Life in an Ashtray

by John Meade Haines

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

“Life in an Ashtray” is a free-verse poem of twenty-three lines divided into nine stanzas of no more than three lines each. The poem personifies cigarettes and follows them through their brief “lives.” Written in 1970, it might be seen as an allegorical commentary on American existence at that time. The poem’s tone, at first glance, seems bleak and fatalistic and probably reflects John Haines’s attempt to capture the emotional aura of the country in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Known as a nature writer, Haines nevertheless found himself affected by the political and social unrest of this era. He writes, “For a time in the late 1960’s I was preoccupied with events in the outside world—politics, social conflict, all that absorbed so many of us at the timebut on the whole I was too far from the events themselves for them to dominate my poems as convincingly as the wilderness world had up until that time.”

This tight, elegant metaphor belies that statement. The poem opens with cigarettes speaking in the first-person plural. In the initial stanza, the poetic creatures describe themselves: “our thin white paper skins,” “freckled collars,” and “little brown shreds for bones.” The second verse introduces action and the first hint of futility: “we begin with our feet in ashes,/ shaking our shoes/ in a crazy, crippling dance.” The third stanza is the only one that includes a direct reference to the ashtray in the title. These lines define the ashtray as the characters’ entire “world” with the cigarettes skating on its “metal rim.”

The initial three stanzas of three lines each are followed by two of two lines, a move that builds urgency into the poem. It echoes the hapless burning of cigarettes toward their inevitable end with an abrupt reference to “the only people born tall,/ who shrink as they grow.” Haines then returns to three verses of three lines each. In these, he elaborates on the different aspects of a cigarette’s life. When the cigarette tries to speak, it produces only smoke and coughing. As it ages, the “yellow glare” of its eyes turn red, and its feet stomp to “put out the fire.” The poem ends with a three-line stanza followed by one line set alone: “And always the old ones crumpling,/ crushed from above/ by enormous hands,/ the young ones beginning to burn.” Poetry should speak to everyone in the same way a piece of artwork does. It can cut through barriers of culture and race and nullify questions of science, which really are only comments on the world outside the human heart. The successful poem takes a familiar subject and employs it simply, almost deceptively, to reach something deep inside its reader, something responding out of recognition in a truly visceral way. Although “Life in an Ashtray” works on many different levels, the final line evokes such a gut response. It seems to blend all of the various images into a single archetype, that of an endless cycle that concludes only to immediately repeat itself.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

“Life in an Ashtray” is an extended metaphor (or even conceit) using personification and imagery. In The Wilderness of Vision: On the Poetry of John Haines (1996), William Studebaker explores mysticism in Haines’s work. His essay asserts that Haines takes metaphor beyond its accepted definition of implied comparison into the realm of allegory and parable: “His poems are passageways, intersecting symbols, allegories to extra-ordinary consciousness as it grows and fills every silence.Through metaphoric logic, he joins the preternatural and the temporal, announcing a fresh perception of reality.” It is far easier...

(This entire section contains 388 words.)

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in the health-conscious days that have followed the writing of this poem to link mysticism with nature (as seen in the bulk of this poet’s work) than it is to discern any kind of equation between mysticism and cigarettes. However, such was not always the case. In her books, Ayn Rand likens the tiny glow of the cigarette to the campfire around which aboriginal man gathered for comfort, company, and myth-making. When Haines wrote this poem in 1970, smoking was a pervasive, acceptable part of American life. He chose to use the cigarette in this sense, then, as a common denominator for the struggle of being human. Perhaps it is only the passage of time that makes the idea of utilizing cigarettes and an ashtray as a trope for life in modern American society seem unusually fanciful and places this particular metaphoric poem in the conceit category.

The use of the first person in “Life in an Ashtray” gives the poem its sense of immediacy. How different it would read if it began “In their thin white paper skins.” Haines chose to include the reader, thus making the fate of the poetic characters more personal and inescapable. The fact that it is a plural use of the first person widens the scope to all of society in a fatalistic, lemmings-to-destruction way. The careful reader will also notice that Haines selects verbs to reinforce the powerlessness he wishes to portray in this metaphor. The action words “shake,” “skate,” “shrink,” “prod,” “dissolve,” “stomp,” “crumple,” and “crush” all underscore the feeling of a society caught up in something that cannot be stopped by individuals. Alliteration is applied sparingly in “Life in an Ashtray.” The few examples—“shaking our shoes/ in a crazy, crippling dance”—subtly assist the narrative flow.