The Poetry of John Haines

When Robinson Jeffers first saw the coast and mountains around Carmel in the fall of 1914, the discovery utterly transformed both him and his poetry. “For the first time in my life,” Jeffers wrote years later, “I could see people living—amid magnificently unspoiled scenery—essentially as they did in the Idylls or the Sagas, or in Homer’s Ithaca. Here was life purged of its ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they had done for thousands of years, and will for thousands of years to come. Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life.” Other artists had enjoyed the grandeur of this particular landscape before Jeffers, but his identification went deeper that mere appreciation. He let what D.H. Lawrence called “the spirit of place” enter his imagination. Giving himself over to “this coast crying put for tragedy like all beautiful places,” Jeffers was spiritually reborn. Isolated from literary life, spending part of the day in quiet manual labor, he mysteriously grew from an awkward literary apprentice into the West Coast’s first great poet. Rooted in one specific landscape as deeply as any poet in American literature, Jeffers managed to create work which was both distinctly regional and unequivocally universal.John Haines’ decision in May of 1947 to move to Alaska had a similarly decisive effect on his life and work. Like many other young men who had come early to maturity during World War II, Haines had already had wide experience in life for someone still in his early twenties. The son of a naval officer, he had grown up “more or less homeless,” moving from one military base to another. He had served in the wartime U.S. Navy and afterward had attended art school. But he had never known a sense of permanence in one specific place. Unexpectedly he found a center for his life on an isolated homestead in central Alaska.He built a cabin on a deserted hillside above the Tanana River about seventy miles southeast of Fairbanks in a spot so remote that he claimed he could walk north from his homestead “all the way to the Arctic Ocean and never cross a road or encounter a village.” Living alone much of the time, Haines spent twenty-five of the next forty-two years in the Alaskan interior. In the isolated country side he had to become self-reliant largely supporting himself through hunting and trapping. “I began for the first time,” he wrote thirty years later, “to make things for myself, to build shelters, to weave nets, to make sleds and harnesses, and to train animals for work. I learned to hunt, to watch, and to listen.” A modern man resettle in the primal north, he had to relearn what his ancestors knew—how to live off the land.Haines also used the solitary years to master another primitive craft—making poems. Like Jeffers he came late to artistic maturity, and his development as a writer was inseparable from his creation of a life independent of the social and economic distractions of the modern city. Both men discovered their poetic identities in solitude, meditation, and hard physical labor. Haines’ isolation, however, gave him personal authenticity only at the investment of many years. He was forty-two when his first book of poems, Winter News, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 1966. (His prose appeared even later; Haines was fifty-seven when his first book of essays, Living Off the Country, came out from University of Michigan Press in 1981.) Many young men, hoping to become writers, embark on romantic lives in the wilderness. But exhausted by responsibilities, unsupported by colleagues, and hungry for human society, few have the discipline to achieve their literary ambitions. Through patience, strength, and uncommon intelligence, Haines did. He is virtually unique among the significant poets of his generation in having emerges outside of either the university or an urban bohemia.

The growth of any artist’s mind is ultimately private. But in Haines’ case the years of silence and isolation make his development especially mysterious. While one might read his early poetry as a subjective record of the time, the most accessible account comes from his two books of essays, Living Off the Country (1981) and The Stars, the Snow, the Fire (1989). These superbly-written collections of mostly autobiographical prose reveal the importance of the dream-like solitude the empty Northern wilderness provided the author. By stepping out of the man-made rhythms of the city into the slower cycles of nature, Haines entered—perhaps unknowingly at first—a world of meditation. There are few overtly religious themes in Haines’ writing, but both his poetry and prose are suffused with a sense of the sacred. What he sought in Alaska was the secular equivalent of what the early Christian hermits found in the Egyptian desert—the chance to build an authentic life sub specie aeternitatis. The synchronization with nature, the distance from the City of Man, the daily contemplation of solitary labor were all part of the spiritual discipline of the Desert Fathers. Haines may have lost the Catholicism of his childhood, but its vision of spiritual self-realization remained a guiding force in his adult life.

