FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Friends said former Alaska Poet Laureate John Haines was known for being cantankerous, gruff and curmudgeonly. But his lasting legacy will be a collection of poetry and prose that captured his unique view of life and inspired generations of Alaska writers.

Haines, 86, died March 2. He was the author of more than 10 collections of poetry and essays. He was named Alaska poet laureate in 1969 and received numerous accolades for his work.

Those who were close cared deeply for him. Former student and friend Ross Coen said he could be unpleasant, but his intellect and love of Alaska was one of a kind.

"He was a fascinating guy to talk to," Coen said. "He challenged you to think in ways that only a special person like he could do."

Author Dan O'Neill put it this way: "The man could be irritating, and exasperating, but when he put the pen on the paper, something else took over."

Haines first came to Alaska in 1947 to paint. He homesteaded on property near the old Richardson Roadhouse, 80 miles southeast of Fairbanks. He built a two-room cabin with wood salvaged from a bridge that crossed nearby Gasoline Creek. The Richardson Highway had been moved, leaving no need for a bridge.

Defeated by frozen paints at the homestead, Haines switched to writing.

His first book of poetry, 1966's "Winter News," gained national attention. His prose captured rugged glimpses of Alaska life in a unique way. He won numerous awards and grants, including the $10,000 Lenore Marshall/The Nation Award for 1990's "New Poems."

He had no education beyond high school, something he barely got through, according to longtime friend John Kooistra. Not for his lack of thought, though. Haines was a troublemaker. After high school, he joined the Navy.

His "common man" background made his work accessible. Kooistra said his writings will last beyond those of other poets who take a more academic approach.

"There was something unique about what he did," Kooistra said. "He appealed to average people; they could read it and be moved by it."

Former Alaska Writer Laureate Nancy Lord said Haines' work inspired her as a young writer. Haines visceral and down-to-earth style spoke to the young writer. Years later, he acted as both a mentor and a friend.

Lord said Haines tended to see the dark side of things, but people who knew him better knew he had a joyous side as well.

"The darkness was because he was so very thoughtful about everything," Lord said. "He was outraged by the condition of the world and people's inability to work together and solve problems. It seemed negative, but that was partly just his personality, and the source of his great work. He was able to go to great depth and pull out some insightful thoughts on the human condition."

Haines made a living from his writing, a feat in itself, but he struggled to find an academic job in Alaska. He took positions across the United States, including at Ohio University and American University in Washington, D.C. His most recent appointment was at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in 2001. But a permanent position in Alaska never materialized, a source of bitterness for him.

Current Alaska Poet Laureate and UAF professor emerita Peggy Shumaker said she tried to work with Haines, but his unhappiness with the institutions' failure to hire him caused friction. He sent out letters announcing his displeasure and accused Shumaker and the English department of conspiring against him.

"I took him out to breakfast one day and said, 'Look, John, it's damaging to you to write this stuff. It's damaging to me to respond to it.' He replied, 'I'm entitled to my bitterness.' At that point, I decided to wish him every blessing and to stay out of his way. I wish things could have been different," she said via e-mail.

But Shumaker, a long-time admirer of his work, said "his is a major and marvelous voice, his words crafted with great skill.

"There's no question that he's one of Alaska's finest writers, and that his work sets a high standard for anyone writing in or from Alaska and the circumpolar North," she said. "All of us have much to learn from him."

Coen took a class with Haines in 2003 at UAF during one of Haines' teaching assignments there. Haines often acted more like another student, learning with them in a round-table style discussion, Coen said.

But when it came to writing critiques, Haines was a pro.

Students who didn't meet his standards were told so.

"He put so much care and attention into his art that if you were unwilling to make that commitment, he didn't have the time of day for you," Coen said.

Coen communicated with Haines up until his death, mostly through letters. In Haines' final days, he was almost deaf. Letter writing was easier, Coen said.

He remembered a summer trip Haines made with eight students five or six years ago. They went out to the homestead, Haines' favorite place. He had sold it in 1969, but the owners still let him stay on the property. Coen remembered seeing him sit on simple bench on a ridge above his house that overlooked the Tanana River. He appeared content. That was his place, Coen said.

"He said over and over that it was his self-imposed isolation and poverty at the homestead that created the poet and the writer he became," Coen said. "He would not have been the same artist had he decided to settle in another place."

Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com