Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lost: The world is a quieter place

John Haines, the state's former Poet Laureate, and the author of a work that I give a lot, if not all of, the credit for my residence here, died today.

I've blogged about Haines' "The Stars, The Snow, The Fire" as being a major inspiration that ignited my interest in the 49th state.

The state’s two main papers ran short and to-the-point obits. From the outside, their brevity might seem disrespectful, but Haines style was to do more with less when it came to words, so perhaps it’s fitting. The obit in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer (LINK) is worth a read for its choice, but raw quotes from friends of his.

Haines lived and wrote of an Alaska that was caught between booms, a place that doesn't quite exist anymore, or is harder and harder to find.

Nationally, his work is generally unknown. Though not Alaska-raised, even in his adopted state, his name is still heard less often than other Alaskana writers; residents or not.

Haines was a critic of American literature and poetry, and made no lack of effort in calling for a less surficial approach to the art.

In “The hole in the bucket” in his “Living Off the Country,” Haines started the piece by writing: “American poetry lacks ideas. Like all large statements, this one covers a lot of ground and leaves plenty of room for error. I make it if for no other reason than to see what response I can provoke.”

Haines dedication to capturing Alaska on a page is noteworthy as well though, and something he dedicated much of his life to.

In his “The Writer as Alaskan: Beginnings and Reflections,” found in “Living Off the Country,” Haines wrote the following:

“The Alaskan writer faces a double task: to see to feel, and to interpret the place itself, and then to relate that experience to what he knows of the world at large. Not simply to describe the place and what is in it (though valuable, this has been done many times already); but to give this material a life in imagination, a vitality beyond mere appearances. This alone allows the place to be seen and felt by an audience whose members are everywhere. It is not, in the end, Alaska, a place where few people can live in perpetual self-congratulation, but humankind we are talking about. What we do and say here touches everywhere the common people.

The Alaskan writer faces in addition a difficulty which is everywhere around us, and whose effect can be seen in much of the writing today. The way we live nowadays seems to prevent closeness to anything outside this incubator world we have built around us. Within it, individuals face an increasingly impoverished inner world. It seems all too characteristic of us as people that we tend to limit and confine ourselves, to specialize and restrict. We prefer anything to openness. The sort of intimacy, of being available to the land in Alaska, to the things it can reveal to one willing to stay, to observe and listen, this is prevented, or at least it is blunted, by the life most people come here to live, a life no different than one they would live anywhere.”

From my standpoint, Haines’ achieved his goal in moving his multi-dimensional Alaska to the single dimension of a page so well, it ultimately moved me.

Below is a somber excerpt from the aptly-titled chapter, "Lost," in Haines' memoire, "The Stars, The Snow, The Fire."

The excerpt, truthfully more about death and its many forms found in Alaska, also does well at describing the loss associated with death, and the mystery that envelopes it.

"A drowsy half-wakeful menace waits for us in the quietness of this world. I have felt it near me while kneeling in the snow, minding a trap on a ridge many miles from home. There, in the cold that gripped my face, in the low, blue light failing around me, and the short day ending, in those familiar and friendly shadows, I was suddenly aware of something that did not care if I lived. Or, as it may be, running the river ice in mid-winter: under the sled runners a sudden cracking and buckling that scared the dogs and sent my heart racing. How swiftly the solid bottom of one's life can go.

Disappearances, apparitions; few clues, or none at all. Mostly it isn't murder, a punishable crime - the people just vanish. They go away, in sorrow, in pain, in mute astonishment, as of something decided forever. But sometimes you can't be sure, and a thing will happen that remains so unresolved, so strange, that someone will think of it years later, and he will sit there in the dusk and silence, staring out the window at another world."

1 comment:

Andrew J. Bernstein said...

So many poets toil in relative obscurity that it's not unusual for even a poet laureate to be unknown. Although I don't read much poetry (and had never heard of Haines), I once worked with a notable (in poetry circles) poet -- the kind of guy better known for being a store manger than a poet with several published books. I'd be really sad if he died without note, so I really appreciate your tribute here.