Hayden Carruth Essay - Critical Essays


The work of this lifelong New Englander reflects a sustained engagement with his region and its literary traditions, but Hayden Carruth’s interests and sources ranged widely through space and time. Sometimes regarded as a poetic conservative because of his interest in fixed forms, Carruth is better seen as an experimental traditionalist whose exhaustive knowledge and mastery of formal verse allowed him to use a wide variety of poetic resources. His poems range from brief lyrics to Frostian blank-verse monologues and character studies to extended sonnet sequences, notably The Sleeping Beauty, a book-length exploration of the spirit of romance in the late twentieth century. Carruth’s reviews and essays demonstrate his tough-mindedness and fairness as well as his insistence on careful judgment and sharp distinctions. A self-described “New England anarchist,” independent and widely read, he was a significant voice for intelligence, humanity, and craft in American letters.

Carruth’s great themes are old ones: madness and music, isolation and community, despair at the human capacity for destruction, and hope in the beauty and terror of love and of art, “the joy and agony of improvisation,” as he puts it in Brothers, I Loved You All. Carruth lived a life at once set apart—he began the teaching career typical of his fellow poets only in his late fifties—and finely attuned to his place and his age. Few poets are more deeply knowledgeable about literary traditions and about the range of work being done in their own time than Carruth was, as his work as poet, anthologist, and critic reveals. His achievement was to fuse his learning, his keen eye and ear, his remarkable poetic craft, and his thoroughgoing integrity and self-awareness into a body of writing distinguished in both form and substance.

Virtually every one of Carruth’s poems shows his interest in the formal qualities of verse; unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not leap from formal to free verse in midcareer but continued to experiment with a variety of stanzaic and rhythmical patterns. Although his writing always drew deeply from the natural world, his best early poems deal with the sober human experiences of war and madness, and their austere formal patterns create a sense of barely achieved emotional control.

“On a Certain Engagement South of Seoul”

“On a Certain Engagement South of Seoul,” from The Crow and the Heart, recalls the alienation and disorientation of Carruth’s combat experience in crisp terza rima:

We were unreal, Strange bodies and alien minds; we could not cry For even our eyes seemed to be made of steel; Nor could we look at one another, for each Was a sign of fear.

The poem ends with the speaker still turning over the experience, struggling for some kind of clarity or understanding: Does it “make us brothers” or merely “bring our hatred back?” The horror and sorrow of the war create a kinship among those who suffered them, but it is a strange bond that does not bring joy.

“Adolf Eichmann”

“Adolf Eichmann” (from The Norfolk Poems) uses terza rima to very different effect, in a grim meditation that modulates into a horrifying curse on the Nazi executioner: “I say let the dung/ Be heaped on that man until it chokes his voice.” The curse continues, wishing a plague of leprosy on Eichmann in a manner reminiscent of the imprecatory psalms. The curse’s culmination, however, is a sentence of emotional rather than physical punishment:

But let his ears never, never be shut, And let young voices read to him, name by name, From the rolls of all those people whom he has shut Into the horrible beds.

Few poems so direct, aimed at such easy targets, avoid lapsing into sentimentality or cliché. Throughout his career, however, Carruth took the risk of addressing the most pressing and difficult topics. (He repeatedly criticized his fellow poets for avoiding the subject of nuclear holocaust.) Here the heavy, exact rhymes on “dung” and “shut” give the poem the awful resonance of a huge bell.

Mental illness

Carruth’s struggles with mental illness are a recurrent theme in all of his work. During his hospital stay in 1953 and 1954, he wrote the long sequence The Bloomingdale Papers, which was lost for some twenty years and was published in full only in 1975 (although parts appear in The Crow and the Heart, and the sequence “The Asylum,” in fifteen-line near-sonnets, was printed in For You). The sequence incorporates many forms, including passages of prose, sonnets, lists, and psalms. The asylum poems confront psychological terror and trace the search for stability and coherence with remarkable acuity, honesty, and courage, refusing the temptations of easy self-dramatization or confessionalism: “Prison grows warm and is the real asylum.” Carruth pictures himself and the other asylum inmates sitting in a deep winter stillness to face “all the terrors of our inward journeys,/ The grave indecencies, the loathsome birds.” This terrifying inward journey requires a “strange bravery” of one who calls himself “unbrave.” The poems humanize his suffering, without romanticizing it.

Among the poems written against the fear of madness and the correlative fear of a meaningless universe, “Contra Mortem” (from For You) was Carruth’s personal favorite. Written in the fifteen-line stanzas he used repeatedly, it is a moving meditation on the endurance of being in the face of nothingness. In its hard-won refusal to allow despair the last word, it strikes a characteristic note: “Some are moralists and some have faith/ but some who live in the free exchange of hearts/ as the gift of being are lovers against death.”

From Snow and Rock, from Chaos

With From Snow and Rock, from Chaos, Carruth found a confidence and a characteristic voice that remained through all the widely various work he published since. Overtones of the poets he chose for his masters—William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost, among many others—can still be heard, along with the voices of his New England neighbors, which he often captured with uncanny accuracy. However, through and above them all, Carruth’s gruff, blustery presence remains constant, acute without being merely “sensitive,” open to his own faults and failings without overdramatizing them, refusing easy consolations and hero worship as well:

this was the world foreknown though I had thought somehow probably in the delusion of that idiot thoreau that necessity could be saved by the facts we actually have

“Freedom and Discipline”

Carruth’s long-standing interest in music, particularly jazz, informs his poetics in essential ways. (His instrument is the clarinet.) In “Freedom and Discipline” (from Nothing for Tigers), which describes concerts by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Coleman Hawkins, he ponders “why I went to verse-making . . . this grubbing art,” and concludes, “Freedom and discipline concur/ only in ecstasy.” He has written sympathetic and insightful jazz criticism, paying special attention to the capacity of music to capture the streams of human feeling.

Brothers, I Loved You All

Music is also central to Brothers, I Loved You All, arguably Carruth’s best single volume, and the most fully represented in The Selected Poetry of Hayden Carruth. There are many fine lyrics, and several long, Frostiandramatic monologues, but the centerpiece is the long poem “Paragraphs,”...

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