Collected Shorter Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Hayden Carruth’s Collected Shorter Poems: 1946-1991, winner of the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, provides an overview of the life’s work of one of the most important contemporary poets of the United States. Through his wide publication (twenty-two previous books), various editorial roles at Poetry, Harper’s, and The Hudson Review, his anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us, and his teaching career, Carruth has had a central role in influencing American poetry.

Throughout his career, Carruth has explored the self’s ambivalent relationship to the world. It becomes apparent in the volume’s first section, poems from The Crow and the Heart, that destruction and violence are key elements in the release of the self from its mundane and merely incidental incarnation. After the train wreck, in “Wreck of the Circus Train” it is clear that “life remained, at work to detain spirit.” Such is the case for the collection; it is the dramatic wreck, of spirit and poet, that allows the natural and primitive self to escape into the imaginative and loving landscape as the lions of the train wreck wander off to the hills. A great tension builds between this all-important natural self and the encumbered societal self as it is alienated and exposed to a harsh human and natural world in poems such as “On a Certain Engagement South of Seoul”: “Nor could we look at each other, for each/ was a sign of fear, and we could not conceal/ Our hatred for our friends.” This tension is maintained throughout the collection.

With the destruction of the incidental and entrapping self, the natural, purely subjective self is free to experience a renewed right relation to its universe. The resulting language (as in poems such as “The Snow”) is frequently a friendly subjectification, if not outright personification of the self’s environment in I-Thou terms. Thus, the very nature that is often the destructive agent for the incidental self is a companion and home to the natural self.

Throughout the collection Carruth explores the relationship of self to world within a loose system of symbolism established in these early works. In poems such as “The Snow,” “Birth of Venus,” and “The Fact of the Matter,” Carruth focuses much attention on images of birds. In “The Fact of the Matter” Carruth writes:

A visitant aloof and lone,
The phoenix comes on swooping wings;
The wind against his feathers sings
A song that stays when he is gone.

As the bird actualizes its existence in the natural, often stormy and chaotic, often loving world in song, so the poet writes. Once the destructive world has stripped the self of the incidental, it is the song, the poem, that establishes the reconnection between the natural self and the natural world—the phoenix rises from the ashes. In “Mild Winter,” Carruth refers to Edgar Allan Poe’s “metaphysical bird,” who spreads word of agonizingly incomplete mortality, “I peer/ through gray air but the raven is not visible; only/ a voice is there, guttural bad news penetrating/ the thickness of spruce trees.” Yet in “The Loon on Forrester’s Pond” Carruth recognizes the bird’s song, and the poem, not only as the “cry of the genie inside the lamp” but also as that which overcomes the otherwise damning silence of the disconnected self:

the loon
broke the stillness over the water
again and again,
broke the wilderness
with his song, truly
a vestige, the laugh that transcends
first all mirth
and then all sorrow
and finally all knowledge, dying
into the gentlest quavering timeless

The poet remarks that the bird’s song seems “the only real sanity to me.” The poem, then, is at once a lament of alienation and destruction and an agent of reconciliation and unity.

Carruth’s language reflects his passion for the natural, unencumbered self. While expanding the range of his poetic voice to match the scope of his emotional and philosophical concerns, he recurs to a conversational manner that serves as the pattern against which his more extravagant flights of language are counterpointed.

Carruth’s use of conversational language is particularly effective in his examination of rural characters in poems such as “Johnny Spain’s White Heifer,” “Lady,” “Regarding Chainsaws,” and...

(The entire section is 1877 words.)