John Haines arrived in Alaska, fresh out of the Navy, in 1947, and established a homestead seventy miles southeast of Fairbanks. He stayed there nearly twenty-five years, learning to live off the country: hunting, trapping, fishing, gathering berries, and growing vegetables. Those years formed him as a writerthe interior of Alaska, and especially its boreal forestmarking his poetry and prose and helping him find his unique voice. Placing John Haines, the first book-length study of his work, tells the story of those years, but also of his later, itinerant life, as his success as a writer led him to hold fellowships and teach at universities across the country. James Perrin Warren draws out the contradictions inherent in that biographythat this poet so indelibly associated with place, and authentic belonging, spent decades in motionand also sets Haines’s work in the context of contemporaries like Robert Bly, Donald Hall, and his close friend Wendell Berry. The resulting portrait shows us a poet who was regularly reinventing himself, and thereby generating creative tension that fueled his unforgettable work. A major study of a sadly neglected master, Placing John Haines puts his achievement in compelling context.
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About the Author
James Perrin Warren is assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University and the author of several books on nineteenth-century American literature.
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Placing John Haines
By James Perrin Warren
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 University of Alaska Press
All rights reserved.
Place and Voice in Winter News (1966)
THE ROAD TO RICHARDSON
In poems from the early 1950s, the young John Haines openly imitates writers like Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen Crane, as well as modernist poets Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and T. S. Eliot. Most evident in the early poems, however, is the abiding influence of William Carlos Williams. Haines never tired of telling how he sent some poems to Williams in 1952. Despite having suffered a stroke, Williams wrote back to Haines on April 21, 1953, encouraging him to continue writing. The manuscript letter in the John Haines Papers at the University of Alaska contains praise that many poets would covet: "I'm certainly glad you wrote and sent me your poems for by doing so you revealed the most authentic talent for verse that I have encountered in your generation. ... Continue as you are going, read, read, read all the examples of the verse you admire — and some that you do not admire — and you'll be in another ten years, if you have what it takes to survive, top dog." Williams praises the young poet for his voice, his sense of lively detail, and his "unaffected sense of rhythm." In his own characteristic terms, Williams admonishes Haines to pay attention to "measure," for that is the way that the young writer can "write the next chapter in the history of verse" (John Haines Papers Box 5, Folder 20; hereafter cited as JHP). Free verse, he adds, "is not enough," and "instinct is not enough." On the back of the letter, Florence Williams adds a postscript from "Bill": "Widen your scope — Don't be satisfied with being labeled 'regional.'" One can see why Haines, a few years out of the navy and art school, and newly committed to writing poetry, would be vitally encouraged by Williams's letter. In his essay "Homage to the Chinese," however, Haines recalls that he stopped writing poems for some three years while working on the homestead at Richardson, only beginning again when he discovered Kenneth Rexroth and the ancient Chinese poets (LOC 120).
Perhaps the three-year silence occurred in part because of a second, less famous letter from Dr. Williams. Writing on May 7, 1959, in response to a packet of recent poems from Haines, Williams finds little to praise: "What the hell am I to say: I doubt that you have written a single one that can be called a poem. There is a general feeling of a poem about what you send me but it never comes to a focus as any piece of writing must do to bear the name 'poem.' You must bring your writings to a head. Your images must focus nearer than 'a music, very distant music of the sea'" (JHP Box 5, Folder 20).
Looking for helpful words, Williams throws up his hands in the letter, saying, "I'm really at a loss to know what to say to you. You've got me stumped. ... Maybe it's the infinite distances with which you are very evidently surrounded that has cut you off from any possible communication." In Williams's reading, the "infinite" qualities of Alaska as a physical place battle against the poet's urge to communicate. It is as if Williams is consigning Haines to a vast silence because of the vast, silent landscape Haines inhabits. Frustrated, the elder poet would like to say "at least SOMETHING that would be of help to you" and that might "get you out of the rut you seem to be in," but what that might be is "beyond me."
