Life in an Ashtray

by John Meade Haines

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Themes and Meanings

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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 rather two personal meanings appear: one for the poet and one for the reader. The fifth and sixth stanzas illustrate this nicely:

Prodded by hired matches,we’d like to complain,but all our efforts to speakdissolve in smokeand gales of coughing.

These words create an almost literal picture of a Vietnam War-era demonstration. Uniformed personnel (“hired matches”) confront marchers and reward their attempts to be heard with tear gas. More personally, the reader identifies with the poet’s effort to chronicle those moments in life when thoughts and ideas go unrecognized, becoming as useless and ephemeral as smoke.

“Life in an Ashtray” again meshes three different meanings at the end. The reader easily sees the motions of a chain-smoker who grinds out a finished cigarette and lights another. Also clearly recognizable are both the worn-out oldster whose weight of years has crushed the need to fight and the fiery young protester who believes fiercely in cherished ideals. On a personal note, the meaning deepens to reflect the feelings of one approaching later years who looks back on vigorous youth with a sense of loss. Readers see a consistent return to various themes throughout Haines’s career, and chief among these is his use of cycles. In this poem, the perpetual rhythm of the cigarette smoked to its end only to be replaced by another echoes the wheel of life and death, thus revealing a universal pattern. “Life in an Ashtray” chooses to leave the reader on the upbeat of that cycle rather than its necessary conclusion. Such a sense of the absolute vitality of life remains a familiar theme in Haines’s work.

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