In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Carruth’s work.
‘‘Now and then a poet comes along whose work ranges across wide and diverse territories of form, attitude, and emotion—yet with the necessary intelligence that belies a deep, lifelong engagement with tradition—so that variance never seems mere experimentation or digression, but improvisation,’’ wrote Midwest Quarterly contributor Matthew Miller. ‘‘Hayden Carruth is such an artist.’’
The [National Book Award] won by Carruth in 1996 for his collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey provided a grace note for a long academic and literary career that has seen the author become known as an proponent of twentieth-century modernism. Though recognized primarily as a critic and editor, Carruth is also, according to the Virginia Quarterly Review, ‘‘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. . . . [He is] technically skilled, lively, never less than completely honest, and as profound and deeply moving as one could ask.’’ Characterized by a calm, tightly controlled, and relatively ‘‘plain’’ language that belies the intensity of feeling behind the words, Carruth’s poetry elicits praise from those who admire its wide variety of verse forms and criticism from those who find its precision and restraint too impersonal and academic.
Commenting in his book Babel to Byzantium, James Dickey speculated that these opposing views of Carruth’s work may result from the occasionally uneven quality of his poetry. In a discussion of The Crow and the Heart, for example, Dickey noted ‘‘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. . . . [He] 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.’’
American Poetry Review critic Geoffrey Gardner, who characterized Carruth as ‘‘a poet who has always chosen to make his stand just aside from any of the presently conflicting mainstreams,’’ said that such linguistic playfulness is typical of the poet’s early work. He attributes it to Carruth’s struggle ‘‘to restore equilibrium to the soul [and] clarity to vision, through a passionate command of language,’’ a struggle that gives much of his poetry ‘‘a Lear-like words-against- the-storm quality.’’ Continued Gardner: ‘‘I won’t be the first to say Carruth’s early work is cumbered by archaisms, forced inversions, sometimes futile extravagances of vocabulary and a tendency of images and metaphors to reify into a top heavy symbolism. . . . But the courage of [his] poems can’t be faulted. From the earliest and against great odds, Carruth made many attempts at many kinds of poems, many forms, contending qualities of diction and texture. . . . If the struggle of contending voices and attitudes often ends in poems that don’t quite succeed, it remains that the struggle itself is moving for its truthfulness and intensity. . . . Carruth uniformly refuses to glorify his crazies. They are pain and pain alone. What glory there is—and there are sparks of it everywhere through these early poems—he keeps for the regenerative stirrings against the storm of pain and isolation.’’
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.
Like many poets, Carruth also turns to personal experience for inspiration; however, with the possible exception of The Bloomingdale Papers (a long poetic sequence Carruth wrote in the 1950s while confined to a mental hospital for treatment of alcoholism and a nervous breakdown), he does not indulge in the self-obsessed meditations common among some of his peers. Instead, Carruth turns outward, exploring such ‘‘universal opposites’’ as madness (or so-called madness) and sanity or chaos and order. He then tries to balance...
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