Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2355
Even at a time when a declaration of disillusion might be seen by some as a validation of artistic seriousness, Hayden Carruth’s observation in “The Soft Time of the Year” that in a night vision he can “hear my own first cry/ when I was born” and that for this “I feel profoundly sorry” is not a sentiment likely to attract an unfamiliar reader to his work. The ambiguity in the line which suggests a sorrow either about his ability to recollect the moment of origin or about the fact of origin itself only slightly palliates the bitterness of the thought, especially since it is linked to a parallel recollection of the “rape of Helen.” In other poems placed near the beginning of the collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, although he disclaims organizational intent by stating “the arrangement here is all but random,” Carruth uses the phrase “alone and desperate” twice in “Flying into St. Louis,” and goes on to say “I’ve blamed my mother and father” for the “pain, the desperation” for sixty-five years. He also mentions that “he drinks wine and swallows more pills” in “Wife Poem,” and that he will “finish the wine, take/ the sleeping pills” in “Five-Thirty a.m..” In poems further along in the book, he speaks of how “language is defeated/ in the heavy, heavy day” (“The Heaviness”); how in “Evening” he is “Straining broken/ cork from my wine with broken teeth;” how (in “Snow Storm”) “men on the highway” are “vague/ distant figures in a veiled world” where the “wind cries and moans with increased/ force, and the night comes on;” and how on a “February Morning” the “old man takes a nap too soon,” then “climbs the stairs to bed” while “The snow falls all day long.”
Nevertheless, the poems Carruth has written since the publication of hisCollected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1992) are, taken as a totality, an expression of a kind of gratitude for the people and things which have made his eighth decade remarkably satisfying in spite of his causes for discouragement. The same honest understanding of himself and of his times of psychological torment which has informed his work since he was an editor of Poetry magazine in the early stages of his literary life continues here, and its consequences remain the same as well. Carruth has never trimmed his strong feelings about poetry, politics or the ravages of an inexplicable psychic affliction—not to advance his career, not to appeal to readers who might be put off by the stark revelation of a sometimes dark view of existence—and his refusal to accommodate conviction to convenience has led to various detours in what might have been a smooth path toward success for a man of his abilities. His outspoken participation in the notorious Pound/Bollingen affair, when he supported Ezra Pound as a poet while decrying Pound’s political stupidity, is typical of his determination to honor the poem “as an isolated act of absolutely and solely intrinsic goodness.” Carruth’s own poetry is a testament to this credo, but he has not permitted an easy arrival at the goodness the poetic act implies. The voice of dejection which reflects an often dominant mood in his life has not been muted in Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, which may account for the failure of The New York Times Book Review to include it among the fiction and poetry selections on its list of “Notable Books” for 1996. On the other hand, this mode supplies a ground which makes the moments of deep satisfaction that much more vivid, which may account (to some extent) for the decision by the judges for the National Book Award for Poetry for 1996 to chose Carruth’s book for that prize.
Carruth has been actively involved in the field of contemporary American poetry for nearly a half century, and he understands that to make an effort to adjust any aspect of his work in hopes of gaining a wider audience or more critical acclaim would be pointless, as well as deleterious to his writing. As he remarked in 1974, “I always hope my poems will be valuable to people in general, people who are not themselves poets, but it is a forlorn hope.” The place of poetry in American cultural affairs is pretty clearly presented when The New York Times Book Review puts more than sixty novels and only five books of poetry on its “Notables” list. This imbalance partially accounts for Carruth’s absence from most discussions of modern American literature. It would be a fitting kind of compensation if Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey found an audience beyond the writers—among them, Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell—who have recognized his accomplishments.
Even though the arrangement of the poems written over a five- year span may be “all but random,” the almost offhand declaration in “Wife Poem,” the fourth in the book, that “The day will be awful,/ nervy, dull and sullen” creates a condition of existence which will require a particularly powerful agent for its alleviation. This is a persistent theme in Carruth’s work, as exemplified by the poem “Loneliness,” written in December, 1974, where Carruth laments that he has been “cursed from childhood with/ incapacity, with/ the vision of the void,” and where he begins “to shiver, cold,/ at home in my own house.” The central thrust ofScrambled Eggs and Whiskey, perhaps its raison d’être, is that he has been literally blessed with a gift, a miraculous offering from the cosmos. The book is dedicated to “Joe-Anne,” and it becomes apparent that she is Carruth’s wife who (in “Wife Poem”):
down from the moon, not like some
sylphy Cynthia at Delphi, after all she’s
not seventeen, but with the sexual
grace and personal implacability
of a goddess of our time.
The mental strife which resulted in his placement (he sometimes calls it “incarceration”) in a mental hospital in the 1950’s, and which he has written about specifically in The Bloomingdale Papers of 1975 (a book described as “a soul-shaking experience” that captures “gut- wrenching sadness” and “provides us great insights into the shadowy realms of madness”) has never entirely abated, as Carruth makes clear, but he had had the good fortune to find a person whose presence and support have made him (“Franconia”) “as happy, as gratified, as ever I’ve been,/ old friend, in all these seventy-two years.” In an aura of exultation and amazement, Carruth exclaims “My dear, we are in love. It’s a fact, certifiable” (“Resorts”), and while his experience as a man and as a poet requires him to admit “I am too old to write love songs now” (“Birthday Cake”), that impulse is at the core of the collection. The obstacle is not exactly age, as many poems prove—it is more a matter of how to express one’s love without repeating or rephrasing many centuries of similar emotional occasions.