What poems did Haines send to Williams in the first place, and what poems did he send six years later? How did Haines lose the focus and rhythmic control that Williams detected in the earlier poems, and what came to take their place? These are ultimately questions without definitive answers, but we can nonetheless arrive at some good ideas about the difficulties Haines experienced in the 1950s. There are dozens of early typescript poems in the John Haines Papers, many of them never published (JHP Box 7, Folders 1–16). Beginning in 1994, Haines also published three books of early poems, reaching deeper and deeper into the archives of his early poetry. The first, Where the Twilight Never Ends, prints fifteen poems, some of which were originally published in magazines. These poems date from the early 1960s and show the influence of Chinese, Spanish, and German poetry. The second, At the End of This Summer, prints forty-three titles, dated 1948 to 1954 and organized according to Haines's sojourns in Washington, DC; New York City; Provincetown; and California. Haines notes in the preface that the poems are apprentice work, and he once again recalls Williams's 1953 letter of encouragement as restoring "a good deal of my faltering confidence." The third, Of Your Passage, O Summer, retrieves eighteen poems from the late 1950s and early 1960s; Haines notes that these poems date from his "renewed passion" for writing poems after his three-year silence.
At the End of This Summer is especially helpful because of its general availability and the range of poems it prints. In an early experiment like "To Remember Another Time," we can readily hear Poe's influence, perhaps mingling with early Yeats: "Helen, beyond all accustomed beauty I place you, / Shining alone." A later sequence, "Pictures and Parables," seems modeled on Stephen Crane's portentous imagism, with a dash of early T. S. Eliot: "This is the sea, and I / have come to know a great / deal about it, noting / its moods, counting the tides, listening / to the many voices / that are at last but one voice." In both poems, the speaker's profession of special knowledge and authority merges with a flat-footed, prosaic truthiness. Later poems are more successful because Haines resists the urge to characterize and editorialize upon his subjects, presenting them with more concrete detail and less evaluative language. "In the Natural History Museum," "Totem," and "Interview," three poems set in New York City's American Museum of Natural History, describe particular scenes or objects for their own value, not for what they might mean. In ways reminiscent of Williams, the restrained technique of "no ideas but in things" makes these poems among the most effective of the collection. Even so, the collection certainly does not reveal any clear progression of a young writer in his craft. Thus the poems from California, 1952–1954, verge on the frankly embarrassing at times, as in "Pawnee Dust" and "Ghost Town."
The final poem of the collection, "Lineage," directly faces the question of poetic authority in terms of "the songs and praises of poets who died." The poem presents a real dilemma, as if the speaker were entering into a frozen world of death and silence, but Haines remains optimistic:
The earth they knew remains. Despite the swollen lives of men, I see the grass before me and believe the dead could stand in
recognition there, braving another season. Their words shape mine, their hearts expand again
in this remembered sun. And I am still, and face the changeless autumn with a smile, knowing that resurrection.
The strong lineage of Wallace Stevens appears in these stanzas, evident in the imagery of the "remembered sun" and Stevens's theme of "death is the mother of beauty," both of which echo "Sunday Morning." The young writer's blank-verse tercets and doublets, moreover, directly recall Stevens's versification. Still, Haines's sense of lineage is general, the lineage of poets decidedly plural. The real point is that the speaker, in his singularity, embodies the resurrection of the sun. If that stance bespeaks artistic bravado, it also may suggest real bravery in the face of death.
Rather than presenting an image of steady progress, then, the cumulative evidence of dozens of poems, published and unpublished, supports a narrative of prolonged, somewhat haphazard experimentation from 1948 to 1960. Even though Haines wrote that he was "born as a poet" in 1947–1948, during his first winter at the Richardson homestead, he actually served a long apprenticeship in the service of earlier poets. In fact, he spent over half of those apprentice years as a journeyman of uncertain vocation, traveling as an art student across the country to urban centers along the eastern seaboard, to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and finally back to Richardson. As the selections in At the End of This Summer suggest, the poems of the 1950s provide clear echoes of Poe, Whitman, Stephen Crane, Eliot, Williams, Pound, and Stevens. But Haines was unable to do more than imitate these important American precursors rather randomly. None of them — not even Stevens or Williams — gave him a sure path to his own voice and place. Indeed, Williams's 1959 letter shows that the mentor was "stumped" and the younger poet in a "rut." In short, even though Haines read and appreciated the great modernist poets like Williams, Stevens, and Pound, he had a difficult time assimilating the lessons of modernism and finding his own voice in his early poems.
