Poetry Dispatch No. 335 | October 19, 2010
Poetry & Prose
Part 1: Poetry
“My poems, I think, exist in a state of tension between the love of natural beauty and the fear of natural meaninglessness or absurdity.”—Hayden Carruth
There is a poem by Carruth I posted recently on the Basho’s Road website . I included no bio on him, figuring he was pretty well-known, and even neglected to mention that the poem came from his superb collection, SCRAMBLED EGGS & WHISKEY”, which won the National Book Award in 1996.
Carruth died in 2008 at the age of 87, which is remarkable, considering all he struggled with (poverty, alcoholism, broken marriages, mental illness, an attempted suicide…)
A number of people e-mailed me to say they never heard of Carruth, so I thought I might dig a little deeper in the man and his work, only to discover there’s so much worth mentioning about the man, that this is going to have to be a two-part Poetry Dispatch series to get even to close to Carruth’s life in poetry and prose.
Let’s look at a poem which some might consider an example of Carruth as ‘nature poet” –-a label he did not appreciate.
Out the eastern window at
five-thirty this morning
are the pear tree, the sycamore,
and the high hill, the crest of it
with a new moon just risen
above it, a crescent tipped beyond
the dark trees, so clear and golden,
a jewel – yes, one might say a jewel –
and already behind it the first
dawnlight spreading faint and
soft and gray, like a mass of minute
dead angels’ wings coming closer,
closer. The crescent is less bright.
Soon it will be invisible. Oh, there is
only an instant of vouchsafing!
What can one do but write this
little poem, finish the wine,
take the sleeping pills, and go to bed?
It’s hard, and no doubt unnecessary, to put a label on him. He was a rebel (if that word is still valid in this country) steeped in the old Yankee tradition. Born in Connecticut. Finding peace and himself for a long time in Vermont, a landscape for solitariness and the singular ‘leave-me-alone voice. The rural spoke to him and he to it. I’m sure the Beats would have liked to claim him. But in his ‘ordinary’ language, there was always more than a whiff of the classic. He could write, speak it out of both sides of his mouth.
Typically “Carruthian’…he challenged Frost a little (whom he seemed to love, in a New England-ish sort of way) and had a real quarrel with Thoreau. Felt he pandered to nature rather accepted the challenge for what it was…stood up to it. But that’s another story–to be found more in his prose than his poetry.
Here’s another ‘nature’ poem:
The old man takes a nap
too soon in the morning.
His coffee cup grows cold.
Outside the snow fails fast.
He’ll not go out today.
Others must clear the way
to the car and the shed.
Open upon his lap
lie the poems of Mr. Frost.
Somehow his eyes get lost
in the words and the snow,
somehow they go
backward against the words,
upward among the flakes
to the great silence of air,
the blank abundance there.
Should he take warning?
Mr. Frost went off, they say,
in bitterness and despair.
The old man stirs and wakes,
hearing the hungry birds,
nuthatch, sparrow, and jay,
clamor outside, unfed,
and words stir from his past
like this agitated sorrow
of jay, nuthatch, and sparrow,
classical wrath which takes
no shape now in a song.
He climbs the stairs to bed.
The snow falls all day long.
“Regret, acknowledged or not, is the inevitable and in some sense necessary context—the bedrock—of all human thought and activity,” he wrote a few years before his death. “Intellectually speaking, it is the ground we stand on.”
He wrote over 30 books of poems. His subject matter, all over the ballpark, as they say. Or I say.
He spent sometime in my hometown, Chicago, receiving a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1948. He was so highly thought of that he even became editor of the legendary Poetry Magazine—for the shortest time on record, as he opened the pages like never before, fell in dispute with ‘the board’ and essentially told them to shove it, less than a year at the helm (You just gotta love this guy.)
The crack up came soon after that. And after hospitalization ,putting himself back together again, he moved to northern Vermont, taking on all the usual survival-shit jobs, writers and poets and artists are ‘prone’ to. Along the way though, in time, he slowly garnered a number of important awards…which it seems were never all that important to him. Thought one can be sure the money came in handy, when it was part of the honor.
Here are two ‘final poems’–in more ways than one. They both reflect as well a real love for the last, very young woman in his life, the poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin Carruth, who came to him late, but at the right time in his life, providing the love, caring, and courage he needed to put down the last, perfect words of regret to the very end.
So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love. I have been
to the banker, the broker, those strange
people, to talk about unit trusts,
annuities, CDS, IRAS, trying
to leave you whatever I can after
I die. I’ve made my will, written
you a long letter of instructions.
I think about this continually.
What will you do? How
will you live? You can’t go back
to cocktail waitressing in the casino.
And your poetry? It will bring you
at best a pittance in our civilization,
a widow’s mite, as mine has
for forty-five years. Which is why
I leave you so little. Brokers?
Unit trusts? I’m no financier doing
the world’s great business. And the sands
in the upper glass grow few. Can I leave
you the vale of ten thousand trilliums
where we buried our good cat Pokey
across the lane to the quarry?
Maybe the tulips I planted under
the lilac tree? Or our red-bellied
woodpeckers who have given us so
much pleasure, and the rabbits
and the deer? And kisses And
love-makings? All our embracings?
I know millions of these will be still
unspent when the last grain of sand
falls with its whisper. its inconsequence,
on the mountain of my love below.
“Why don’t you write me a poem that will prepare me for your
death? “you said.
It was a rare day here in our climate, bright and sunny. I didn’t feel like
dying that day,
I didn’t even want to think about it – my lovely knees and bold
shoulders broken open,
Crawling with maggots. Good Christ! I stood at the window and I saw
a strange dog
Running in the field with its nose down, sniffing the snow, zigging and
And whose dog is that? I asked myself. As if I didn’t know. The limbs
of the apple trees
Were lined with snow, making a bright calligraphy against the world,
messages to me
From an enigmatic source in an obscure language. Tell me, how shall I
And a jay slanted down to the feeder and looked at me behind my glass
Prepare, prepare. Fuck you, I said, come back tomorrow. And here he
is in this new gray and gloomy morning.
We’re back to our normal weather. Death in the air, the idea of death
settling around us like mist,
And I am thinking again in despair, in desperation, how will it happen?
Will you wake up
Some morning and find me lying stiff and cold beside you in our bed?
Or will I fall asleep in the car, as I nearly did a couple of weeks ago,
and drive off the road
Into a tree? The possibilities are endless and not at all fascinating,
except that I can’t stop
Thinking about them, can’t stop envisioning that moment of hideous
Hideous and indescribable as well, because it won’t happen until it’s
over. But not for you.
For you it will go on and on, thirty years or more, since that’s the
distance between us
In our ages. The loss will be a great chasm with no bridge across it
(for we both know
Our life together, so unexpected, is entirely loving and rare). Living
on your own –
Where will you go? what will you do? And the continuing sense of
From what we’ve had in this little house, our refuge on our green or
Hill. Life is not easy and you will be alive. Experience reduces itself to
Including the one which says that I’ll be with you forever in your
memories and dreams.
I will. And also in hundreds of keepsakes, such as this scrap of a poem
you are reading now.