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What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  223 ratings  ·  31 reviews
Universally lauded poet Robert Hass offers a stunning, wide-ranging collection of essays on art, imagination, and the natural world—with accompanying photos throughout.

What Light Can Do is a magnificent companion piece to the former U.S. Poet Laureate’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning poetry collection, Time and Materials, as well as his earlier book of essa
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published August 14th 2012 by Ecco (first published September 13th 2011)
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Laura Leaney
Sep 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I wish I could while away more hours inside the mind of Robert Hass. His essays on art, literature, film, philosophy, photography, human beings, and the very earth we stand on, are uplifting, enlightening. As a poet, Hass's critical eye may be more attuned to beauty than the average reader, so following him as he reads, watches, or observes a particular piece of art is like being taught by a master. Best of all, the pieces he chooses to discuss are oftentimes created by artists who are not that ...more
Jeremy Garber
Robert Hass proves he can apply his mastery of the evocative image in a few words to the wide breadth of human experience. Hass has been one of the Poet Laureates of the United States, a prolific translator of haiku (the good ones), and a stellar poet in his own right (Field Guide was my first introduction to his work). Now he collects his finely crafted essays on everything from Howl to Kant’s “Essay on Perpetual Peace” (my personal favorite), from photography to the Epistles of John, from Corm ...more
Nov 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Robert Hass, professor and lecturer at Cal-Berkeley, is the kind of guy I could sit and listen to forever, if his essays are any indication. He puts the "well" in "-read" (by that I mean he's "deep").

As you would expect, many of these essays treat on poetry and poets-- Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Ernesto Cardenal, Robinson Jeffers, Ko Un, Czeslaw Milosz, Walt Whitman, etc. But just as many have to do with prose writers-- Cormac McCarthy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary Austin, Jack London, and
Kathleen Jones
Nov 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I've always loved the poetry of Robert Hass, (I have his Apple Trees at Olema) though I had never read any of his essays. Now, this is rapidly becoming one of my favourite books - on Kindle - and I'm buying a hard copy to read and re-read and underline and scribble in the margins - it's that kind of book. What he says, and the way he says it, makes it a must-read.

In a week when Sharon Olds won the TS Eliot prize for poetry I re-read an essay sub-titled 'Poor Monkeys and the White Business in the
David Sumner
Aug 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I can't recommend this highly enough. As much as what Hass writes about how he writes is fascinating. His essay on Howl is written in the voice of a beat poet. His insights & observations are acute, refreshing. Read this book! Re-read it! Write in the margins, underline. Carry it around, read it in a cafe and keep it on the table as you begin writing a poem while watching the afternoon light turn to an amber glow. ...more
Oct 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book of essays covering everything from poetry, to photography, to the Cormac McCarthy Borders trilogy, to the protest of the cutting down of oak trees at the University of Berkeley campus. Throughout, the voice of Robert Hass, measured, self-reflective, intelligent. If this book had 20 more articles I could have kept on without a thought.
Wendy Liu
Nov 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Ted Morgan
Oct 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Remarkably astute essayist who varies is essays to suit their subjects. This collection draws me to want to read more of his work.
Nov 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
There are so many undercurrents and connections beyond what is just on the surface in these essays, which make for rigorous and delightful reading.
Jan 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Poet, philosopher, acute observer of the unseen, Hass is the type of writer I long to find in my reading. What a gift.

These essays are brilliant. Literature, photography, poetry, the natural world come alive in a totally refreshing and nuanced articulation. My reading list doubled as I read about authors and playwrights that I now considered in a wholly different light.

What the light can do, indeed!
Oct 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very nice collection of essays that is fairly diverse, there's not a lot holding them together except that Hass wrote them. Some of them seem like they belong under the title, others don't. But books of essays are great because you can just read around in them and find the things you want. I would suggest reading this if you would like some insightful essays on literature, writers, and painting. Ther are some very nice essays in there on these topics. ...more
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Jan 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Alia S
"They were trying to invent in language, trying to say what life was like for them, to bear witness to it, to sing, to find fresh ways of embodying the experiences of thinking and feeling and living among others, to make new and surprising kinds of verbal artifacts."


I was having a really good time with this when the library reclaimed it. Will come back to it at some point.

