John Haines, a Poet of the Wild, Dies at 86
John Haines, whose experience hunting, trapping and surviving as a homesteader in the Alaskan wilderness fueled his outpouring of haunting poetry of endless cold nights, howling wolves and deep, primitive dreams, died on Wednesday in Fairbanks. He was 86.
His friend John Kooistra said his health declined after he had a bad fall in December.
Mr. Haines, who won a lifetime achievement award from the Library of Congress, found inspiration in the peaks of the Alaskan range that he could see from the cabin he built himself, in the butterfly he held in his hands, in the moose he shot and butchered. He told of stones waiting for God to remember their names.
Dana Gioia, the poet who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote in 1990 that Mr. Haines was for readers who know that "poetry can sometimes resemble a prayer." If some critics dismissed him as a nature writer, others perceived a visionary.
In "The Wilderness of Vision," a 1996 collection of scholarly essays about Mr. Haines's work, the poet Edouard Roditi described him as "not so much a 'nature poet' as a poet of sheer wonder."
In 1973, in his poem "A Winter Light," Mr. Haines wrote:
By candle or firelight
your face still holds
a mystery that once
filled caves with the color
of unforgettable beasts.
Mr. Haines may have been drawn to the far North in the manner of Robert Service or Jack London, but unlike them he came to stay and carve out a long life. He cleared forest, built cabins, planted gardens, chopped wood, cut trails, traveled by snowshoe and dogsled, trapped lynx and marten, weaved nets for salmon fishing, and had encounters with grizzlies.
He was often alone and sometimes with one of five wives or a girlfriend, most of whom quickly tired of the wilderness — or his famously cantankerous personality.
Mr. Haines used his north-country images to take readers on a profoundly introspective spiritual journey, what Edward Hirsch in The New York Times called "a primitive pantheism that prays outward to the snowy owl and the gods of winter."
Mr. Kooistra, a former college philosophy professor and commercial fisherman, contended that London and Service "were essentially tourists" compared with Mr. Haines. "This is poetry of a different level," he said.
Mr. Haines wrote a dozen books of poetry, essays and autobiography; was a writer in residence at a half-dozen colleges; and earned two Guggenheim Fellowships and a $10,000 Lenore Marshall/The Nation Award, among other prizes. In Alaska, he was a source of pride as one of the first truly acclaimed writers the 49th state produced.
Writing about the book of essays on his work, The Anchorage Daily News said, "Its very publication, the first such anthology of analytical critiques on the work of any Alaska artist, proves he has achieved a serious reputation abroad — even if he does live here."
John Meade Haines was born in 1924 in Norfolk, Va. His father was a Navy officer, and the family moved frequently. John enlisted in the Navy before finishing high school in San Diego but was still given a diploma, as was the practice during World War II. He served in the Pacific. After his discharge, he studied painting in Washington and New York.
In 1947, he and a friend drove to Alaska, where he bought a 160-acre homestead, 80 miles southeast of Fairbanks, intending to pursue an art career there. With advice from old miners, he salvaged wood from an unused bridge over Gasoline Creek to build a 12-by-16-foot cabin. When, by his account, his paint froze, he gave up his dream of painting and began to write.
He soon had poems in literary journals. In 1966 he published "Winter News," still considered by many critics to be his best book. David Kalstone, writing in The Times in 1972, praised its "freshness of view."
Indicative of Mr. Haines's growing fame, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko made it a point to stop by his cabin during a visit to Alaska. The two shared a bottle of vodka.
Mr. Haines sold the homestead in 1969 and moved to San Diego. He lived in several other cities in the lower 48 states before returning to Alaska. At first he rented his old cabin, then moved to Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Mr. Haines is survived by his fifth wife, Joy Destafano, from whom he is separated. He is also survived by a stepdaughter, Annie Skilling, and a brother, Robert.
Mr. Haines's memoir, "The Stars, the Snow, the Fire" (1989), told of the first fox he killed by hand, and of making dog food from a porcupine he had shot and cooked. A reviewer noted that he revealed more about his sled dogs than he did about his wives.