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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

February 25, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

FABLES AND DISTANCES: New and Selected Essays by John Haines (Graywolf: $24.95; 268 pp.). Haines has definite ideas about things, among them poetry. This is evident not only in the clearly stated opinions of these essays, letters and book reviews but also in the way he talks about himself, for example: "I decided to abandon art and devote my life to poetry." He praises those poems and people who have "the will, or the ambition, to think through the predicament of society at this time," and the imagination "to seek the appropriate form for that thought," not to mention "having the will and the courage to speak out, clearly and forcefully, even at the risk of exposing oneself to official and professional retaliation." So, by his own standards, John Haines is on the right road, because he does all three of these things, with not a lot of fanfare and with some grace. This is not a book on how to win friends and influence people in the literary world. In a much-talked-about review of John Ashbery's "Hotel Lautreamont," Haines writes: "If you can believe that the late and increasingly realized purpose of this society is to popularize and trivialize the better part of the artistic and intellectual inheritance of Western civilization, then . . . John Ashbery becomes the foremost poet of the day." This is one of Haines voices, remember, only one. He is, for all the sharp edges, a man who mourns the disappearance of the love poem. Another of his voices contains and expresses his admiration for John Muir. And another: "Who now would write a poem to daffodils, to a rose, to a nightingale or a lark? Who now feels the unclouded affection for the world that allowed a poet in the past to write such poems?" He mourns the decline of the poet's main resource: connection to the natural world, a visceral connection to and respect for that world.

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