John Haines, An Old Friend Remembered: A Guest Post by David Budbill

My friend, John Haines, died on March 2nd.

I remember clearly reading his first book, Winter News, in 1966, the year it was published. I was a graduate student in New York City. The haunting and simple quality of the poems in that book appealed to me greatly. I was a city kid living in the city, yet with a deep yearning to go to the wilderness, to go north, “into my own,” as Robert Frost said.

I’m from a working class family and I’ve always been embarrassed by the airs the literati put on, the way people use literature, poetry, as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of humanity. The direct and simple speech in John’s poems appealed to me. There wasn’t anything fancy about John or his poems. They were about the most basic, primal events in life: killing and eating, building a place to live, animals and birds, cooking, the weather, a new pair of slippers for a loved one. And there was never anything fancy about John either. For many years after he left the homestead in Alaska, he continued to wear Dickey work shirts and Dickey work pants, his uniform.

John’s poems pared down human life to its raw essentials. Nothing could be more important now in this age totally removed from the natural cycles of life than attending to the content of John’s poems.

I wrote and published a review of Winter News in 1967 or 8. I must have sent John a copy of the review–I can’t remember now exactly–because we began a correspondence, he at Mile 68, Richardson Highway, Fairbanks, Alaska, and I at 122nd Street and Broadway in New York City. I suppose our correspondence began the way most begin between a writer and a would-be writer, but the subjects of our letters soon turned to what both of us were really interested in: living in the wilderness and the north. John and I continued to correspond about life in the woods. Such a life had been my dream since I was a child on the streets of Cleveland.

I moved to the remote mountains of northern Vermont in the summer of 1969, intending to buy and clear land, build a house and settle into a new life, inspired in no small part by John’s experience. I became what was called back then a “back-to-the-lander.” Now John’s letters to me really were a practical guide to the details of my new life. I remember one letter in particular, in which he explained to me in detail how to make jerky.

We talked some about writing and the life of a writer, but only some. I remember one particular quote–I’m doing all this from memory–in which John said, “Live your life and don’t be literary about it.” No better piece of advice has ever been offered and none also so completely and by so many ignored. In that simple sentence lay the essence of why John wrote what he did.

John came to Vermont for his first visit in April 1971. I know this specifically because it was on that visit that he signed our falling-apart copy of Winter News: Dear David and Lois, I owe you a great deal for this weekend, moving as it was, my Winter News renewed, my Snowy Night restored–but, where are the owls? –Love, John, 4/12/71

By 1971 John was not living in Alaska anymore and northern Vermont, as he mentioned often while he was here, reminded him a lot of interior Alaska. Also, although it was the middle of April here in northern Vermont, we had lots of snow still on the ground.

John won the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship for 1976-1977. I can’t remember where John was living and teaching then, but he drove his VW bus, the camper type, to here and we drove it out back into the woods to a place I had cleared for it, put it up on cement blocks and John headed for England and Scotland for the year. The VW bus had two bumper stickers. One said ONOMANOPIEA and the other said POETS ARE CUNNING LINGUISTS.

It might have been on this visit that one evening while we were fixing supper, John remarked that ours was the first house in the lower forty-eight he’d been in where the knives were sharp. We talked about the need for a good sharp knife and John told a story of how once when he was skinning an animal the knife slipped and he almost cut off his own nose.

When John returned from his yearlong British Isles sojourn, he had with him a bottle of scotch from a distillery in the Orkney Islands. It was the best scotch I’d ever drunk. We visited a few days at the end of that trip, and then John was off to somewhere and out of my life.

But our letters to each other continued. I have letters from John from Mile 68, Fairbanks, Pacific Grove, CA, Washington, D.C., Athens, Ohio, Montana, England and Scotland, Lenox, MA, and elsewhere. This poet who wanted to spend his life in one place observing that place’s minutia–as he did once while he watched wasps peel transparently thin pieces of wood off the side of a building–spent his life instead as a wandering poet doing exactly what he didn’t want to do.

There is something wrong with the academic system in this country when the finest poet Alaska has ever produced could not get a permanent position at a university in Alaska. Another example of this comes to mind. My friend Hayden Carruth who was for nearly 20 years a Vermonter, had to leave Vermont to find a teaching job. He wanted to stay in Vermont, wanted to stay in the worst way, but he ended up going to Syracuse University instead, where he was more than welcomed.

