The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Stone Harp” is a free-verse poem of twenty-five lines divided into six stanzas. The title, evocative of a mysterious sound, illustrates John Haines’s tendency toward surrealism, a quality noted in many of his poems from the 1971 collection The Stone Harp. Haines homesteaded in Alaska (1947, 1954-1969) and established himself as a nature writer. He published this volume, an assortment of mystical and loosely political poems, to mixed reviews. Although he was caught up in the political atmosphere of the late 1960’s, he has noted that he was probably too far removed from the events to communicate effectively about them. Perhaps this situation accounts for the somewhat ethereal quality of his work at the time.

“The Stone Harp,” Haines says, “was inspiredby the sound made by a sudden drop in winter temperatures at my old homestead outside Fairbanks: a very loud humming in the telephone wires, pronounced enough to vibrate in the pole itself.” To him, this suggested the earth as a harp with telephone wires as strings. The first stanza describes it thus:

A road deepening in the north,strung with steel,resonant in the winter evening,as though the earth were a harpsoon to be struck.

From this simple image, Haines weaves a metaphor that...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The best nature writers, of which this poet is arguably one, possess a sense of “negative capability.” The phrase, originating with John Keats, does not imply fatalism (although most nature writers, including Haines, find their work inevitably linked with death), but rather an emptiness, a waiting-to-be-filled quality. One sees this quality developing in Haines’s memoir of his Alaskan homesteading years, The Stars, The Snow, The Fire (1989). The book is filled with the observations of a careful man surviving alone in the last great American wilderness, and there is much of the watcher, the thinker, and the patient hunter portrayed there. Wendell Berry writes that Haines’s poems seem “to have been made with a patience like that with which rivers freeze or lichens cover stones” (The Wilderness of Vision: On the Poetry of John Haines, ed. Kevin Bezner and Kevin Walzer, 1996). Indeed, “The Stone Harp,” a relatively short poem, took more than two years to assume its final shape.

The beginning stanza uses the metaphor of the earth as a harp about to be struck. Haines then engages the reader’s senses with simile. After setting a scene of waiting silence, he introduces sound, emphasizing it with a two-line second stanza that reads, “As if a spade/ rang in a rock chamber:” The colon establishes a bridge to the next stanza, and the resulting momentum carries the reader more easily through the most obscure imagery of the poem....

(The entire section is 414 words.)