The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

“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.

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“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 works on several levels, but its essence reflects nature’s basic indifference to the struggles of humankind. Stanzas 2 and 3 use a dreamlike sequence to intensify the original image and further evoke the cryptic sound.

In the fourth stanza, the poem shifts to a more specific subject, although indirectly enough to have received varying interpretations from different scholars. “Now there is all this blood/ flowing into the west” seemed to some to refer to the construction of the Alaskan oil pipeline. (In this interpretation, the stanza’s final line, “that ship is sinking,” could be read as an eerie prediction of the Exxon Valdez disaster.) However, Haines himself has asserted that the stanza’s flowing blood and sinking ship refer to the Vietnam War.

The final two stanzas shift from universal to more personal reflection. Haines likens himself to the wind, “a drifter/ who walked in from the coast/ with empty pockets.” Use of the words “empty pockets” imparts both hope and hopelessness. The five lines of the last verse circle back to the title image of the harp. Left standing on a road at twilight, the poet creates a sound similar to the wind strumming “a stone harp” with “a handful of leaves.”

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

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. Stanza 3 ends with another reference to sound, as a figure “tries to sing.” The allusion to singing subtly underscores the poem’s readable, almost songlike quality, produced through an unobtrusive use of alliteration and consonance.

The fourth stanza portrays the anguish of the Vietnam War: “It was not in my nature to speak directly of such things, but to find a way to suggest thema ship going down, and blood draining across the sea” (Haines, in Living Off the Country). The third line, “ragged holes in the waterline of the sun,” describes Haines’s observation of dark clouds appearing like holes in the sky and provides an exceptionally threatening image.

Much effective free verse ends with a striking metaphor that provides a flash of deeper knowledge, and this poem is no exception. Haines reinforces the figurative image in stanzas 5 and 6 with simile in the last verse. The final few lines describe a poet’s words as no more than the scratching of wind-blown leaves against stone, easily ignored by the natural world and humankind alike.

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Themes