John Haines – Thoughts Provoked by his Poetry, Assignment #4, ENGL 350 2 comments

This post is meant to explore visual images in John Haines’ poetry and to show you media which embodies the tone and feel of Haines’ poetry.   It   includes a poem by Tim McNulty which is set in juxtaposition to one of John Haines’ works.   This post also presents two Alaskan movies from 1935-36 and 1950 which emulate the wildness and vastness of Alaska, along with the uncluttered nature of Alaskan life, which Haines brought to life in his work.

I look back through the collection of Alaskan literature titled The Last New Land – Stories of Alaska Past and Present, edited by Wayne Mergler, and note with surprise that the foreword is by John Haines.   I go back to read it again.   On page XV of the foreword, Haines writes about the fleeting solitary character that is relentlessly draining from Alaska:   “There have been moments when I wished we could leave some things and places alone.   Once the grand features of Alaska, the high and noble peaks and remote hinterlands, were places of contemplation and veneration, the abode of the gods and the earth spirits, and beyond trespass.   Our modern response is all too often the recreational equivalent of that will to dominate, to possess and exploit, every known resource and feature of the earth.   And when those open, mysterious places can no longer be found, we may face a real and profound crisis;   how we deal with this may be part of the true drama of the next century.”

How well Haines nails down the aspect of the human personality that drives us to explore uncharted territory, paradoxically destroying what brought us there in the first place.

To continue this train of thought, modern technology (the snow machine, for instance) has made the remote areas of the North so accessible that people venture there in ever-increasing numbers.   Because of this, the feeling of isolation and of being a tiny piece of a huge land is gradually disappearing.   Do these people, who spend such a short time in the wilderness, ever get the true connection to nature you get when you spend months in, or live in, near-solitude in the Alaskan wilderness?   I doubt they get it in depth.   This special feeling generated by surviving in the wilderness dominates much of Haines’ work.   Another writer who writes of the magnificence of the Alaskan landscape and the feelings it extrapolates is Tim McNulty.   In his poem “Tundra Song”, which is part of his collection BLUE MOUNTAIN DUSK (1992), he personifies rocks as people, emphasizing the lack of humanity in the land.   Here is “Tundra Song”:

The cairn people

range wide

over this low ebbing land

 from hummock top to distant


tracing the wind’s shiftless way,



 are the sole inhabitants

among drifters & birds;

they plant their stone feet

deep in it


 —coarse, dry fleck of lichen,

tundra rose

adrift in matted heather —

briefly, between the snows,

they make one feel

at home, almost,


 in the wide & quiet emptiness

of the days.

The sentiment in this writing by Tim McNulty parallels that of the poem “Tundra”, included originally in the poetry collection WINTER NEWS (1966) by John Haines.   In both poems, you feel as though humanity is an intrusion on a living being which is Alaskan wilderness.   Here is “Tundra”:

The tundra is a living

body, warm in the grassy

autumn sun; it gives off

the odor of crushed

blueberries and gunsmoke.


In the tangled lakes

of its eyes a mirror of ice

is forming, where

frozen gut-piles shine

with a dull, rosy light.


Coarse, laughing men

with their women;

one by one the tiny campfires

flaring under the wind.


Full of blood, with a sound

like clicking hoofs,

the heavy tundra slowly

rolls over and sinks

in the darkness.

The visual image of the “tangled lakes” being the “eyes” of something endless, the description of the tundra as a living body, “…warm in the grassy / autumn sun…” and the present tense in which the poem is written, combine to make the reader feel what the wilderness “feels.”   I’m inserting a link to a movie of caribou crossing the Yukon River for you to watch while you are still thinking about the clicking hooves in the tundra…

[yframe url=’Caribou crossing the Yukon River, 1935-1936.‘]


The reference link for this movie follows:

Below is another poem written by John Haines named “The Way We Live” from his collection THE STONE HARP (1971).   In this poem, he aptly describes the state of the mainstream civilized North American population, then compares it to Alaskan natives, for whom life is much more connected to nature:

Having been whipped through Paradise

and seen humanity

strolling like an overfed beast

set loose from its cage,

a man may long for nothing so much

as a house of snow,

a blue stone for a lamp,

and a skin to cover his head.

Below I’m inserting a link to a movie of natives in Anaktuvuk Pass gathering wood, trapping ptarmigan, and performing other tasks necessary for survival.   (The movie is three minutes long, so please be patient while it loads.)   Their house is not of snow, but is very comparable to a house that would be made of snow.   Their existence is very similar to that of their ancestors, who did indeed live with a blue stone for a lamp and skin to cover their heads.   There is scenery here which captures the vastness and the bleakness which Haines loves about Alaska.   These people are certainly not “overfed” and are not overwhelmed with the “humanity” as described in Haines’ poem.   They are the antithesis to this horror.   I believe that the very simplicity of this poem is used as a device to emphasize the point that Haines is making – that simplicity in life is precious.   When I read Haines’ description of being “whipped through Paradise” I get the visual image of being in a money-based economy in a large city such as Hollywood, where outward appearance and glitz are important.   Hollywood may look like a twisted sort of commercialized Paradise on the surface, but its character and value are buried beneath layers of uselessness.   When Haines speaks of the “…overfed beast / set loose from its cage,” it brings up a visual image of people who have much more than they need to survive and don’t even know it; who spend their time in wasteful lethargy, never creating anything, and never experiencing that thrill of life that comes from performing tasks that are necessary for their survival, such as cutting wood for heat or trapping animals for food.


The reference link for this movie follows:

To conclude, Haines’ experience of truly living off the land in Alaska translates into powerful passion in poetry.   He brings to the reader a sense of wonder of the wilderness and provokes feelings of being a part of the land.





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2 thoughts on “John Haines – Thoughts Provoked by his Poetry, Assignment #4, ENGL 350

    • Bullwinkle

      Yes, I get his writing! It’s beautiful! I know exactly how he feels. I’m really enjoying this class… it’s introducing me to new writers. Last night I went to a class at our local library titled “Writing About Place” by Christine Byl, a local writer who did her Master’s at UAF, I believe…maybe at UAA. It’s Alaska Book Week, you know.
      The other class I’m taking is Magazine Article Writing. There may be more writing in my future… anyway I’m appreciating the exposure to these Alaskan artists. Thanks so much.