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

john haines | the calendar

10 11 2007


Poetry Dispatch No.144 | December 30, 2006

A Happy New Year to you all. May good ideas, honest poems, strong images, and well -honed words be with you in all the days and nights to come. And may you be moved by them, reader and writer.

Thanks for your interest and support of Poetry Dispatch, Notes from the Underground, and the two “www” websites through out the year. Norbert Blei


The Calendar by John Haines

Let this book as it ends
remember the hand that wrote it.
the eye that slowly
learned its alphabet,
the thumb that peeled back its pages.

The days were marked beforehand:
phases of the moon,
a flight to Pennsylvania,
the changing birthdays of children.

Words, ciphers on paper,
paper that curls and yellows,
Valentines, Easters,
a lot of numbers to throw away…

Something about a year
dying in anger
something about starlight and sleep.

from LEAVES and ASHES, Kayak Books, 1974

john haines | a winter light & if the owl calls again

29 10 2007


Poetry Dispatch No. 123 | November 17, 2006

2 by John Haines

“Even more than politics, poetry is local. For John Haines, his poetry has had an ongoing attachment to Alaska, his experience of the land as well as the stories of its people. Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1924, and for several years an art student on the East Coast, it was after becoming a homesteader in Alaska that Haines in 1966 published his first book of poems, Winter News, followed by his second collection The Stone Harp in 1971 (both issued by Wesleyan University Press). This was the start of an impressive body of work, including News from the Glacier: Selected Poems 1960-1980 (Wesleyan, 1982), New Poems: 1980-1988 (Story Line Press, 1990) and The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems (Graywolf, 1996). His books of prose include Living Off the Country: Essays on Poetry and Place (University of Michigan Press, 1981) and a memoir, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire (Graywolf, 1989)

hainesjohn.jpgBut poetry does not remain local. Indeed, what characterizes Haines’s poetry is its ability to make that leap from the personal to the mythic, to celebrate and explore that which is essential in human experience. Haines’s poetry is also often marked by a ferocious economy of language that finds its power through the resonance of image, of its connection with the natural and cultural world, regardless of whether the poem involves a military cemetery in Eagle, Alaska, or a 16th century engraving by Albrecht Dürer…” Norbert Blei


A Winter Light by John Haines

We still go about our lives
in shadow, pouring the white cup full
with a hand half in darkness.

Paring potatoes, our heads
vent over a dream—
glazed window through which
the long, yellow sundown looks.

By candle or firelight
your face still holds
a mystery that once
filled caves with the color
of unforgettable beasts.

from TWENTY POEMS, Unicorn Press, 1973


If the Owl Calls Again by John Haines

at dusk
from the island in the river,
and it’s not too cold,

I’ll wait for the moon
to rise,
then take wing and glide
to meet him.

We will not speak,
but hooded against the frost
soar above
the alder flats, searching
with tawny eyes.

And then we’ll sit
in the shadowy spruce
and pick the bones
of careless mice,

while the long moon drifts
toward Asia
and the river mutters
in its icy bed.

And when the morning climbs
the limbs
we’ll part without a sound, fulfilled, floating
homeward as
the cold world awakens.