Books by John Haines

Released: Feb. 1, 1996

A far-reaching and frequently contentious collection of the author's writings (previously published mostly in literary journals), ranging from scathing literary and social criticism to beautifully crafted nature essays, personal remembrances, and poems. Haines (The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, 1989, etc.) pulls no punches in assessing contemporary American poetry as lacking an instructive, moral critique of society, characterizing it instead as an art form ``of increasing isolation and narcissism'' resulting in ``the absence of a meaningful dialogue between the poets and their nation.'' In lambasting a roster of present-day poets and literary critics as either self-promotional, beholden to university bureaucracies, or simply poor writers, Haines indicates as modernist exemplars Yeats, Pound, and Robinson Jeffers. Nor is Haines sanguine about the society that spawns these conditions—a society removed from nature (from which, Haines avers, all ideas originate), and one subservient to a ``corporate mentality that would overturn every human value.'' For the reader who perseveres through these instructive but caustic essays, the rewards are some lovely prose writings set in rural Alaska, where Haines homesteaded in the late 1940s. Here one is treated to scenes of a basically untrammeled and dramatic landscape (although into these scenes of physical beauty, too, Haines laments the intrusion of a spiritless, corporate society) and well-drawn narratives of berry-picking and hunting. This compilation also contains a short selection of the author's poetry, with concise explanations of how their concepts, language, and forms were achieved. Scattered elsewhere, a reader can find some delicious nuggets about the relationship between nature, art, language, and religion, and a final, painful childhood memory of the writer's doomed first love. The writings gathered here are impressive in breadth, sometimes seething, and frequently lyrical. When taken together, they form a coherent philosophy of an uncompromising artist. Read full book review >
Released: May 26, 1989

Exquisite—sometimes preciously so—autobiographical wilderness essays by an accomplished poet (Winter News, 1966: The Stone Harp, 1971). Since 1947, Haines has homesteaded in Alaska on-and-off for a total of 25 years. The 18 essays here—collected from publications like the Anchorage Daily News, Antaeus, and New England Review—date from the mid-70's on, and manifest a mostly felicitous blend of keen natural observation and literary ambition. Typical is the exciting essay "Out of the Shadows," in which Haines leaps from a terse and tense account of his real-life encounter with a grizzly bear to a feverish, imagined death at the bear's claws ("in that instant of confusion and shock I was joined to the hot blood and rank fur at last"); or the pungent "Burning a Porcupine," in which preparing a porcupine for cooking, described in graphic detail, seems to Haines "an occasional sacrifice before the memory of a long-ago woods spirit"; or the eerie piece on people disappearing in the woods, "Lost," where Haines muses that "a drowsy, half-wakeful menace waits for us in the quietness of this world." And so myriad aspects of the natural world of Richardson, Alaska—a flying squirrel, wolves spotted loping along a river, patterns of ice and shadow, his fellow villagers—prove fodder for Haines' intense, at times almost apocalyptic vision, one that oscillates wildly between near-photographic takes ("The blue bulge of [the rabbit's] gut lay half-spilled from the body and shone brightly, glazed with blood . .") and writerly excess ("Here before me the river is still awake, still speaking in its halt-choked mutter and murmur. . ."). Strongest when, with a poet's precision, Haines reports on nature; weakest when, with a poet's sentiment, Haines reports on Haines. Read full book review >