Normally I would not dwell on the circumstances of a living poet’s background. The lives of most contemporary poets are too ordinary to shed much light on their work. But in Haines’ case the connection between artist and art seems not only illumination but inevitable. Reading his prose and poetry together, one feels the complete integrity of the author’s life and work (and I use “integrity” here emphasizing its Latin root, integer, which means “wholeness.”). Haines’ poetry is rooted in the singular existence he chose. Essentially the same intelligence and sensibility consciously created both his adult life and his work. But to say that his verse is the natural expression of his values should not imply that it lacks artistry.. The special splendor of Haines’ poetry is that it honors experience without cheating literature. He mastered the craft of poetry without forgetting that art both originates in and returns to life.

The close connection between Haines’ life and work, however, has led some critics to conflate the two. Focusing on the Alaskan elements in his work, they have sometimes reduced him to a regional writer. This view misunderstands the relationship between his prose and verse. As an essayist, Haines is a determined regionalist—a writer, that is, who stubbornly looks at the world from a fixed position. This sense of location gives Haines’ prose real strength. It brings specificity to his judgments and roots his ideas in experience. But while Haines’ earliest poetry focused almost entirely on Alaskan subject matter, his later books ranged far beyond local themes. He developed into a poet of broader interests who wrote as convincingly about Albert Pinkham Ryder or Arlington Cemetery as he did about glaciers and wolf packs.

If Haines is a regional poet, it is only in a secondary sense. For him outward subject matter is always less important than the inner moral vision it provokes. To reduce his poetry to regional affirmation, therefore, reveals nothing essential about its strengths. Likewise to represent him as an autobiographical poet also misses his central preoccupations which are not so much personal as tribal. He is an obstinately visionary poet who characteristically transforms individual experience into universal human terms. One would be tempted to call him a philosophic poet if his imagination were not so frequently mythic. He deal in serious ideas, but the concepts are not presented abstractly. The are revealed in bare narrative terms like ancient legends, half obscured by time. Consider, for example, his short poem, “The Flight”:

It may happen again—this much
I can always believe
when our dawn fills with frightened neighbors
and the ancient car refuses to start.
The gunfire of locks and shutters
echoes next door to the house
left open
for the troops that are certain to come.
We shall leave behind nothing but cemeteries,
and our life like a refugee cart
overturned in the road,
a wheel slowly spinning …

There is nothing overtly regional or autobiographical about this brief, apocalyptic poem. While it precisely describes the details of a particular scene, it leaves the actual location so vague it seems imaginary. The landscape is not rural but archetypically suburban. The experience presented is not personal but communal. The imminent danger is not from Nature but man. Likewise the poem dramatizes a specific incident without providing a broader narrative context. The private mythology in the background remains arcane. “The Flight” presents a nightmarish vision of a mysterious political disaster. Such quasi-mythic poems are at least as typical of Haines’ oeuvre as his better-known Alaskan poems.

If Haines has chosen the North as the region of his poetry, it is not only a specific geographical area, but also the spiritual wilderness where the solitary imagination must confront existence without the comforting illusions of society. His North is a prophetic mountaintop from which the poet looks down on the corruption of the city. In this sense Haines is fundamentally a moral and political poet. If he has succeeded in his stated ambition of creating a poetry “so distinctive that it belongs to a certain place yet speaks for all places,” it is because he speaks about matters important enough to transcend regional boundaries. His regionalism is not so much from a fixed perspective as a point of departure for regions beyond. While his work may have originated in Alaska—biographically and thematically—it has never been confronted by its birthplace.

Writing poetry in the Alaskan wilderness is a kind of pioneering as difficult as any other act of settlement. Finding an authentic way to articulate experiences new to literature is a formidable task. A young poet needs an imaginative foundation. Since there was little precedent in mainstream American poetry of the Forties and Fifties for the work Haines hoped to do, he had to discover his own set of models. Like most young poets of his generation, Haines was initially influenced by Pound, Eliot, and Williams, but gradually his search for masters went outside American literature. The confraternity of writers he eventually summoned to his remote Alaskan homestead was an unusual one. It included Tu Fu (as translated by Kenneth Rexroth), Li Po (from Pound’s Cathay), Antonio Machado, Georg Trakl, and Robinson Jeffers. He also found inspiration in Scandinavian novelists like Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset whose fiction helped explain the North he had chosen as home.

