Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Alaska, Our John Haines

I never met the man.  Maybe I saw him once or twice, hunkered down in a front-row chair like a revered elder statesman during some visiting writer's reading at the University of Alaska, his glasses catching the light every now and then, blinkering to opaque ovals, concealing his eyes, his true eyes.  And maybe I saw him across campus, walking between buildings on frigid afternoons, moving slowly, trapped in the center of a tight knot of fawning graduate students.  But no, I never met the man.

In the nine years I lived in Alaska, however, John Haines was The Man.  He was larger than life, he was a giant walking across a giant landscape.  If you were a graduate student like me, he was as mysterious, as shimmering, as elusive as the Northern Lights.  If you were an artist--poet, novelist, essayist, painter, sculptor, whatever--living in Alaska in the second half of the 20th century, you felt his touch on your work.  If we didn't know him, we certainly knew of him and all he'd accomplished.  He'd done what so many other Alaskans had already done--lived off the land, homesteaded in the pine-struck hills eighty miles south of Fairbanks, split wood, foraged for berries, gutted moose, all the usual housekeeping chores of arctic life--but he'd also done what so many other Alaskans could never do: he wrote poems.  Damn good poems at that, with words chopped out of the imagination sure as the ice he chopped from the winter river for his drinking water.

By the time John Haines ascended to the throne of Alaska Poet Laureate in 1969, his presence covered the Last Frontier like a blanket of first-snow.  Stop ten Alaskans on the street and ask them if they had heard of John Haines and I'm willing to bet you'd get at least six nods and a yes.  That kind of recognition is almost unheard of in the poetry world.  John Haines was our celebrity scribe.  What Robert Frost was to New England, John Haines was to Alaska.

In the halls of the English Department at the University of Alaska, he was everywhere--not necessarily there in person, but in reputation.  His legacy drifted through the buildings and into the classrooms like tendrils of ice fog.  For many students, his nine collections of poetry--especially his first, Winter News, published in 1966--were like illuminated manuscripts.  And if so, they were illuminated with alpenglow, the late-day light that bounces, salmon-pink, off the mountains' snowfields.  We read John Haines to verify the beauty of our winter landscape and our place on it.

Some said he got cantankerous in his later years, a curmudgeon who suffered no fools, gruffly keeping to himself.  Some said he was still regal, majestic in presence, his sonorous voice filling a room even before he stepped to the microphone to read from his classic book of essays, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire. I can't know for sure.

Like I said, I never met the man.

And now he is gone, taken from all of us, the breath of poetry over the tundra and taiga stilled forever.  He slipped and fell in December and never fully recovered.  He died on March 2.  He was 86.

In his introduction to Haines' New Poems: 1980-88, Dana Goia wrote: "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."


To one who lives in the snow and watches it day by day, it is a book to be read.  The pages turn as the wind blows; the characters shift and the images formed by their combinations change in meaning, but the language remains the same.  It is a shadow language, spoken by things that have gone by and will come again.  The same text has been written there for thousands of years, though I was not here, and will not be here in winters to come, to read it.
       --from The Stars, the Snow, the Fire

Fairbanks Under the Solstice
Slowly, without sun, the day sinks
toward the close of December.
It is minus sixty degrees.

Over the sleeping houses a dense
fog rises—smoke from banked fires,
and the snowy breath of an abyss
through which the cold town
is perceptibly falling.

As if Death were a voice made visible,
with the power of illumination...

Now, in the white shadow
of those streets, ghostly newsboys
make their rounds, delivering
to the homes of those
who have died of the frost
word of the resurrection of Silence.

Photo of John Haines by Lin Mitchell
Photo of Alaskan River by David Abrams
Photo of Frosted Trees at Sunset (Fairbanks) by David Abrams

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for honoring John Haines and what he meant to Alaska literature. I appreciate the poetry too--it shows what you describe so well. I only talked to Mr. Haines a couple times later in his life, but his mind was as sharp as a tack and he still felt passionate about what was going on in the world around him. I will miss him.