john haines | to turn back

22 04 2011

PoetryDispatch No. 345 | April 22, 2011

John Haines, 1924 – 2011

Editor’s Note: What better way to celebrate Earth Day than by honoring the memory, the man, the work of John Haines, who died on March 2nd this year in Fairbanks, Alaska. He was 86. A previous piece on Haines (2006 ) appears in the Poetry Dispatch archives.

In many ways Haines was a bit under the poetry radar in this country, unless you are drawn to those poets who sing the green of our living earth in such a quiet and honest way. Nobody knew the music better than John Haines.

He was pegged as a regional poet, a nature poet, a philosophic poet, a_____ but in the end…well, let the work itself define the man. If possible. He was always bigger and smaller, less and more than those trying to give him a poetic fit to suit the academics..

I followed him for years in very small presses. In time he grew out of that, gaining some national attention. Then again…one might say he belonged to the literature of little mags and small presses. He was one of ours.

Here’s to Earth Day…Here’s to John Haines who knew where all the right words were buried and how to bring them to blossom. A poet who, according to the New York Times: “ …found inspiration in the peaks of the Alaskan range that he could see from the cabin he built for himself, in the butterfly in held in his hands, in the moose he shot and butchered. He told of stones waiting for God to remember their names.” — Norbert Blei

To Turn Back

The grass people bow
their heads before the wind.

How would it be
to stand among them, bending
our heads like that … ?

Yes … and no … perhaps …
lifting our dusty faces
as if we were waiting for
the rain…?

The grass people stand
all year, patient and obedient—

to be among them
is to have only simple
and friendly thoughts,

and not be afraid.

[from WINTER NEWS, 1961]

John Haines (1924 – March 2, 2011)

was an American poet and educator who had served as the poet laureate of Alaska.

John Meade Haines, who was born in Norfolk, Virginia, published nine collections of poetry. He was appointed the Poet Laureate of Alaska in 1969.  A collection of critical essays about his poetry, The Wilderness of Vision, was published in 1998.  Haines taught graduate level and honors English classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He died in Fairbanks, Alaska.


  • Winter Light (2008). CD; readings from earlier collections of poems and essays, with introductions to each collection. Read by the author
  • For the Century’s End: Poems 1990 — 1999 Seattle and London: University of Washington Press
  • At the End of This Summer: Poems 1948-1954 (Copper Canyon Press, 1997)
  • Fables and Distances: New and Selected Essays (Graywolf Press, 1996)
  • The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer (Graywolf Press, 1993)
  • New Poems 1980-88 (1990), (received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Western States Book Award)
  • The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years in the Northern Wilderness (Graywolf Press, 1989)
  • News from the Glacier: Selected Poems 1960-1980 (Wesleyan, 1982)
  • Living Off the Country: Essays on Poetry and Place (University of Michigan Press, 1981)
  • The Stone Harp (1971)
  • Winter News (1966)


  • A Place on Earth: An Anthology of Nature Writing from Australia and North America. 2004. Edited by Mark Tredinnick.
  • The Best American Poetry 1999. Edited by David Lehman.
  • A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon. 1990. Edited by John A. Murray.
  • Inroads: An Anthology Celebrating Alaska’s Twenty-seven Fellowship Writers. 1988. Edited by Elyse Guttenberg and Jean Anderson.
  • Poetry of the Committed Individual. 1973. Edited by Jon Silkin.


  • 2008 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry
  • 2007 USA Rasmuson Fellow from United States Artists
  • 2005 Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist
  • University of Alaska Northern Momentum Scholar, 2002
  • Fellow, the Academy of American Poets, 1997
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alaska Center for the Book/Library of Congress, 1994
  • Poets’ Prize, 1991
  • Alaska Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts
  • two Guggenheim Fellowships
  • National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
  • Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, 1976–1977



2 responses

22 04 2011

I love this poem . Thanks for posting it.

22 04 2011
Leonard Cirino

Great work Norb,

Haines has been almost the only US poet I’ve related to in 25 years. He was a fine one and knew lots of “secrets” and exposed the governments for what they are — which is hypocrisy for the most part. Glad to see his work out there again and I’ll go back to my books of his which I first started reading in 1980 — didn’t know much poetry back then but he spoke to me as few do. be well and thanks again , leonard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: