Hayden Carruth Carruth, Hayden (Vol. 7) - Essay

Carruth, Hayden (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carruth, Hayden 1921–

Carruth, an American poet, novelist, critic, and editor, has defined his writing as the manifestation of a "crude, creaky, but complex sort of Kantean-pragmatic conceptualization of things and people." As a poet, Carruth rises from calm and highly controlled passages to incredible intensities of emotion, which he punctuates with a lavish use of images. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

James Dickey speaks of Carruth's "tremendous and sensitive vocabulary," and also of his "mixture of cold steady fury and nightmarish passion." For You consists of five long poems, written at intervals over a period of more than ten years, and while it contains both the vocabulary and the fury that Dickey describes, its motion as a whole seems to be toward greater ease and relaxation. (p. 168)

In the latter parts of his book, Carruth has achieved something I think is very difficult: the ability to show the metaphysic in the moment without losing the moment itself, to express at once the eye's joy and the mind's, in a language which subordinates neither. (p. 170)

William Dickey, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1971.

Place is … important in Hayden Carruth's From Snow and Rock, from Chaos—a collection of his short poems written between 1965 and 1972. And simplicity is important, too, for Carruth works here in plain language, trying to reduce things to their essences. I didn't like the book when I first read it, thinking that the simplicity was too "willed" and the sense of self-congratulation in a number of the poems something which would put off readers. Yet during second and third readings, Carruth caught me. What he is trying for is something more ambitious than [Wendell] Berry; he sacrifices ease, but in his best poems Carruth manages to stay "simple" while not shutting out the "chaos" to which the book's title refers. Almost all these poems are terribly serious, finished, using the minimum of words….

Carruth expresses feelings of sadness, loneliness, separation, throughout the book. He is the poet with the little-recognized profession of so many of us: "myself, who holds in translucent hands/everyone's lost light." He senses the lives of others, exploring them in beautiful phrases. The poem If It Were Not For You ends, "How gravely and sweetly the poor touch in the dark." (p. 109)

The poem in this collection which perhaps shows Carruth at his finest is The Cows at Night. Here there is a perfect marriage of simple nature imagery and quiet mood. Stopping beside a field, the poet sees "the cows. Always a shock/to remember them there, those/great breathings close in the dark." He walks out into the pasture to count them. They are "sad and beautiful/like girls very long ago/who were innocent and sad…." The poet does not know what he must do, go or stay,

         for how
         in that great darkness could I explain
         anything, anything at all.
         I stood by the fence. And then
         Very gently it began to rain.

That last line, pristine, is the clear sigh, the acceptance which in other poems Hayden Carruth so longs for, comes so close upon. The natural order of things may yet reassert itself, by itself. (p. 111)

Dick Allen, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1974.

Carruth is primarily, though not exclusively, a Farm Poet, with the usual subgenres: the Graveyard Meditation, the Cow Poem, the Moon Poem (several), the Star Poem. But he is far, far from the kind of Farm Poet fixed for all time by Dr. Johnson on Shenstone: "Whether to plant a walk in undulating curves demands any great powers of mind, I will not inquire." Or, how can I object to a Moon Poem which contains lines like these:

           I walk out onto the crusted snow
           and there you are, high
           in the winter sky again, so clear,
           like a free flake in the stream
           of stars. I have found you.
           I lean to you in the depths
           of cold and darkness, you always there
           and yet often hidden, as I too
           am where I am always, hidden.

Not an undulating curve. Not a gobbet. The poem is simple and pure, the result of hard thought and hard work. I give no damn if Carruth is worthy of his meat. This poet is an angry, honest, political man; he is not a Frostian; his Vermont is real (including tourists); and he can counterpoint it against the Great American Desert, which he knows with an equal and opposite intimacy. If Carruth writes a Bird Poem, the birds are demonstrably related to Vietnam. I regret the omission [from From Snow and Rock, from Chaos] of a recent gem (kayak 30, credit line to George Hitchcock, who didn't ask for it), called "on being asked to write a poem against the war in vietnam," which begins:

                  Well I have and in fact
                  more than one and I'll
                  tell you this too….

[Let] me list a few titles of what seem to be major poems. "Reverting Still Again." "Tabula Rasa." "The Spanish Civil War." "Emergency Haying." "The Birds of Vietnam." "Rimrock, Where It Is." The choice is arbitrary and short. (p. 30)

Edwin Fussell, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Hayden Carruth has been flirting with nature for fifty years and has had to make do with nothing more than an amorous glance, or what he thinks was an amorous glance. There have been moments of contact: the appearance of an evening star, the moon, the presence of cows in the darkness, the caw of a crow; but all of them are finally unsatisfying. A poem entitled "I Know I Remember, But How Can I Help You" describes one of these teasing, painful encounters…. The frustration in this poem is that of a man who loves nature but, perhaps because of the disabling capaciousness of the human mind, is unable to get at her, even to talk. There is only the faintest hint here of that venerable desire for the simplicity of animal perception that has appealed to so many poets. But in another poem, "The Ravine," the problem is stated more clearly, and the poet comes closer to, without ever quite declaring, rebellion against the "human" way of looking at things, with its insistent, and consistently frustrated, search for "meaning." (pp. 132-33)

To be able to live without patterns, without order, to be able to find pleasure in each detached fact, is especially desirable if, as Carruth seems to think, "the world is wild/and without intention." (p. 133)

[Whatever] nature might do, words always respond when Carruth urges them. Nature, which lives without time, speaks without words on those rare occasions when she speaks at all…. Carruth knows that words, slippery, unstable, treacherous, and subject to time, are man's most graceful movements and most natural sounds….

[From Snow and Rock, from Chaos] ends with the poet talking to the moon, not the easy moon of poets or the shoddy moon of astronauts but the real moon, "like a free flake in the stream / of stars." The poet leans to it, throws words at it, and we are reminded of an earlier poem to Artemis, of Endymion, of one of the world's oldest unconsummated loves. (p. 135)

Thomas Stumpf, in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright 1975 Carolina Quarterly), Winter, 1975.

Hayden Carruth's "Bloomingdale Papers," is being issued 20 years after its composition. This long poem, written in the fifties, was composed during Carruth's confinement in a mental hospital. After a short prefatory explanation, we are given 75 pages of verse and prose of all mixed sorts—narration, reflection, comedy, bleakness, bland irony, sentiment, dryness, rage. The extremities of panic, tension, and madness are not concealed…. Carruth's diary of incarceration is a rare documentary, however ragged its edges. It never loses individuality for long; in spite of the often derivative verse, the personal note often shatters convention…. The mood is recognizably that of the fifties, and generality plagues the love poems, but a good deal of "The Bloomingdale Papers" survives as an honest record of an inexplicable and crippling affliction. (p. 5)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1975.