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...
(The entire section is 2355 words.)