John Haines, 1924-2011: A Guest Post by Ross Coen

Ross Coen, a writer/historian in Fairbanks, first published this tribute in The Ester Republic.  We’ll also be airing a documentary in tribute to John Haines as part of our Synergies/Still North “Land Beyond Landscape” event this Saturday, April 16, at 7 p.m. at the MTS Gallery, 3142 Mountain View Dr. 

Sixteen years ago John Haines wrote a short essay entitled “Descent.” Inspired by a line from William Carlos Williams—“It is imperative that we sink”—John took the instruction to mean that true discovery, of both place and self, requires that we remain still and penetrate the earth with roots that can only be set with time and patience. He wrote:

When I returned to Alaska in 1954, to my home region of Richardson, still isolated nearly seventy miles by road from Fairbanks, I made the decision—though I could not have articulated it then as I do now—to let go, to sink into that country, accept it on its own terms, and make of it what I could. . . . I found my place in which to settle, in the true sense, and everything has grown from that.

John spent the better part of two decades at the homestead and returned as often as possible in the years after he sold the land. He often said his poetry grew directly from this particular piece of earth and the years he spent learning its natural rhythms. His was a sparse and direct writing style born of the silent, isolated country. John would have been a different writer altogether, he admitted, had he decided to settle someplace else—the California coast or the Scottish Highlands, for example, both places to which he felt a particular affinity. But he settled in Alaska and, with his commitment to the land, established himself as the best writer to ever come from this place.

John was 71 years old when he wrote the above words and still getting around pretty well. Last year, when he was 86 and looked it, the essay was finally published (in a book of the same title) and I asked him if “Descent” might have acquired another meaning in the interim—that of the inexorable pull of the earth toward which every living thing, having once risen, is bound to fall. He remained silent for a few moments. It was not an uncomfortable question; he’d written often about death in his poetry and prose, and spoke openly of his own mortality. He’d once mentioned perhaps finding a lift down to the homestead where he could take the hemlock and be done with it all. Maybe he was testing my reaction; the look on my face probably told him I was not the one to ask when the time came. But now, with my question about death still hanging between us, he nodded and said, “Yes, I suppose that’s true.” He pointed to the ground. “That’s where we’re all going, after all.”

John died on March 2. He’d been fading for some time, and the week before some friends finally managed to convince the stubborn old goat he needed to go to the hospital. “Well, ok,” he grumbled. “But only for a day. I have lots of correspondence to write.” A few days later in the ICU, in what was perhaps his final lucid moment, he grasped a book of poetry in his hands: The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. He was pretty much both blind and deaf by that point, but he held the book fast. Someone in the room joked he didn’t really need it since he likely had every line memorized (that was true).

John wasn’t afraid of death, I believe that. But I also think it’s easy to be unafraid when death still seems a long ways off. Now, in full knowledge of his descent that, it must be said he had no interest in arresting, John clutched the book and ran his fingers over the cover. I like to think he took some comfort in the feel of the paper in his hands.

2 thoughts on “John Haines, 1924-2011: A Guest Post by Ross Coen”

  1. Thank you for sharing John Haines with us. I've been trying to find the words for his significance and I think you captured it: "the best writer to ever come from this place."

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