.S. Poet Laureate and winner -- a few days ago -- of the Pulitzer Prize, spoke tonight and read poetry in Walnut Creek. He appeared at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, a unique wildlife hospital and museum and a perfect venue for this highly earth-conscious poet.

I just got back from the reading -- free, courtesy of the Lindsay and the Contra Costa County Library Association -- and I am impressed. Not so much by his beautiful writing, though that too was moving. But what impressed me was the distance of his journey from the kind of poet he was perhaps ten years ago, to the kind of poet he is today. River of Words is the project to inspire children to write poetry about their natural environment, a project he founded as his main contribution as Poet Laureate.

River of Words was clearly the apple of his eye tonight. He talked about its impact and read more from their anthology of children's poetry than from his own work. I'm glad he did. I didn't know much about the program and I was inspired by its connection of the power of poetry to the power of awareness of the planet we inhabit.

The children's poems had the rich earth-awareness from which all good poetry springs. Hass is a perfect leader for this movement, and clearly this was more than a school enrichment program. It's a spiritual movement, and a hopeful and growing one.

I noticed that Hass used the word hope a number of times. I had heard him read many years ago for the Squaw Valley Writer's Conference Benefit. He was a charming poet and reader then, but his work didn't go deep, at least for me, that day. Tonight I heard a very different person, a person changed by the charge he felt inspired to take up when he assumed the office of Poet Laureate -- it seemed to me not as an honor but as a spiritual obligation. He seems to have fulfilled it in the way those kinds of obligations are meant to be fulfilled.

Buy River of Words anthology! Encourage your local schools to look into the program. Support the Lindsay Wildlife Museum too.