Side-note: This book is a writer I don't know writing about other writers I don't know; it ought
Oct 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I finished reading what light can do: Essays on Art, Imagination, And the Natural World by Robert Hass on Sunday afternoon at the cottage in Three Rivers, Michigan (after a walk in a snowstorm around the lake). This is a wonderful collection of essays on a wide variety of interesting topics. Because Hass is a poet, there is a lot of stuff on poetry here. But the work is mainly about his encounter with the world, both inner and outer. The writing is beautiful and reveals a hidden world. I had a v ...more
World Literature Today
"The nouns in the subtitle of Robert Hass’s new book are abstract enough to cover the wide variety of its topics, but they barely suggest the range of allusion, the depth of some of the readings, the consistent eloquence and easy confidence of the style, and the author’s ability to blend personal and critical viewpoints." - Robert Murray Davis, University of Oklahoma

This book was reviewed in the May 2013 issue of World Literature Today. Read the full review by visiting our site:
Mar 25, 2014 rated it liked it
I really enjoyed this book for a while - but it's taken me a long time to get through it, and I'll admit I did skip a few essays in the last half of it. Not really my thing, but good for me and he's an excellent writer about things that I know only a little about....which makes it a tough slog at times, even though I want to want to read know? Ah made me feel good when a complete stranger on the bus saw it and asked me about it and she wrote down the title so that she could f ...more
May 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
I've never read any of Hass's prose before, but I picked up this book at the library because of his brilliant poetry. The pros is equally insightful, lyrical and worldly. It was difficult for me to finish, which is not surprising given that the writings in this collection were not originally intended for reading all at once, but there's a topical cohesiveness in the order of the pieces that I appreciated. ...more
Oct 30, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: those interested in artistic or literary critcism
This was obviously meant for someone passionate about poetry and artistic/literary criticism, neither of which is me. The author is obviously brilliant, but since I don't share his passion for poetic criticism, it kind of left me in the dust.

The three stars are not for the quality of the book, but more a reflection of whether the book was a good fit for me, which it really wasn't. Like wearing a size 7 shoe, but putting on a 10. :)
Jun 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: a-good-one-yes
I slowly induldged in this great book of essays and ideas. I am a huge fan of this poets work. So a tad leary of his essays at first. But as I finished it the other night I realized I could read whatever this man wrote. A bit of an academic, but one doesn't choke on an overbearing vocabulary. This book was interesting through and through. Even on some of the criticism of authors I'm not well fond of, great job. ...more
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch
Nov 25, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: verse

A collection of talks and essays of uneven finish, some of whose provenance is frustratingly unidentified. At his best Hass writes with a sharp clarity, a humble profundity and a broad curiosity – often in the same sentence. As well as being usefully introduced to unfamiliar vistas, I found myself surprisingly often (and often surprisingly) moved to reflection.

Dec 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Robert Hass is a very engaging and knowledgeable critic as well as a poet. While exact in the points he makes, he has a rather conversational style and sense of organization to lead you from one to the next. Essays on Chekhov, Howl" at 50, Jack London, Milosz (of course), war and peace in poetry, American prisons, nature, and photography. ...more
I picked this up at City Lights in 2013 based on my loved for the imagery in Robert Hass's poem "Privilege of Being." I've read only a handful of essays so far, but I'm keeping it nearby now. Highlights are essays on teaching poetry and on Chekhov's anger. It's hard to get too far without being compelled to go off and read some of the actual stuff Hass is writing about. ...more
Apr 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I've enjoyed Mr. Hass's poetry for years and was eager to read this book. It did not disappoint. It is luminous, to say the least, and a book that I dip into to over and over again. If you're a Robert Hass fan, then this is a MUST READ. ...more
Sigrun Hodne
Aug 26, 2012 rated it liked it
Some wonderful pieces, some I found a little less so.
Scott Simpson
Sep 27, 2012 rated it it was ok
Jan 23, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: literary-essays
A fine volume of literary essays, much to engage and mull over, and much to disagree with.
Aug 05, 2013 marked it as to-read
Starting with the three chapters on photographers.
Mar 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
This was a very solid collection. I really enjoyed most of the essays included, and the few on topics that didn't interest me were still well-written and general enough that they were fun to read. ...more
Jan 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
That only took three years to finish (which, I think, is pretty reasonable for a 500-page book of essays). Time to start the reread!
Jul 28, 2017 marked it as partial-read-likely-will-restart
What a brilliant, inspiring mind Hass wields... But I can only dip in and out of this tome one essay at a time, and alas, library loans only last so long. Will return for more literary analysis, introspection, and incredible writing.
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Robert Hass was born in San Francisco and lives in Berkeley, California, where he teaches at the University of California. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. A MacArthur Fellow and a two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, he has published poems, literary essays, and translations. He is married to the poet Brenda Hillman.

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