Paul Haines: Not Making What Is Laughingly Called Sense.


Jo Hayward Haines, the widow of my late very special friend the poet, critic, and teacher Paul Haines, who wrote the libretto for Carla Bley's "Elevator Over The Hill," has asked people for their recollections of this "complex, funny, contradictory man." Here are mine.

I first met Paul Haines - it was either the very late 40s or the very early 50s - in Coconut Grove in Miami, where he was living, obviously really happy about it, on Bird Road.

I was majoring in sailing at the U of Miami, and I had just married a woman named Norma, who had three sisters. The older two were already heavily into jazz and drugs. Them was the good old days. Norma’s youngest sister Rosemary, who played basketball, was constantly being nagged by the “hipper" members of the family about going out with all of those dumb football players. I’ll never forget the proud look on Rosemary’s face when she introduced Paul to us. Her first hipster. She later married Don Martin, the cartoonist. (Eventually, when Rosemary found out she had cancer, she said: “Well at least I won’t have to floss any more.")

When I remember Paul’s face back in those days, the word that comes to mind is clean. It was mostly just being young – we were all around 20, clean, open, stoned, whatever. But mostly, Paul seemed to be more dedicated to curiosity than the rest of us. Dedicated to not making what is laughingly called sense, if that makes any sense.

After Norma left me, I spent the winter of 57/58 in Paris, “finding myself." I drove my Citroen 2 CV, that classic sardine can of a car held together by rubber bands, down to Nice to hang out with Barney Wilen, and I drove back north through the French Alps so I could stop off and see Paul, who was studying at, if I remember right, the University of Grenoble. I played in some sort of a local jam session and somehow or other I still have a photo of that with Paul listening carefully – boy, he knew how to listen - at a table.

We drove on to Paris together, and it was then that we became close. It was then that I started to learn about how to blow words – I would not become a professional writer until ten years later – how to stretch and bend them. I had read my share of Dostoevsky, and James, and so on, but before that the only thing I really thought about was bebop. I started to take words a lot more seriously after that trip.

Paul’s highly developed senses of irony, ambiguity, and silliness harmonized with my own ditto in a way I’d never experienced with anybody else – except, let me hasten to add, with Norma. I was made what I am verbally, whatever the fuck that means, by Paul Haines, with some help from Bob Dylan, John Cage, and Lenny Bruce.

I pride myself on being marginal. A plague on all your houses. Paul taught me to choose my words more carefully. I guess you could say that he taught me how to communicate with the people who were in the same margin as me. Which is nothing to sneeze at, although, thanks to Paul, I later had to crumple a whole lot of drafts learning how to communicate with ordinary people - but that’s another story.

No it’s not. Paul did not often compromise verbally, something I’ve always admired him for. Self-censorship did not seem to occur to him. If you didn’t understand him it was your fault. He always seemed to be slightly askew. He had a sideways take on life, and I suspect that he must have paid a high price for it.

The last time I saw him was on the “Elevator Over The Hill" tour with Carla Bley. I forget the year, around the millennium sometime in some provincial place, at a festival in Brittany, or Normandy, maybe - Le Mans or Reims perhaps. There were a lot of people around; producers, locals, fans, French musicians, an entire big band doing sound-checks and interviews and stuff, and although Paul was very much a part of, even central to the event, I remember him as being somehow out of focus.

Although I considered him one of my closest friends, I had not seen him in decades. For someone who was so important to me, I spent precious little precious time with Paul. You should know that I am of the impression that I make a better impression when I am not around, so it is possible that it was I who was was out of focus, and that I was just seeing a reflection of my own alienation in somebody with whom I identified so strongly.

But Paul was even more alienated than me (that’s a compliment, I think). He was on a planet of his own. On his planet, people spoke in free verse, and they were of good heart and open ears.