An interesting study could be made of what Haines learned from each writer, but two important points need to be made. First, one must note how little his private canon resembled the common influences of his generation (though it did overlap with the models of two contemporaries the early Haines most resembled—Robert Bly and James Wright). Like Haines’ lifestyle, his list of influences was unorthodox. The other significant point to be made about Haines’ masters is how little of their direct influence one sees in his work. He did not begin publishing until he had assimilated their examples into a personal style. One can sense their presence only in subtle ways.

What one notices instead is the author’s distinctive approach. His style is concise, intimate, but also very concentrated. If his syntax and diction are usually clear and simple, the way Haines organizes his images and ideas is complex. The poems often move by leaps. Key pieces of information are left out, requiring the reader to fill in gaps of meaning. Perhaps the provocative combination of superficial clarity and deeper mystery is the greatest debt Haines owes to his European masters like Trakl and Machado.

Turning to Haines’ New Poems: 1980-1988 after studying earlier work, one sees both the continuity and innovation they provide. The recent work grows out of the style and concerns of his previous poetry. The language is still luminously clear, but the approach is no longer simple. The new poems are more complex and allusive. Whereas Haines’ earlier work consisted of mainly short poems, his new book is built around six major sequences. These capacious new poems, however, remain rooted in the key elements of his earlier style. They use the compressed lyric of Haines’ previous books as the building blocks of the ambitious sequences. Reading the new poems, one appreciates the masterful way the author uses concentrated lyric episodes to create expansive larger forms.

Significantly, there is little sense of regionalism in Haines’ New Poems. Only one sequence refers directly to Alaska. If one views Haines’ poetic development as a journey from the specific geography of the Alaskan wilderness to the uncharted places of the spirit, then that journey is now complete. The author no longer defines himself in relation to a particular location. When the wilderness appears in the new poems, it is as universal as Dante’s dark wood. But if Haines now rejects his old identity as woodsman and hunter, he also displays more of his private artistic side—revealing something of the young man who forty years ago studied painting and sculpture. Directly or indirectly, the new poems discuss the vision of Hopper, Picasso, Van Gogh, Rodin, and Michelangelo. Likewise the entire volume displays Haines’ wide interest and erudition. Free of the confining stereotype of Alaskan writer, the author can follow his curiosity and incorporate threads of Dante and Balzac, Catholic liturgy and Jungian psychology into the fabric of his poems.

Today it will not suffice to say that New Poems represents the most ambitious book of Haines’ career. American poetry rarely seems short of ambition. Haines’ distinction in his new book is that he matches ambition with accomplishment. He has gained scope without losing force. He has mastered larger forms without forgetting the necessary attention to small detail. This new volume gives the reader the rare satisfaction of watching an older writer not only extend his style but perfect it.

Likewise, if I ultimately commend New Poems as a book of unusual artistic maturity, some readers may feel I am damning it with faint praise. Americans are not used to celebrating their poets for maturity. For every Bishop or Ransom in our literature there are a dozen enfants terribles (many of whom continue to be both enfant and terrible into old age). Our culture too often prizes the novel and precocious artist more often than the wise and steady one. Always an uncommon man, Haines is unusual even in his virtues. He has been a slow and serious writer in a culture which celebrates speed and accessibility. Patient and tenacious, he has been more interested in perfecting his work than in popularizing it. New Poems is an uncompromising, often difficult book. But unlike much recent “difficult” art, it is honestly conceived and meticulously executed. If it demands study, it can also bear the weight of scrupulous attention.

But to understand these profound new poems one must turn not only to critical analysis but also to life. Like all genuine poems, they reward close reading, but they—more than most contemporary verse—also repay meditation. Haines’ poetry speaks best to someone who appreciates the deep solitude out of which art arises. The attention they require is not so much intellectual as spiritual. To approach this kind of poetry one must trust it, a difficult gesture in an era like ours where so much art is characterized by pretense and vapidity. But Haines’ work deserves the reader’s trust. These unusual poems make the reader work, but they repay labor with spiritual refreshment. This book is not for everyone, but readers who know poetry can sometimes resemble prayer, will treasure it.

First published as the introduction to John Haines’ New Poems: 1980-88 (Story Line Press 1990).