Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Haines maintains that writing, for him, is “a necessary undertaking, a means by which I place myself in the world.” Although he feels his political poetry was not as convincing as his wilderness work, “Life in an Ashtray” is strong enough to discount that belief. It is a sharp, witty, and incisive look at America in the days of flower children, protests, and the Vietnam War. Written in 1970, this poem is found under “Interim: Uncollected Poems from the 1970’s” in his collection The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer. Originally a homesteader in Alaska, Haines left his solitary life in 1969 and returned to live in society. In addition, he both divorced and remarried in 1970. It is a dangerous game to try looking into the mind of the poet to deduce his thoughts based on the outward appearance of his life. However, it would probably be safe to say that Haines was experiencing some major life changes at the time he wrote this poem. He also turned forty-seven in 1970. Many people have their first encounter with a slowing body during their forties, which often brings on thoughts of mortality.

Allegorical poems such as this typically display interpretations on several levels. “Life in an Ashtray” portrays, first, the excellent physical description of what happens as a cigarette burns and the careful personification of how the cigarette views life. Then the larger societal connotation emerges. Finally, the personal meaning appears, or...

(The entire section is 513 words.)