The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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....

(The entire section is 509 words.)