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I came to this place, a young man green and lonely.

Well quit of the world, I framed a house of moss and timber, called it a home, and sat in the warm evenings singing to myself as a man sings when he knows there is no one to hear.

I made my bed under the shadow of leaves, and a awoke in the first snow of autumn, filled with silence.
Poem of the Forgotten, John Haines

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.

    -ESSAY: The Poetry of John Haines: The introduction to New Poems: 1980-1988 by John Haines (Dana Gioia)
Since we're headed off for a summer cruise there, I was on the lookout for books about Alaska and found this one at the thrift store. Whereas we'll enjoy all the modern amenities on shipboard and take a few carefully staged excursions to sample Alaskan life, the poet John Haines homesteaded the Alaskan wilderness before it was a state, when men--very much men--scraped a living off of hunting, trapping and fishing, living cheek-by-jowl with moose, wolves and grizzlies. Haines produced well regarded poetry based on his experiences but also many essays, some of which are collected here. He found his muse not just in nature, but in the loneliest most brutal setting imaginable. It seemed to produce not quite a religious effect but an at least transcendental one, giving his writing almost a mythical quality. Among the memorable stories he relates are a too close encounter with a grizzly, the discovery of a maybe murder victim, a visit between two of his fellow settlers in which not a word is spoken, and the proper method for "Burning a Porcupine" so that you can safely skin it. It's a haunting portrayal of a way of life that is long gone even though he left us only a couple years ago.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

John Haines Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John Haines
    -AUTHOR PAGE: John Haines (Gray Wolf Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: he Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness
    -AUTHOR PAGE: John Haines (Poetry Foundation)
    -FAN PAGE: John Haines Homepage
    -OBIT: John Haines, a Poet of the Wild, Dies at 86 (DOUGLAS MARTIN, March 5, 2011, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Former Alaska poet laureate John Haines dies (Mary Beth Smetzer, 3/03/11, News Miner)
    -TRIBUTE: Friends recall the many sides of John Haines, former Alaska poet laureate (Suzanna Caldwell, March 4, 2011, News-Miner)
    -OBIT: Alaska poet John Haines dead at 86 after fall in Fairbanks (Anchorage Daily News, March 3, 2011)
    -TRIBUTE: End of the Trail (Alaska Magazine, June 2011)
    -TRIBUTE: If Palin is the dark side of Alaska, John Haines is the light (Rob Woodard, 22 October 2008,
    -TRIBUTE: An Afternoon at John Haines's Homestead (Sketches of Alaska, 10/27/11,Ray Bonnell)
    -TRIBUTE: John Haines (PoetryDispatch No. 345, April 22, 2011)
    -TRIBUTE: John Haines – Alaska Loses a Champion & Friend (MARCH 5, 2011, Alaska Conservation Foundation)
    -TRIBUTE: Farewell, John Haines (Maia Nolan-Partnow, March 3, 2011, Alaska Dispatch)
    -TRIBUTE: Remembering John Haines (1924-2011) (Nancy Lord, 3/03/11, 49 Writers)
    -TRIBUTE: Recalling the late Alaska poet John Haines (Anchorage Daily News, March 4, 2011)
    -POEM: Ice Child (JOHN HAINES, Poetry Foundation)
    -POEM: Fourth of July at Santa Ynez (JOHN HAINES, Poetry Foundation)
    -POEMS: John Haines (Poem of the Week)
-POEMS: John Haines (Poem Hunter)
    -POEM: POEM FOR THE END OF THE CENTURY (John Haines, August 1999, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: The Poetry of John Haines: The introduction to New Poems: 1980-1988 by John Haines (Dana Gioia)
    -ESSAY: Into The Wild (Miles David Moore, December 2007, Scene4 Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: Fables & Distances: A conversation with John Haines (John A. Murray, 2004, Bloomsbury Review)
    -TRIBUTE: In Memoriam: The poet John Haines (Robert Zaller 03.19.2011, Broad Street Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Sky, the Snow, the Fire by John Haines (Robert Michael Pyle, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Stars, the Snow (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of The Twilight Country: The Nature Writing of John Haines (Andrew Frisardi, Contemporary Poetry Review)
    -REVIEW: of Winter News by John Haines (Stephen Page, Fox Chase Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE OWL IN THE MASK OF THE DREAMER Collected Poems. By John Haines (Edward Hirsch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Owl in the Mask (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of NEWS FROM THE GLACIER Selected Poems 1960-80. By John Haines (William Stafford, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of For the Century's End bu John Haines (Helen Frost, Poetserv)
    -REVIEW: of FABLES AND DISTANCES New and Selected Essays. By John Haines (John Motyka, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of STORIES WE LISTENED TO. By John Haines. (David Murray, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of NEW POEMS: 1980-88 By John Haines (Robert Richman, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links: