When he writes about his life, Samuel Hazo seems a quintessential poet of contentment. "Some say / that repetition bores. / I say / it reassures," he writes in "Encore, Encore," a gentle homage to domesticity that's typical of A Flight to Elsewhere, the 76-year-old former Pennsylvania poet laureate's new collection from Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press.
But you needn't scratch deep to get up the dander of a man who's been married 50 years to the same woman, and lived in the same Upper St. Clair home since 1962. Flip a couple of pages back from "Encore, Encore" and find "In the Time of the Tumult of Nations," a folk-song-like piece that takes unhappy stock of an era in which "the President answered no questions," "protestors were treated like traitors" and "the rich were exempt in their mansions."
Hazo hammers such themes not only in his poetry, but also for what's likely his biggest audience: readers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's op-ed pages. The founder of the International Poetry Forum has written a couple of pieces annually for the P-G for several years, but his commentaries have increased in ardor since we've been living with the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and other gifts of the Bush administration. In his most recent op-ed, published Dec. 18, Hazo explores the duplicity in the White House's sale of the Iraqi invasion to the American people. He assails Bush's neo-con brain trust -- but also the complicity of Americans who stand by quietly while soldiers die, civilians are bombed and prisoners are tortured.
"I think the country's been seduced," says Hazo, from behind his desk at the Forum's offices at Carlow College. "It's not to me something to be overlooked when 1,500 [American] men and women are dead and about 12,000 maimed because of one man's messianic impulses in the Middle East."
Hazo regards his poems and his newspaper commentaries as distinct genres of writing. But the retired Duquesne University English professor says writers have a duty to enter the public forum with facts and passionate opinions -- even if it generates angry letters to the editor, as Hazo's reliably liberal takes on world affairs have done in the P-G.
Too, writers can contribute a deeper understanding of the role of language in public life. Hazo holds the oratory of John F. Kennedy as the standard against which all subsequent chief executives fall short, especially George W. Bush, along with Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials. "If you listen to them, they don't speak except in pronouncements," says Hazo of the Bush crew. "They don't present something in a reasonable way, allowing for disquisition, allowing for debate. ... And I hate that. I hated that when I was a student. The professor who did not permit the class to come alive with discussion was a pontificator. You didn't learn from him; you just had contempt for him.
"The misuse of words -- you know Dante puts people who misuse words in the lowest circle of hell, because their misuse of language causes not only hatred, it could cause war, it causes distrust, deceit, all that goes with it."
Hazo, who looks decades younger than his 76 years, still heads the International Poetry Forum, founded in 1966 and now among Pittsburgh's oldest literary organizations. Hazo hosts most of the readings, held at Carnegie Lecture Hall.
The East Liberty native has the trim, erect bearing of an ex-Marine -- he served stateside in the 1950s, and memorializes his battalion in "Mustangs," one of the 60-some new poems in A Flight to Elsewhere. He's also got a substantial legacy in the Forum, which has presented a near-comprehensive list of major poets of its time. The list includes W.H. Auden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Seamus Heaney, Robert Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Czeslaw Milosz, Anne Sexton and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Its 20th-anniversary celebration was hosted by Jerzy Kosinski.
Hazo, himself a former National Book Award finalist and the author of about 40 volumes of fiction, poetry, essays, drama and criticism, was Pennsylvania's poet laureate until two years ago, when the governor's office dismissed him from the post he'd held for a decade. The state, it seemed, had no further use for a poet laureate.
But Hazo's time in the role has at least one monument: the space on the P-G's editorial pages that's occupied each Saturday by a poem, typically by a local writer. Hazo convinced then-editor John Craig to launch the feature 12 years ago and it's run ever since, occasionally featuring Hazo's verse, and sometimes placed just below one of his own commentaries.
Poetry is neither opinion nor editorial, of course. But Hazo says poetry's brand of truth is indispensable. "Take the instance of September 11. There's a great deal of prose written about that event, and [more] will be written. And a lot of oratory about it. But how many of those things capture what you actually felt on that day when you saw those buildings collapse after being hit by a 747?" he says. "At times ... of deep national grief, sometimes poetry is the only thing that can say it."