Friday, August 08, 2008

Hayden Carruth

Hayden Carruth was born August 3, 1921. Next week (August 13th) in Saginaw, Michigan we'll meet to celebrate his birth, life and poetry. Mr. Carruth will not be there, but I'll have five copies of the following to share with fellow readers at the Barnes & Noble on Tittabawassee Road. A poor substitute, to be sure, but at that time we can sign a birthday card to Mr. Carruth which we can send to the address on his website.



Tap barometer, burn trash,

put out seed for birds, tap
barometer, go to market
for doughnuts and Dutch
Masters, feed cat, write
President, tap barometer,
take baby aspirin, write
congressmen, nap, watch
Bills vs. Patriots, tap
barometer, go to post
office and ask Diane if
it's cold enough for her,
go to diner and say "hi,
babe" to Mazie, go to
barber shop and read
Sports Illustrated, go
home, take a load off,
tap barometer, go to
liquor store for jug
(Gallo chablis), go
home, pee, etc., sweep
cellar stairs (be careful!),
write letter to editor,
count dimes, count quarters,
tap the fucking barometer . . .


for Joe-Anne McLaughlin 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
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
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
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.

"Prepare" is from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995, available from Copper Canyon Press The two poems above are from accessed 8/8/08.

Informed by his political radicalism and sense of cultural responsibility, many of Carruth's best-known poems are about the people and places of northern Vermont, as well as rural poverty and hardship. About Carruth and his work, the poet Galway Kinnell has said, "This is not a man who sits down to 'write a poem'; rather, some burden of understanding and feeling, some need to know, forces his poems into being. Thoreau said, 'Be it life or death, what we crave is reality.' So it is with Carruth. And even in hell, knowledge itself bestows a halo around the consciousness with, at moments, attains it."
Excerpted from accessed 8/8/08.

Hayden Carruth was 33 years old when doctors told him he would never again live a normal life. He had served in the Second World War, earned a master’s degree at Chicago, and gone on to edit Poetry magazine, one of America’s most distinguished literary journals. In 1949 Carruth, AM’47, took the bold step—bold for such a young and unknown editor—of defending Ezra Pound, scorned for his pro-Fascist wartime broadcasts, when Pound received the Bollingen Prize. He envisioned a long career as a poet, critic, and editor.

But this promise seemed lost when he suffered an alcoholic breakdown in New York City and ended up at the White Plains branch of New York Hospital, formerly the Bloomingdale Asylum. In The Bloomingdale Papers, poems composed during his hospitalization, he wrote:

The diagnosis is Anxiety psychoneurosis (Chronic and acute) Complicated by Generalized phobic Extensions and alcoholism.

Fifteen months in the “loony bin,” as he calls it, failed to cure him. His crackup was in part the result of phobias and anxieties that had haunted him all his life, complicated by the alcohol he drank to keep them at bay. After his release he spent most of the next decade in seclusion, too wracked with fear to venture out. He continued to write, but it was, he has said, “like squeezing old glue out of the tube.”

He never recovered completely, but he did manage to reenter the world. Drugs helped, as did the friendship of an understanding psychiatrist. So did music, work, the love of women, and two decades spent scraping a living in northern Vermont. There, far from the trodden paths of literary advancement, he began to regain his footing and find his voice. He did it by becoming “a yokel, a countryman, a guy who split wood and worked in a potato field”—and a poet of unusual range and power. ... Carruth today lives in the hilly limestone country between Utica and Syracuse. He and his fourth wife, Joe-Anne McLaughlin-Carruth, have a small red house perched on a hillside just outside the town of Munnsville, with a wide view of Stockbridge Valley. He bought the house on impulse in 1988 while on the faculty at Syracuse University, where he taught for a decade after leaving Vermont. A birdfeeder stands crookedly out front, and daisies and hawkweed flower in a nearby meadow. Traffic whooshes past, too close, on New York State Highway 46. ... Rejecting God and religion and what he sometimes dismisses as “Christian bullshit,” Carruth seeks no more transcendence than what human love affords. “The women in my life got me through, and sex with them got me through,” he says. “I think it’s more fun than anything else in the world, and more meaningful than anything else. Now I’m old and decrepit and I can say these things.” ... Carruth celebrates communion of all sorts. As singular and outspoken as he can be, he thinks the ideal of American individualism is dangerous and inherently violent. He knows too well the costs of solitude, and his poems display a respect for ordinary people.
Excerpts from accessed 8/8/08

