Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Kevin Bezner (The Wilderness of Vision) asserts that “Haines has continued to write a variation of the same poem, making it finer and finer.” Though this is perhaps an oversimplification, it echoes the belief of many that Haines’s poetry reflects a deeply personal attempt to define and refine a fresh archetype of humankind’s place in the world. Many nature writers bemoan the effect of civilization upon the natural world, and their writing consistently and pessimistically argues that the earth would be better off without its human “parasite.” Haines, having lived in the wilds, writes from a different perspective. His critical writings refer repeatedly to the need for authenticity and sincerity, and indeed he seems tenacious in his honesty. He refers to art as “a version of the truth.” As a poet, Haines served an internship in the pre-language world of the wilds, and his voice is the voice of experience—of a man who has run trap lines throughout a brutal Alaskan winter. His work exhibits a solid sense of time passing, the slow wheeling of the seasons, and the inevitability of both winter and spring, of death and life.

Noteworthy too are the repeated references to stone, root, and leaf in much of Haines’s work, including this poem. To a poet coming of age in an unforgiving wilderness, the images evoked by these three parts of the natural world are plain yet unending in their possibilities. Stone is hard, cold, unyielding, but it can be broken by a living root. Roots are necessary before leaves can exist. Leaves enable a plant to thrive, yet when leaves die and blow away, the root still lives, guarding its life-blood unseen below the cold frozen earth. Haines continually plumbs this endless cycle in graceful and revealing ways.

Close inspection of the ending of “The Stone Harp” reveals a double meaning that nicely illuminates the mind of the writer. The wind is both poet and wind. As wind, it ignores the efforts of civilization, continuing to blow the leaves across the landscape as it has always done. As poet, it almost abdicates the work of the writer, for the poet’s words make only a sound as faint as a rustle. Such implicit simplicity and self-deprecation stand at the heart of Haines’s poetry and to a large extent constitute its power.