Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Flying from off the road and off the grid to the state’s largest city, I developed a love-hate affair with groceries. In the village, I fantasized about strolling the aisles of an Anchorage Carrs store (Fred Meyer hadn’t entered the scene yet), plucking flat tins of smoked oysters and fancy boxed crackers for transport back to the mostly empty shelves in the two-room house where I lived by the meandering Johnson River.
But as I clomped through the city in snow pants and Sorels, the stores overwhelmed me. So many cereals, so many boxes. Bright, colorful, beckoning. Captain Crunch. Frosted Flakes. Six different kinds of granola. I’d wander aisle after aisle, unable to make up my mind, having forgotten whatever it was I had come for.
The recent AWP Conference in Washington DC felt a lot like those grocery store aisles. It wasn’t the sheer volume of people – I’ve attended larger events. It was the large-scale consumerism. The bookfair, with what seemed like miles of literary journals, all hungry for readers. Dozens of MFA programs craving enrollments. So many hopeful writers seeking wisdom and courage and jobs.
So there I wandered, dutifully attending session after session, feeling all snow pants and Sorels, displaced in a way I couldn’t explain. And then came noon, the second day of the conference. A Tribute to John Haines. It was only fitting, I thought, that someone from 49 Writers should be there to honor the state’s best-known author.
The honor was mine. With the help of Haines, present not in body but spirit, I was restored.
Steven Rogers, editor of A Gradual Twilight: An Appreciation of John Haines, opened the tribute by calling Haines “one of the mythic wonders of the twentieth century.” He lauded the poet and essayist for his economy of language and his precise imagery that found their “genesis in labor done to stay alive.”
“He started writing poems as naturally as one learns to speak,” Rogers said of the author of nine books of poetry, including Winter News and The Owl is the Mask of the Dreamer, plus six nonfiction books, including the memoir The Stars, the Snow, and the Fire,“There still lurks in our collective dreaming a desire to do what John Haines did after the war,” Rogers said – to come north, to live off the land, to write from a place of fullness and meaning, alone and apart.
Poet Dana Gioia, whose Interrogations at Noon won the American Book Award and who, while chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, launched Poetry Out Loud and the Big Read, made five significant observations about Haines, calling him “a unique figure in our national literature…archetypal but almost singular in letters.” Like John the Baptist and St. Francis, Haines cut himself off from society by moving to “the outmost extreme of American territory” where he “reinvented his life alone in the wilderness,” giving him “a different sort of insight.”
Thus, noted Gioia, Haines is “primarily a spiritual writer rather than a literary writer, trying to get to the very essence of a thing itself.” In the process, “he made himself marginal,” coming into a place of surrender, submission, and humility before nature. Nonetheless, Gioia claims Haines as “one of the most important literary essayists of our times,” with a gift for stripping away the non-essential.
Finally, said Gioia, Haines “reminds us of the decision some great artists make: to put aside a kind of ambition to gain a kind of freedom.” As he spoke of how Haines found at the margins a spiritual clarity, my discontent slid off like scales, knowing where I’d come from and where I’d return.
Poet Sheryl St. Germain, author of the memoir Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman, spoke of how she’d picked up a volume of Haines after her dream of Alaska was shattered by a broken relationship. She praised his clipped, economical prose, his “vision crystalline as a winter day,” agreeing with the Washington Post that Haines “crafts each sentence piece by piece as if building a harpsichord” and with Barry Lopez, who said Haines writes “like someone who has seen the face of God.” Through Haines, she fell in love with the lyrical essay, awed by how he could create “a world utterly present and utterly symbolic.”
Baron Wormers, former Poet Laureate of Maine who himself lived off the grid, noted how for Haines, writing is “tied in with a quest to find out who one is when the necessities of life are not provided by others,” a quest “to meet oneself in solitude.” He spoke of how Haines honors the mystery of silence, of connectedness, and of gratitude, bringing him to a sense of proportion, of not using more than one needs. Rather than struggling to choose one among many, it’s about appreciating what already sits on your shelf.
“John is now living in a hungry winter season,” Rogers said in concluding the tribute. “He was afraid when his time ran out, he would be forgotten.”
Don’t worry, John. We haven’t forgotten.