Before his illness blossomed in 1953, Carruth was editor of Poetry at the age of twenty-eight, his poems were being published in the right magazines and journals, and he was on his way toward the type of conventional literary success of which, he had dreamed. When he collapsed it was recommended by his psychiatrist that he be admitted to Bloomingdale, a private asylum in White Plains, New York that was a branch of New York Hospital. While there for a little more than a year, he was heavily medicated with barbiturates and underwent numerous electro-convulsive treatments. His clinical diagnosis was "chronic and acute anxiety psychoneurosis with generalized phobic extensions." Carruth describes his condition as a neurotic, bordering on psychotic, fear of people and open spaces. Although, even now, when he talks about his illness one hears in his voice the inadequacy of any description. Despite his hospitalization, Carruth's condition did not improve. When he left the asylum, he went to his parents' home in Pleasantville, New York where he lived for five years in a make-shift room in the attic. There he listened to jazz and classical music, read, and, with great difficulty, wrote. He describes writing a line of poetry during that time as like "trying to squeeze glue out of an old, dried-up tube." With the exception of visits to his psychiatrist and late night attempts to walk to the end of the block while loaded with Thorazine, Carruth rarely left his room for much of that five year period.
It was during his time in the attic when Carruth discovered Camus. I am always moved when I imagine the serendipity of that discovery. Part of the pain of Carruth's illness was the severe contrast between the lucid, penetrating quality of his mind sabotaged by a deep and fundamentally inexplicable anxiety. The tension of living within a mind, the full beauty and power of which was crippled by a mysterious defect, fueled Carruth's sense of injustice. He had been living a sick joke at which he could not laugh until he read The Stranger. Camus invented a character (Meursault) who spoke to Carruth with all of the paradox, tension, and bewildered amazement at the circumstances of a particular life which Carruth harbored from his earliest memories, with one important exception: Meursault was free. The tone of his voice, what he chose to see, what he chose to ignore, reeked of an accomplished freedom Carruth never imagined possible until he read the first words uttered by the narrator of The Stranger: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." I like to think upon first reading those words Carruth smiled, paused, then began to laugh. He was hooked. I am sure he read the book several times, made notes, ruminated, made more notes. Eventually, with the help of a good psychiatrist, Carruth moved from his parents' home to a cottage on the Norfolk, Connecticut estate of his friend, James Laughlin, founder and publisher of New Directions. Laughlin offered Carruth the job of putting the back files of New Directions into order. During his time in Norfolk Carruth met and married his third wife, Rose Marie Dorn.
Excerpted from;col1 accessed 8/8/08.

In his essay, Miller looked at one major influence on Carruth's poetry. "Carruth's relationship to jazz music has been lifelong," he noted, "and it has expressed itself on many different levels in his work." Carruth produced an essay, "Influences: The Formal Idea of Jazz," in which he described his personal feelings about the musical genre. He did read the prominent poets Ben Johnson, William Yeats, and Ezra Pound, but added that "the real question is not by whom I was influenced, but how." To Miller, Carruth's early grounding in traditional poetic forms prepared him to "improvise" later on, much like the way jazz musicians often study classical music early in their training: "The discipline must precede the rejection of discipline." In Carruth's poetry, that means using an external, fixed poetic structure upon which to launch improvisation. But even when he works in a spontaneous, "jazz" mode, his "poetic improvisation does not mean the abandonment of form or rhyme," declared Miller, "nor does it limit itself to any particular attitude or emotion. . . . What improvisation ultimately amounts to is structure becoming a function of feeling, whatever that feeling may be." Miller pointed to Brothers, I Loved You All as a prime example of Carruth in his spontaneous prime. Excerpted from accessed 8/8/08.

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