Despite these mixed results by an inexperienced writer, Haines never lacked for confidence in his own opinions. On November 19, 1959, for instance, only five months after Williams's "what the hell" letter, Haines wrote his first letter directly to Robert Bly, focusing on Bly's rejection of his poem "Descent" for publication in the poetry magazine The Fifties. Bly had roundly lectured "Mr. Haines" in a letter of September 18, telling him that his poems were "too talkative" and disputing the younger writer's admiration for Dr. Williams's views of the American language. In his reply to Bly, Haines defends the poem, calling it "in its own small way ... as perfect a poem as I've ever written." He then discusses Williams as leading the way in thinking about "the poem as a technical matter lying outside the metaphysical and philosophical," and he shows a thorough knowledge of Williams's In the American Grain (1925): "He has been right in insisting on beginning with the local elements, the American language." Haines then forthrightly tells Bly the story of the two letters from Williams and concludes that he is very "puzzled" by the second one. In response to Bly's recommendation of the poetry of Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Federico García Lorca, Haines offers his view of translation as "rewriting the original in your own language as if you were the original poet thus writing. And to succeed you may have to cut down considerably or change something here or there to make it contemporarily alive" (JHP Box 1, Folder 15). At the very outset of this important poetic friendship, Haines actively resists Bly's advice and attempts to impose his own views on the more accomplished writer.
The title "Descent" for Haines's rejected poem is intriguing, though I have not been able to locate the text. The word "descent" reverberates strongly. First of all, in reading Haines as a young, unknown writer, we should recall the chapter "Descent" in Williams's In the American Grain (New Directions, 1925), for Haines returned to this chapter many times throughout his career. The chapter presents Williams's short meditation on Sam Houston, who ran away to live with the Cherokee in western Tennessee as a young boy. Houston became governor of Tennessee in 1829 but soon divorced his wife and resigned his office, returning to live with the Cherokee. As Williams puts it, Houston "took the descent once more" (213). In a seemingly different vein, Williams argues that the poet must be the means to "aesthetic satisfaction" in the country, but most of America's aesthetic productions remain vibrant, superficial, and artificial. The authentic poetic genius is, Williams maintains, "shy and wild and frail" (214). The genius finds that "it is imperative that we sink," avoiding conformity such as one finds in the universities: "Those who come up from under will have a mark on them that invites scorn, like a farmer's filthy clodhoppers" (215). Houston emerges as an exemplar of the need to descend into the soil and avoid the blindness of America's supposedly "manifest" destiny. In the last paragraph of the chapter, Williams broadens the cultural lesson yet further: "However hopeless it may seem, we have no other choice: we must go back to the beginning; it must all be done over; everything that is must be destroyed" (215).
This apocalyptic message is the source for Haines's 1969 poem "'It Must All Be Done Over'" in The Stone Harp. Haines also quotes the Williams text in the essay "The Sun on Our Shoulders" in Living Off the Country (50). Finally, Haines returns to the ideas and the Williams text in his brief essay "Descent" (1995) in the 2010 volume by the same name (Descent 3–7). Haines's essay "Descent" focuses on his reading as a young poet and student in the 1950s; Williams's In the American Grain is certainly all-important to him, gaining, he says, "a life interest for me" (3). Haines fastens on Williams's sentence "It is imperative that we sink," and he connects it to his own decision to "let go, to sink into that country, accept it on its own terms, and make of it what I could" (4). Then Haines expands on his sense of the "country" he means: "Among those steep hills of birch and aspen, on the fire-scarred spruce ridges and windswept domes, in the bogs and alder-tangled creek bottoms; in the Tanana River islands, sandbars, and channels; in the early snowfall and late spring, the long nights of midwinter and the long light of midsummer — in its scattered, transitory human history also — I found my place in which to settle, in the true sense, and everything has grown from that" (4–5).
