John Meade Haines Essay - Critical Essays


The poems of John Meade Haines range from short verses of eight to nine lines to longer poems with multiple sections, the latter becoming more frequent in his later volumes. Most of the poems are stanzaic, often with a repeating variable pattern, such as repeating stanzas of five and two lines. In word choice and imagery, the poems also demonstrate the poet’s range; some are direct and simple, while others are surrealistic.

A recurrent subject is the relationship of humanity to nature: harmony or disharmony (including ecology); hunting (people hunting animals, animals hunting people, animals hunting each other), indigenous peoples (especially Native Americans and prehistoric humans), pioneering, the seasons, astronomy, and the contrast between rural and urban. A number of poems focus on social criticism: stewardship of the environment or overviews of human history, war, and injustice in economics and politics, in the United States or internationally. Because of Haines’s involvement in art and poetry, inevitably some poems deal with the visual arts (from prehistoric cave paintings to Native American art to Renaissance and modern artists) and literature. Other poems deal with the human concerns of romantic love, children (including child versus adult or the parent-child relationship), domestic life, and aging or death.

Recurrent images are those of nature: animals (several dozen kinds of mammals, alone, from bats to whales), plants (berries, trees—especially alder, aspen, birch, cypress, pine, and spruce), blood, caves, cold, dust, fire, mist (or fog or smoke), moon, stars, sun, roads or paths, shadows, snow, stone (or rock), sunrise or sunset, water, and wind. Associated with human ignorance or knowledge, good or bad behavior, are coins, dreams, mirrors, and rust. Haines’s artistic sense evokes repeated references to certain basic colors: red (blood, fire, sunrise, sunset), blue (beauty, cold, the sky), yellow (sunlight, animals’ eyes, tree leaves), green (springtime energy, growth, inexperience), and white (cold, the snowbound landscape).

Humanity in relation to nature

“I Am a Tree, Very Quiet Are My Leaves” (from At the End of This Summer) is one of several poems in Haines’s corpus that use a nonhuman speaker or persona. The tree reveals parallels to human beings in quietness on a still day, a kind of talkativeness of the leaves on a windy day, and in the aging process; however, unlike human beings, it is unafraid of the world’s end, aware only of the cycle of the seasons, and it will not die—“shall never stop growing.” In “Snowy Night” (Winter News), nature’s essential otherness is explored, its force in coldness being “like a place/ we used to know, but stranger” creating a “frozen/ sea” in which “the moon is anchored/ like a ghost in heavy chains.” In “The Stone Harp” (title poem of The Stone Harp), winter’s cold causes the sun to sink like a ship, while in the desolation only the wind is a poet “making a sound/ like a stone harp/ strummed/ by a handful of leaves.” In “The Lake in the Sky” (Cicada), the speaker describes people in harmony with their landscape, along with beavers, swallows, and people, literally in harmony, “singing out of sunken campgrounds”; all these echo the speaker’s relationship with his sweetheart, whose engagement or wedding ring catches the fire, light, and gradual darkening of the sunset. In “The Blood Lake” (News from the Glacier), the speaker’s descriptions of a pool of blood from a deer felled by a hunter and a newly painted red barn suggest the struggle of humanity to establish itself in the wilderness. The fifteen sections of “In the Forest Without Leaves” (New Poems) repeatedly counterpose the processes and elements of nature with human technology and incursion. “Star Photo,” “NEAR Travels Far to Find Eros,” and “NEAR Dreams Quietly of Mars” (all from For the Century’s End), like “Little Cosmic Dust Poem” (New...

(The entire section is 1656 words.)