This past week, two-time poet laureate Robert Hass visited Israel for the first time in his life. He jokes that he’s been fascinated with Israel ever since, as a child, he saw the movie “Exodus.” “I belong to the generation that grew up on Paul Newman and Sal Mineo,” he said. More seriously, Hass also says that with the exception of Russia’s St. Petersburg, Israel is the place he’s read the most about without ever having been there. Hass’s wife, Brenda Hillman, who is Jewish, worked on a kibbutz when she was in her early 20s, and her stories were another inspiration.
The San Francisco-based poet, who recently won the National Book Award and teaches at Berkeley University of California, Berkeley, was invited to Tel Aviv University to participate in an academic conference on the relationship between literature and the environment. Hass is a passionate environmental activist, and he utilized his status as poet laureate to promote environmental education in schools across America.
In Hass’s view, poetry grapples with the ethical questions that are posed by science. “Human beings have to know when they’ve gone too far,” Hass said. “How many wetlands for how many birds, and which birds? That is one of most important philosophical questions for the 21st century.”