The translation of Williams's public, renegade history of American genius to Haines's personal, renegade history of an Alaskan homesteader is an important, characteristic strategy. It suggests one way in which Haines translated Williams's poetic "news" from the late love poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" into the place-based poems of Winter News:
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
In the reading I am proposing, Williams emerges in Haines's imagination as the larger-than-life poet of place, the model for Haines's own sinking into place at the Richardson homestead. That is the dual meaning of the word "settle" in Haines's sentence: "I found my place to settle, in the true sense, and everything has grown from that." Moreover, in another doubling, Haines characteristically draws a parallel between the Interior of Alaska and the interior of his imagination, just as he does in "The Writer as Alaskan." He notes that to descend means that one must then re-ascend, in his case coming out of the wild setting of Alaska and emerging from his own "interior country" (6). He relates that ascension to entering into contemporary America, "that other America" of wealth and hierarchy, the "industrial maggot" burrowing into Alaska (6–7). Ultimately, Williams's text means that Haines must renew his own "country of imagination, that knows no geographical or political boundaries, and where a writer, a poet, is free to roam, to settle and build as he can" (7). Through all of these doublings, Haines begins to find his sense of poetic place and direction. The place is at first defined as Alaska, but it does not remain a "settled" place; instead, Haines keeps redefining the place as a free, imaginative country without boundaries. The doublings thus reveal a fundamental tension in Haines's sense of place.
SINKING INTO CHINESE POETRY
In addition to the profound influence of William Carlos Williams, Haines's commitment to sinking into place by homesteading in the late 1950s and early 1960s coincides with his discovery of classic Chinese poetry. Pound's 1915 book Cathay was one important source for the discovery, but even more decisive is Kenneth Rexroth's 1956 translation 100 Poems from the Chinese. Haines writes incisively about Rexroth and the Chinese influence in his short essay "Homage to the Chinese," which first appeared in a festschrift for Rexroth and was reprinted in Living Off the Country (120–22). In just eight resonant paragraphs, Haines describes his own isolation on the Richardson homestead in the late 1950s after his first wife had left him. As he says, "I felt out of things entirely, a long distance from anything going on in the world of letters. I had my life in the woods, and that was enough" (120). A chance reading of an essay by Rexroth about the Beat poets, followed by finding William Carlos Williams's "enthusiastic review" of Rexroth's anthology in Poetry magazine, led Haines to a deep study of Rexroth's translations. The effect was immediate: "It was for me a time of renewal and rediscovery. I began to write poems again, hesitating and unsure. I wrote a few things that were direct (and weak) imitations of Chinese poems as I understood them from Rexroth's versions; but these were only trials" (121). The galvanizing effect of Rexroth's anthology allowed Haines to return to his own poetry, suggesting that the Chinese poems gave him a path out of silence and pointed a way to his own voice. Indeed, Haines asserts that Chinese models abound in Winter News, especially the work of the eighth-century Tang poet Tu Fu. He notes qualities of simplicity, brevity, clarity, solitude, quiet, and a "direct link to nature" in this work, and he recalls feeling that all of these qualities were like "the substance of my own life. How often do we find this to be so, when the book and the life make one sound within us?" (122).
Excerpted from Placing John Haines by James Perrin Warren. Copyright © 2017 University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
PLACING JOHN HAINES,
PART 1 ALASKA,
Chapter 1 DISCOVERING RICHARDSON Place and Voice in Winter News (1966),
Chapter 2 INSIDE AMERICA A New Poetry of the Earth,
Chapter 3 SHADOW LANGUAGE Practicing the Art of Memory,
PART 2 ANOTHER COUNTRY,
Chapter 4 THE CHANGED PASTORAL New Poems, 1980–88,
Chapter 5 THE PLACE OF CONVICTION AND THE PUBLIC VOICE,
Chapter 6 SOMEBODY THERE A Career in Correspondence,
Conclusion JOHN HAINES'S PLACE AS ECOPOET,
About the Author,