hayden carruth | poetry & prose | part 1: poetry

19 10 2010

Poetry Dispatch No. 335 | October 19, 2010

HAYDEN CARRUTH

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.

Five-Thirty AM

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:

February Morning

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.

Testament

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.

Prepare

“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
zagging,
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
decipher them?
And a jay slanted down to the feeder and looked at me behind my glass
and squawked.
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?
How atrocious!
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
violence.
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
displacement
From what we’ve had in this little house, our refuge on our green or
snowbound
Hill. Life is not easy and you will be alive. Experience reduces itself to
platitudes always,
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.





hayden carruth | silence & prepare

4 10 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 254 | October 4, 2008

POET/OBIT

(Another chapter of “THE WRITING LIFE”)

HAYDEN CARRUTH 1921 – 2008

Silence

by Hayden Carruth

Sometimes we don’t say anything. Sometimes
we sit on the deck and stare at the masses of
goldenrod where the garden used to be
and watch the color change form day to day,
the high yellow turning to mustard and at last
to tarnish. Starlings flitter in the branches
of the dead hornbeam by the fence. And are these
therefore the procedures of defeat? Why am I
saying all this to you anyway since you already
know it? But of course we always tell
each other what we already know. What else?
It’s the way love is in a late stage of the world.

from “Collected Shorter Poems” Copper Canyon Press, 1992

Hayden Carruth, 87; Poems Reflected Struggles of Life
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008; B05

Hayden Carruth, whose forceful observations of nature, hard work and mental illness brought him late acclaim as one of the most important poets of his generation, died Sept. 29 at his home in Munnsville, N.Y., after a series of strokes. He was 87.

Mr. Carruth (pronounced kuh-RUTH) lived for many years in rural Vermont and New York, where manual labor and an unforgiving climate became part of his daily life and, ultimately, his poetic voice.

Through years of isolation and neglect, he doggedly continued to write, gaining belated recognition for his more than 30 books. A 1996 Virginia Quarterly Review article described him as “certainly one of the most important poets working in this country today.”

His “Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991″ received the 1992 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, and he won the National Book Award for the collection “Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey” in 1996. After decades of living hand to mouth, he won two prestigious awards, the $25,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1990 and the $50,000 Lannan Foundation literary award in 1995.

Mr. Carruth began writing at 6 and became a master of poetic diction, from the grandly formal to the bluntly vernacular. He wrote in a deceptively simple style that often evoked nature as he explored philosophical themes of sorrow, loneliness and human dignity.

“His poems take on a variety of voices: the farmers he lived among in Vermont, the jazzmen whose music he reveres, the ancient Chinese poets who taught him,” author Lynne Sharon Schwartz wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 2005. “He has written in the voice of lover, war protester, mental patient, grieving son and father.”

In 1953 and ’54, Mr. Carruth was treated in a New York mental hospital for 18 months for alcoholism and a nervous breakdown. He received electroshock therapy and emerged, he said, “in worse shape” than when he went in. But his prolonged stay gave him a chance to study existential philosophy, which influenced his later writing.
Seldom overtly political in his writing, Mr. Carruth nonetheless had strong views, which he expressed in an angry letter to the New York Times in 1971, after the newspaper’s editorial about the Attica prison riot appeared on the same page as “my stupid poem about the flowers of summer.”

“I think it will be a long time before our civilization will have much use for flowers or poems again,” he concluded.

Hayden Carruth was born Aug. 3, 1921, in Waterbury, Conn. His father and grandfather were journalists, and he learned to write at his grandfather’s knee. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1943 and served in the Army Air Forces in Italy during World War II.

Mr. Carruth received a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1948. He was the editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago and worked for the University of Chicago Press before his nervous collapse.

Seeking solitude after his hospitalization, Mr. Carruth moved to northern Vermont and worked as a farm laborer, mechanic, freelance writer and editor.

“I had to live a very secluded life, but I’m not sorry that’s the way it turned out,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. “The main disadvantage was poverty.”

In 1966, he had received a $10,000 federal grant, but three years later his gross income was only $600. At times, he had to steal corn intended for cattle. But he was drawn to “the honest country people, the laborers, and people who had real folk habits in their speech. I loved to listen to them, and tried to imitate them in my poems.”

He was also strongly influenced by his love of jazz and tried to imitate its improvisational qualities in his poetry.

Mr. Carruth published his first book of poetry in 1959, but his major critical breakthrough didn’t come until the 1970s. His only novel, a tale of adultery called “Appendix A,” appeared in 1963 to dismissive reviews.

After teaching in Vermont for a few years, Mr. Carruth joined the faculty at Syracuse University in Upstate New York in 1979. He was poetry editor of Harper’s magazine from 1977 to 1982.

Despite his newfound professional security, he suffered another mental setback in 1988 and nearly died after swallowing every pill in his home. He recovered and wrote that his suicide attempt helped “unify my sense of self, the sense which had formerly been so refracted and broken up.”

His marriages to Sara Anderson, Eleanor Ray and Rose Marie Dorn ended in divorce.

Survivors include his fourth wife, poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin of Munnsville; and a son from his third marriage.

A daughter from his first marriage, Martha, died in 1997, prompting him to write a heartfelt elegy published in his 2001 collection, “Doctor Jazz.”

One of Mr. Carruth’s final books, “Letters to Jane” (2004), was a volume of his correspondence with poet Jane Kenyon, who died of cancer in 1995 at 47.
“He wrote her a letter every week,” Kenyon’s husband, poet Donald Hall, said yesterday. “He did not talk to her about her disease. He wrote looking out his window at a bird, at a leaf falling. They were absolutely marvelous.”

Prepare

By Hayden Carruth

“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 zagging,
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 decipher
them?
And a jay slanted down to the feeder and looked at me behind my glass and
squawked.
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?
How atrocious!
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 violence.
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
displacement
From what we’ve had in this little house, our refuge on our green or
snowbound
Hill. Life is not easy and you will be alive. Experience reduces itself to
platitudes always,
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.

from SCRAMBLED EGGS & WHISKEY, Poems 1991-1995, Copper Canyon Press

much more on Hayden Carruth on his web site here…








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 690 other followers