Hayden Carruth Carruth, Hayden (Vol. 4) - Essay

Carruth, Hayden (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carruth, Hayden 1921–

An American poet, novelist, and critic, Carruth has won several important prizes for his lyrical and controlled poems. He is most often praised for his sustained meditations, of which Journey to a Known Place is a notable example. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

As I think of The Crow and the Heart, I find myself believing not in its sustained power or concentration of language, but in a carefulness which bursts, once or twice or three times, into a kind of frenzied eloquence, a near-hysteria, and in these frightening places sloughing off a set of mannerisms which in the rest of the book seems determined to reduce Carruth to the level of a thousand other poets who can do, just as easily as he, most of the things he does in about three-fourths of these poems. Often, Carruth appears not to have learned the Gresham's Law of poetry, which states that the more sounds and images you crowd into a line, the less effect they have. He seldom lets you forget that you are reading something which has been written, and written again, and then written some more. These poems strike me as being completely mechanical and lifeless, with more than a hint of academic dilettantism about them. They are Suspect, and I for one cannot take them seriously….

         What kind of thing, here where my mother's
         Bark colors only, like a tranced bazaar,
         Is my late lingering love for you, which
         Beyond all those events, past the Azores?

I guess (and I am only guessing) that "bark colors" is intended to indicate that the colors are raucous and irritating, and call attention to themselves mindlessly and unnecessarily. Actually, though, this is not what happens in the beholder's mind. He thinks momentarily only of a preposterous image of flowers like dogs, or like sideshow barkers, and then dismisses it, his attention having been retained by neither flowers nor dogs. Because the objects which are called to our attention are vertiginously disembodied in language, considerable doubt is cast on the veracity and imagination of the mind that brought them up and presented them in this way. As Auden says, the poet's job is to find out the images "that hurt and connect," and a great many of Carruth's don't, at least not for me. They are like musical exercises that one wants to hear dissolve into the real playing….

"On a Certain Engagement South of Seoul" is as fine a poem as an American has ever written about the ex-soldier's feelings, and that takes in a lot of territory. It is only after the Inevitable has clamped us by the back of the neck that we go back and look carefully at the poem, and see that it is written in terza rima. And so, hushed and awed, we learn something about the power of poetic form, and the way in which it can both concentrate and release meaning, when meaning is present. This poem suggests, too, that Carruth is one of the poets (perhaps all poets are some of these poets) who write their best, pushing past limit after limit, only in the grip of recalling some overpowering experience. When he does not have such a subject at hand, Carruth amuses himself by being playfully skillful with internal rhyme, inventing bizarre Sitwellian images, being witty and professionally sharp….

Hayden Carruth is a writer with strange and terrifying shifts in quality. His last year's The Crow and the Heart contained the finest sonnet sequence that I have read by a contemporary poet, "The Asylum," and a great deal of ordinary, jargoning stuff which Mr. Carruth should have been ashamed to print in the same volume. "The Asylum" showed, however, that Mr. Carruth might be one of the few modern poets capable of writing a good long poem. Journey to a Known Place is it….

Like his man-bird, Mr. Carruth is "skilled now in the / profound and lovely / necessities," and his wonderful new poem, very possibly a great poem, which begins with a huddle of refugees and ends in the City of the Sun, is bound to be discussed and reread for many years. Journey to a Known Place is a painful and magnificent poem; it really hurts and it really sings, and I can only urge readers to buy it and live with it.

James Dickey, "Hayden Carruth" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 127-31.

[For You] is a collection of five long poems by Hayden Carruth that have appeared previously only in magazines or limited editions, one of them being the 1963 Balch prize winning poem, "North Winter." They are, perhaps, Carruth's finest work, although his book-length sequence, "The Norfolk Poems," may hold that honor. In any case, these are major poems by a poet who has never received the wide acclaim his work deserves and who is certainly one of the most important poets working in this country today. And these five long poems show him at his best, technically skilled, lively, never less than completely honest, and as profound and deeply moving as one could ask. The speaker of the poems is a man who has been sorely wounded by life, but has found in that wounding the necessary strength to continue to live and more, to take deep joy in living, in the movement of seasons, the names and natures of birds and flowers, the hurting and loving of human beings. "Come," he says at the end of "Contra Mortem," the fourth of these poems, "let us sing against death." And sing that song he does, whether in the sharp descriptions of winter's coming and going in "North Winter," or in the moving farewell to his father in "My Father's Face"; he sings against death and for life always, life with all its hurt and sting, the nothing that is everything. Let us celebrate this book's appearance and hope that it will at last give to these fine poems the wide audience they so truly deserve.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Summer, 1971), p. cv.

As a poet, a friend of poets, an editor, a critic, Hayden Carruth is one of the preservers of the life of poetry in his time….

When the worlds of so many poets are made of words, as though poetry were accessible to no more than talent and ambition, it is a moving reaffirmation of the power of poetry that [From Snow and Rock, From Chaos] does not make a world of its own. It does not attempt or desire to do so. Instead, it accepts the obligations of the world outside itself that it did not make. Its principal subjects are love, work, poverty, mortality, and the difficult, beautiful land and weather of Vermont. The poems have been fretted and abraded in their bearing of this world's knowledge and mystery. Like weathered carvings, they have been both made and worn the way they are.

And when so many poets record their obsession with their own sufferings and their own deaths, it seems an estimable strength and grace in this book that it fulfills itself in the realization of other lives and other deaths, and keeps the heavy accounts of that devotion….

Out of their burden of knowledge and mystery, "from snow and rock, from chaos," these poems render their gifts of orderly speech…. They delineate and accept the terms of human love…. And their stern fidelity to those terms verifies their profound gentleness…. The poet speaks of, and out of, what he has known again and again, touching lightly in passing the sources of his endurance….

Wendell Berry, "On Carruth's Poetry," in American Poetry Review, January/February, 1974, p. 39.