Sam Hazo, Pittsburgh’s International Giant of Catholic Poetry
Hazo sees poetic intuition as similar to grace.
Last November, during a poetry-packed week in Pittsburgh, I finally met Sam Hazo.
We had emailed occasionally for years, but on this trip I got to visit with him at his dining room table and — the icing on the cinnamon roll! — got to hear him say his poems to two different audiences. (Sam doesn’t “read” his poems to an audience. He knows the poems by heart and says them. The late, great poet Richard Wilbur endorsed a recent Hazo collection by saying, “Each of Hazo’s poems is a spare sparkling flow of good talk.” Sam Hazo saying his poems without notes is really something to behold.)
Hazo, who will turn 95 this summer and is in possibly the most prolific period of his prolific life, is one of the finest Catholic poets of today and the last 65 years.
Dissertation Endorsed by Jacques Maritain
Born in Pittsburgh, Hazo had a Catholic upbringing from the start: parochial school, B.A. from Notre Dame, M.A. from Duquesne. His doctorate is from the University of Pittsburgh, and his dissertation was on the aesthetics of poetry developed by noted French-Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.
That’s a story in itself. In 1956, Hazo was able to meet with Maritain. Maritain read Hazo’s dissertation and was so pleased with how well it captured his aesthetics that he wrote a foreword for the dissertation. (Hazo’s is the only book about Maritain’s work that Maritain himself ever endorsed.)
More than 60 years later, Franciscan University Press published the dissertation — including, of course, that fabulous foreword — as The World Within the Word: Maritain and the Poet.
Hazo’s first two poetry collections were published by eminent Catholic publisher Sheed and Ward in 1958 and 1962. Since then, he has produced close to 70 books of poetry, fiction, plays, essays, memoirs, translations and criticism. More than 30 of those books are poetry collections. He has spoken in a dozen foreign countries, has a dozen honorary doctorates from U.S. colleges and universities, and has been recognized by professional and civic organizations across the country. He taught English for 43 years at Duquesne, which named him McAnulty Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus.
International Poetry Forum, 1966-2009
In 1966, Hazo founded the International Poetry Forum; he directed it until 2009. His aim was to create a space “where poetry could speak for itself in a public setting.” During those 43 years, more than 800 internationally recognized poets came to Pittsburgh to give public readings. Audiences packed the large venues — to hear poetry! Visiting poets included Nobel and Pulitzer winners and U.S. poets laureate.
Other participants in “Poetry Forum” events were non-poet celebrities who loved poetry. Luminaries such as actors Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint, and former actress Princess Grace of Monaco were recorded reading their favorite poems.
Pennsylvania Poet Laureate 1993-2003
His prolific creative output, the esteem of other well-known poets, and his tireless work with the International Poetry Forum resulted in Hazo being named “Pennsylvania Poet Laureate.” He served for 10 years, 1993-2003, and is the only poet laureate the state has ever had. During his tenure, he traveled at his own expense to speak to groups large and small about poetry.
A mutual friend says that Hazo is uncomfortable being called a “Catholic poet” because, as a modest gentleman, he doesn’t feel that he’s an exemplary Catholic. Well, that’s between Hazo and God, but he’s an internationally esteemed poet and a faithful Catholic; if that’s not a Catholic poet, what is?
Beloved Catholic novelist and short-story author Flannery O’Connor famously quipped, “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.”
What she meant was this: Master your craft. Holy intentions and piety are not an excuse for bad craftsmanship. Work to become an excellent poet or painter or novelist — and then let your Catholicity shine.
Being a Catholic poet imposes no limits on a poet’s subject matter or language. It simply means writing about the world as seen through Catholic eyes. In a Catholic worldview, people sin. Then they seek forgiveness and redemption — or maybe they don’t. They suffer — no one escapes it — and to a Catholic, suffering can be redeeming, can help us overcome pride, learn obedience, and grow closer to Christ.
Human life is holy — and very messy. The human body is holy — and often troublesome. We are connected to the eternal past and eternal future, but every moment of right now is a miraculous gift.
It’s dangerous to try to introduce Hazo’s poetry by using just part of one poem out of thousands, but in “The Holy Surprise of Right Now” (from the collection of the same name), Hazo takes up this recurring theme: the immeasurable value of the present moment.
Some people tend to think that “Catholic” poetry should speak only about the Four Last Things or the Virgin Mother or feeding the poor, but in poetry, any subject is fair game. It’s what the poet does with the language that determines whether the poem will effect an epiphany in that mysterious way poems have. Here’s the end of “The Holy Surprise of Right Now”:
did Christ give heaven its address
except within each one of us?
So, anyone who claims it’s not
within but still ahead is contradicting
But why go on?
I’m sick of learning to anticipate.
I never want to live a second
or a season or a heaven in advance
of when I am and where.
I need the salt and spices
of uncertainty to know I’m still
It makes me hunger
for the feast I call today.
It lets desire keep what
remember that the way that smoke
and the aggravation of suspense, I choose
I choose desire.
“I never want to live a second / or a season or a heaven in advance / of when I am and where.” This is the poem of a lifelong, believing, practicing Catholic giving praise to God not for the life to come but for what is right now. It’s a hymn of thanksgiving for the reality of God’s creation. As the Psalmist says (139:14): “I praise you, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are your works!”
Hazo sees poetic intuition as similar to grace. In Poetry’s Time, Poetry’s Place, a collection of essays from various International Poetry Forum participants, he writes:
Poetry and belief have this in common. They come to exist within us in their own good time and at their own preference, never at ours. We cannot summon either of them when we choose any more than we can summon the exact moment when we will experience unignorable love for a particular person. Poetry and faith and love rhyme in this way. We are unable to initiate through our own power what prompts any of the three to possess us. We can only acquiesce and cooperate with them when they do, which is why poets and saints and lovers are said to be “touched” or chosen. They are incapable of choosing themselves.
To Hazo, poetry “is as indispensable to life as bread” and “our need for poetry is not optional (Poetry’s Time, Poetry’s Place). We need it daily in the same way as we need air.” Acclaimed Catholic poet Dana Gioia says of Hazo that “the tangible radiance of his work and his life“exemplify what it means to be a Catholic writer.” For all of his adult life, Sam Hazo has not only written poetry but promoted it, generously encouraged talent in others, and brought poetry to the public in ways that huge audiences have enjoyed — and still enjoy. No other poet alive today has done as much for poetry or for faith.