In Memoriam: The poet John Haines

A patriot in the genuine sense

He took from the language only what he needed.
He took from the language only what he needed.

I met the poet John Haines ten years ago, when he gave the keynote address of the Robinson Jeffers Association conference. We lived far apart— John in Alaska, where he had taken up homesteading in the 1950s— and so our friendship was epistolary, but no less warm for that. Last month, John was to have been fêted at a conference in Washington, D.C., and I was ready to take the train down to see him. At the last minute, I received word he was ill; and then he was gone, at the age of 86.

John had a premonition of the end. When he sent me his last book, rather ominously titled Descent, he said he thought it might be his last. He fought the good fight for a long time, as he saw it. He cared passionately about wilderness, and its necessity to our own natures. He thought it an urgent ground to our values as well, and in this belief he was not mistaken.

He hated America's own descent into the vulgarity of empire and the hubris he feared would destroy us. This concern made him a patriot in the best, and I might say the only genuine sense: as someone who cared too much for his country to suffer its faults and its fools gladly.

Our deepest honesty

I don't think John ever said this directly, but I think it's something he would have agreed with: that poetry is the deepest honesty we possess. His poetry rendered the simplicity of complex experience in the clearest possible terms. That is to say, he was anything but simple, but every line of verse he wrote was the best bone truth of which he was capable.

This skill gave a peculiarly crystalline quality to his art: It was as direct as he could make it, and if it was sometimes riddling, that was because it came from places most of us don't visit.

For John, then, poetry performed a double function: as the vessel of personal integrity, and as an encounter with the world. As you didn't play with the world (some poets do), so you didn't play with words; they had to be as spare and precise as possible.

John took from the tree of language what he would have taken from the woods around his home: only what he needed, and only as much as he needed.

Two bears on the prowl

John always looked for the best in other poets, and he didn't stint his praise when he found it. But his standards were exacting, and when he was disappointed, he told you why. That's an office of criticism, too rarely discharged these days.

The poet John most seemed to resemble was the Vermonter Hayden Carruth, another lover of cold weather, and it didn't surprise me to learn that they were good friends. I think of them both a little as bears on the prowl— ghost bears now— but harvesters of sweet berries and some very tough nuts.

The eulogies I've read speak of John as a difficult man. I suppose he may have been that— being seriously human is a difficult task— but I never found him so. On the contrary, I thought John kind, generous and unassuming. He knew his value, but he never insisted on it, and the honors that came his way always seemed to take him by surprise.

At the end, friends and students stood by his bedside and read his own poetry to him. They were giving back what he had given them. I would like to have been there.

As for the gift of John's poetry, I cannot describe it better than he does:

It was like a basin of clear water,
Cool and sparkling freshness, in which you might see
All there was and know it yours.

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