Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sunday Poet: John Haines

In honor of yesterday having been Earth Day, I am choosing John Haines -- one of the finest nature poets (or any kind of poet, for that matter) around. Haines spent more than twenty years homesteading in central Alaska, an experience that has shaped his life and his poetry.

Here is some biographical information from the Academy of American Poets:

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1924, John Haines studied at the National Art School, the American University, and the Hans Hoffmann School of Fine Art. The author of more than ten collections of poetry, his recent works include At the End of This Summer: Poems 1948-1954 (Copper Canyon Press, 1997); The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer (1993); and New Poems 1980-88 (1990), for which he received both the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Western States Book Award.

He has also published a book of essays entitled Fables and Distances: New and Selected Essays (1996), and a memoir, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years in the Northern Wilderness (1989).

Haines spent more than twenty years homesteading in Alaska, and has taught at Ohio University, George Washington University, and the University of Cincinnati. Named a Fellow by The Academy of American Poets in 1997, his other honors include the Alaska Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, two Guggenheim Fellowships, an Amy Lowell Travelling Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Congress. John Haines lives in Helena, Montana.

Haines's poetry is sparse and clear, yet latent with so many unspoken meanings. For me, he ranks with Robsinson Jeffers, Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder as one of our finest nature poets. He was filled with the Spirit of place during his years in Alaska, and even since moving to Montana, the landscape around him has shaped his ethos as a human being and as a poet.

In the Introduction to Haines's New Poems: 1980-1988 , Dana Gioia compares Haines to Jeffers:
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 emerged outside of either the university or an urban bohemia.
So, here are a few poems that hint at the brilliance that is John Hanies. I highly recommend The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer.

If the Owl Calls Again

at dusk
from the island in the river,
and it's not too cold,

I'll wait for the moon
to rise,
then take wing and glide
to meet him.

We will not speak,
but hooded against the frost
soar above
the alder flats, searching
with tawny eyes.

And then we'll sit
in the shadowy spruce
and pick the bones
of careless mice,

while the long moon drifts
toward Asia
and the river mutters
in its icy bed.

And when the morning climbs
the limbs
we'll part without a sound,

fulfilled, floating
homeward as
the cold world awakens.

Into the Glacier

With the green lamp of the spirit
of sleeping water
taking us by the hand . . .

Deeper and deeper,
a luminous blackness opening
like the wings of a raven--

as though a heavy wind
were rising through all the houses
we ever lived in--

the cold rushing in,
our blankets flying away
into the darkness,
and we, naked and alone,
awakening forever . . .

The Tundra

The tundra is a living
body, warm in the grassy
autumn sun; it gives off
the odor of crushed
blueberries and gunsmoke.

In the tangled lakes
of its eyes a mirror of ice
is forming, where
frozen gut-piles shine
with a dull, rosy light.

Coarse, laughing men
with their women;
one by one the tiny campfires
flaring under the wind.

Full of blood, with a sound
like clicking hooves,
the heavy tundra slowly
rolls over and sinks
in the darkness.

In the Forest Without Leaves, Sections 3, 4, and 6

How the sun came to the forest:

How the rain spoke
and the green branch flowered:

How the moss burned
and the wasp took flight,
how the sun in a halo of smoke
put an end to summer.

How the wind blew
and the leaves fell.

Death made a space in the forest
where snow would come,
and silence, and night.


In all the forest, chilled
by its spent wealth,

in the killed kingdom of grass
where birch leaves
tumble and blow;

(and over the leaves is written:
how great the harvest,
how deep the plow)

I know one truth:

Nothing stains like blood,
nothing whitens like snow.


In the forest without leaves
stands a birch tree,
slender and white.

For the sun drank pallor
from its leaves,
and the marrow in its roots
froze down.

Only the paper bark stayed
to weather and peel,
be sunlight or tinder
burned in the hunter's fire,

and wind took away all the rest.

If and whenever we come again,
I will know that tree.

A birch leaf held fast
in limestone ten million years
still quietly burns,
though claimed by the darkness.

Let earth be this windfall
swept to a handful of seeds--
one tree, one leaf,
gives us plenty of light.
John Haines on the web:
PoemHunter, a couple of poems (one mistitled)
Academy of American Poets
Archipelago, nine political poems
John Haines homepage
Artful Dodge: Haines interviewed by Daniel Bourne

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