Carruth’s method is to be specifically personal, and to use his persisting consciousness of an abiding bleakness as a figure for a psychic prison from which he has been released. The past is not dwelt on here, but these poems were not written in a vacuum. Whether or not Carruth expects a reader to know his other work, he is writing from the experiences of his entire life, whose trials have resulted in a cast of mind where “I am temperamentally, read pathologically, as solemn and forlorn a creature as anyone would care to meet.” Carruth included this thought in an essay called “With Respect to the Infuriating Pervasiveness of Optimism” in 1983. It is hardly an isolated utterance, or a case of special pleading for consideration—just the facts of the matter. This is the burden love has removed when he speaks (in “Ecstasy”) of “the great pain assuaged.”
In spite of Carruth’s celebration of moments when he feels (“Window Blind”) that “We are devoid/ of essence . . . and by existing are/only, onely, perfect—or nearly so,” and his delight in the realization that there are times when he can appreciate “the stupendousness/ of life,” his other concerns have not been eradicated nor his passions for them diminished. The great gift of his later years cannot change the essential man, as much as he appreciates it. As a near miracle, he is, as he says in a harrowing twenty part poem called “The Camps,” still:
an old man
on an undistinguished hillside . . .
who has been writing for sixty years because this
is his way of being in the world, writing
on scraps of paper with stubby pencils
or on cheap tablets from the drug store, on a battered typewriter
set on an orange crate in a roach-ridden flat
in Chicago or in a small country house
on a computer, writing
all his life long.
As much as he has felt compelled to focus on the self, he has been out in the world as well, the world of “The Camps” where people who have been displaced for political, racial, economic, or other hideous negations of humanity have been subject to the most obscene suffering, which Carruth describes in heart- wrenching details as a means of bearing witness to injustice and standing against the “capitalists of death” he holds responsible. The poems in this group are an expression of his obligations as a poet and as a human being which serve to remind him that his own problems are not sufficient cause to withdraw into a resentful fortress of solitude, even with a person whose presence gives him a feeling of “how fine, how magnificent we were” (“Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey”). Carruth’s instinctive responses to the “cosmos of elemental energy”—the extraordinary variety of life’s phenomena which a sharp-eyed, supple-minded man cannot help but notice and comment on—draw him into one of the most traditional positions of the language artist. His way of seeing and then shaping his reactions into poetic form could provide some sort of order amidst the chaos of sensation or will, at least, offer an engaging and provocative commentary on some universal, or familiar occurrences.
That Carruth is eager to operate in this fashion is particularly apparent in two sequences addressed to “friends.” Rather than issuing pronouncements like some version of the abstract voice of official wisdom, Carruth continues the more personal tone of the poems to and for Joe-Anne, specifically in the gathering “A Summer with Tu Fu” and the “Faxes to William.” Each grouping also has a specific dedicatee—Sam Hamill and Stephen Dobyns, who are addressed with “wholehearted thanks” in the preliminary note which acknowledges their contribution “in making this selection.” There is a need for sharing of experience with a kindred spirit in these poems, and a desire to deepen a friendship born of a similar sensibility and the value of previous discussions. Carruth sees himself as a student in relationship to Tu Fu (a fifth century Chinese poet) and an instructor to the apparently younger William, but these roles seem to be altering toward equivalence. “Who can/ the master be, who the apprentice?” he asks. It is as if Carruth is saying “What do you think about this?” as he tries to clarify some of the things on his mind, as he tests again some of the conclusions he has come to after almost a half-century of active participation in the arena, alternating with a semivoluntary retreat into “the miseries” or “the sadnesses” of exile.
Carruth cannot conceive of a state of serenity beyond “a moment/ of the most shining and singular sensual gratification” (“Ecstasy”) but he seems to have managed something of a stand-off with the demons driving him toward “the void.” He is much too modest to assume the mantle of sage in spite of many strong opinions, and has always been riven by doubts which undercut the possibility of permanence. If there is anything enduring, it is his faith in friendship and in the artistic imagination which he does not feel is reserved for professional poets. “Nothing can be better than two poets together,” he says to Tu Fu in “Franconia,” and in a fervent declaration of trust or belief, he asserts (in “The Chain”): “but I am a poet and you are too and so are all people/ except the monsters of this world.”
Among the most memorable poems in this collection are those which combine Carruth’s strongest feelings with circumstances which might have taken him toward the moods of desolation where he feels “Exiled by money, politics, and age” (“The Lilies”). The depth of emotion in poems such as “Testament” or “Prepare” is truly touching, particularly in light of their subjects. In “Testament,” Carruth considers the lack of material wealth he has provided for Joe-Anne, and wonders “What will you do? How/ will you live?” His entire being is at stake as he tentatively but passionately offers the real essence of his life—the image-making power of his spirit—as a legacy. In the extraordinary “Prepare” he addresses himself to Joe-Anne’s request for “a poem that will prepare me for your death.” This meditation on age, loss, love, and death is difficult to read for its vivid vision of the transitory, temporary nature of human life, and exalting to know for its conviction that the effort to make “a scrap of a poem” is something like a ticket to eternity. Or, at least it might seem so in contemplation of that energizing process. Carruth’s observation in the title poem, the last in the books, that Chicago is “a sweet town, bleak, God knows,/ but sweet. Sometimes,” nicely captures his late-life’s reconciliation to dualities which can crush or inspire, and his ambivalence about even this tempered degree of optimism is consistent with this eager but wary participation in a world where disappointment is inevitable, but not irresistible.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCII, April 15, 1996, p. 1409.
The Christian Science Monitor. November 12, 1996, p. 14.
Library Journal. CXXI, June 1, 1996, p. 110.
The New Yorker. LXXII, August 19, 1996, p. 77.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 26, 1996, p. 101.