Mentioning Haines and Carruth in the same paragraph reminds me of another story. I can’t remember when it was exactly, maybe after the publication of The Stone Harp, (1971) John’s second book. But Hayden was at that time writing reviews for The Hudson Review. Hayden spent most of his life in Vermont as a free-lance writer, ghostwriter, book reviewer, encyclopedia article writer. Hayden had published an article in The Hudson Review about prosody and had said that John’s poems read just as well laid out as prose. John was irritated and I was in the middle. I was good friends with both men. I knew the two guys would like each other if they ever could meet in some kind of human and humane circumstance–over food for example–and away from literary sniping. Not long after Hayden’s review came out John was here. I invited Hayden and Rose Marie–they lived just 20 miles west of here–over for dinner. The whole evening went easily and well. Then a couple of days later John and I drove over to Hayden and Rose Marie’s in Johnson for homemade ice cream. Hayden and John became dear friends, and Hayden championed John’s poetry for the rest of Hayden’s life.

Sometime during the 1980s, I think it was, there was a little literary magazine out in Kentucky or Tennessee that did a special issue on John and I contributed a selection of passages from John’s letters to me over nearly 20 years.

John wrote the introduction for From Down to the Village, my second book in a series that began with The Chain Saw Dance and ended with the Judevine: The Collected Poems. John’s introduction is dated September 1980, Fairbanks, Alaska. A year or so after the book came out, John wrote to me of his regret that the introduction wasn’t more enthusiastic. I thought the introduction was terrific. I think John’s regret is a window into his life where John is always sorry for being so dark and gloomy. Known to most as a dour curmudgeon–all things he was and most certainly was not–I think John felt he was a victim of his own darkness.

As the years wore on our correspondence tapered off. We stayed in infrequent touch. John wandered from teaching position to fellowship to residency, always wishing he could find gainful employment in Alaska but never finding it until very late in his life.

His last visit to Vermont was four years ago. It was in early winter, as I remember. He’d come to visit here and to give a reading at The Center for Northern Studies, near here. John had some kind of residency in Lenox, Massachusetts, at the time, and the car he drove up here, into the snowy north, didn’t have snow tires. He went off the road and into a ditch about a mile from our house. John was over 80 at this time and quite lame. Our local school bus passed John limping along the dirt road. The driver stopped and gave John a lift up to our house. This little act of kindness by a total stranger–and something very much illegal–touched all of us and saved John from possibly serious trouble.

He did his reading and lecture at The Center for Northern Studies and was off again out of my life, but this time it was forever.

My last letter from John is dated 18 May 2009 and it came with a copy of his double CD, WINTER LIGHT, and said in part:

I haven’t been in touch since my visit there in Vermont a couple of years ago. It was good to see you and spend some time together. I can’t imagine getting myself back there again, alas.

. . .

I’m still here in Fairbanks, have continued to teach a semester seminar in writing at the university, but time is getting on, and I will have to quit on it soon. I’ll be 85 in June! No celebrations for me, none.

. . .

I hope things are well there in Wolcott, on your Hill Rd.

Winter Light is a wonderful collection of 77 poems and four essays in John’s own deep, resonant, articulate voice. As the jacket of Winter Light says, Friends of John’s created this CD because, quite simply, John Haines’ voice is every bit as compelling as his poetry; his words in his own voice are a magical combination.

I hope many people will listen to Winter Light.

The letter that came with the CD was on my desk, unanswered, when I heard of John’s death.

DAVID BUDBILL is a poet and a playwright. His most recent book of poems, Happy Life, will be published by Copper Canyon Press–his third with CCP, in September of 2011. David’s latest play is A Song for My Father. His website is at:

3 thoughts on “John Haines, An Old Friend Remembered: A Guest Post by David Budbill”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thank you, David. Your post is a portrait not only of John Haines, but of a time when poets and writers went to great lengths to interact, sometimes forming longlasting mentorships and friendships (and leaving behind those fantastic REAL snailmailed letters). I hope that with the ease of quick but more forgettable communications via Facebook and email etc, those deeper connections are still fostered.

  2. Lynn Lovegreen

    Thanks for sharing the friendship and your insight with us, David. There will never be another John Haines.

  3. Wonderful memories, David. I remember picking John up at the Ithaca bus station and bringing him to our house…he was to give a reading at Cornell. John sat at my kitchen table, shy and tongue tied. Which caused me, an insecure twenty-something would-be poet, to blather inanely. I actually said to that wonderful poet…"So…are there a lot of huskies in Alaska?"

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