Hayden Carruth

Another wonderful poet is lost to life.  His work lives on:

Hayden Carruth, an editor, critic and poet who earned recognition late in his 50-year writing career for powerful work that explored the struggles, loves and desires of people who made their living with their hands — as he did for two decades — has died. He was 87.

Carruth, who’d had a series of strokes, died Monday at his home in the small central New York town of Munnsville, according to his publishing house, Copper Canyon Press.

Called a poet’s poet for his technical mastery of forms from the sonnet to free verse, he wrote more than 20 books of poetry and prose, much of which emanated from the hardscrabble Vermont farm where he lived for 20 years.

In 1996 when he was 75 he won the National Book Award for Poetry for his collection “Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey.” It was arguably the most prestigious prize among many that he received since publishing his first volume of poems in 1959. But it was bestowed without the presence of the excessively shy Carruth, who refused to attend the ceremony.

He was an outsider in most respects: a self-proclaimed anarchist, who wrote unflatteringly of his family; an alcoholic who suffered from paralyzing phobias; a poet who lived on a hill farm far removed from the literary mainstream.

“Hayden Carruth is vast; he contains multitudes,” poet David Barber once wrote. “Of the august order of American poets born in the Twenties, he is undoubtedly the most difficult to reconcile to the convenient branches of classification and affiliation, odd man out in any tidy scheme of influence and descent.”

Born on Aug. 3, 1921, in Waterbury, Conn., where his father was a newspaper editor, he studied journalism at the University of North Carolina, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1943. After serving in Italy with the Army during World War II, he used the GI Bill to further his education at the University of Chicago. There he discovered that poetry was his true calling.

After earning a master’s in Chicago in 1948, he went to work for Poetry magazine, which had published some of his poems. He became its editor in 1950 and wrote a controversial defense of Ezra Pound, the modernist poet charged with treason for his pro-Fascist views.

A short time later, he lost his job. Then his first wife left him, taking with her their newborn daughter, Martha (who died of cancer in 1997).

He found a new job, at the University of Chicago Press, and he remarried. But, as he noted 20 years later in “The Bloomingdale Papers” (1974), named after the New York mental hospital where he was treated with electroshock for acute anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia, it was a trying time when

Booze helped immensely.

Work also, but not,

Unfortunately, writing.

Friends and parties and lovers

Lent ease to my unease

Sparingly. The doctors kept

The anxious pot aboil.

So passed the years.

When he was released from Bloomingdale 15 months later, he was so emotionally fragile that he lived in his parents’ attic for five years. When he was well enough, he embarked on the “hack work” that allowed him to eke out a meager living. He wrote for hardware catalogs, typed manuscripts, edited encyclopedias and churned out book reviews. He spent several years compiling the poems for his anthology.

In 1961, he married for the third time and with his new wife, Rose Marie Dorn, had a son, David. Because he still “couldn’t function in a social situation,” they moved to a farm in Johnson, Vt., about 25 miles from the Canadian border, where he worked outdoors every day, chopping wood, digging potatoes and cutting hay.

[more]

Prepare

“Why don’t you write me a poem that will prepare me for your
death?” you said.
It was a rare day here in our climate, bright and sunny. I didn’t feel like
dying that day.
I didn’t even want to think about it — my lovely knees and bold
shoulders broken open,
Crawling with maggots. Good Christ! I stood at the window and I saw
a strange dog
Running in the field with its nose down, sniffing the snow, zigging and
zagging,
And whose dog is that? I asked myself. As if I didn’t know. The limbs
of the apple trees
Were lined with snow, making a bright calligraphy against the world,
messages to me
From an enigmatic source in an obscure language. Tell me, how shall I
decipher them?
And a jay slanted down to the feeder and looked at me behind my glass
and squawked.
Prepare, prepare. Fuck you, I said, come back tomorrow. And here he
is in this new gray and gloomy morning.
We’re back to our normal weather. Death in the air, the idea of death
settling around us like mist,
And I am thinking again in despair, in desperation, how will it happen?
Will you wake up
Some morning and find me lying stiff and cold beside you in our bed?
How atrocious!
Or will I fall asleep in the car, as I nearly did a couple of weeks ago,
and drive off the road
Into a tree? The possibilities are endless and not at all fascinating,
except that I can’t stop
Thinking about them, can’t stop envisioning that moment of hideous
violence.
Hideous and indescribable as well, because it won’t happen until it’s
over. But not for you
For you it will go on and on, thirty years or more, since that’s the
distance between us
In our ages. The loss will be a great chasm with no bridge across it
(for we both know
Our life together, so unexpected, is entirely loving and rare). Living
on your own —
Where will you go? what will you do? And the continuing sense of
displacement
From what we’ve had in this little house, our refuge on our green or
snowbound
Hill. Life is not easy and you will be alive. Experience reduces itself to
platitudes always,
Including the one which says that I’ll be with you forever in your
memories and dreams.
I will. And also in hundreds of keepsakes, such as this scrap of a poem
you are reading now.

“Prepare” is from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995,
available from Copper Canyon Press

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4 thoughts on “Hayden Carruth

  1. I can’t believe I didn’t see this one right in front of my eyes! I’m so sad…what a loss. Yet again!! His work sings of the land and the people. So beautiful. But thank you for posting this. I had no idea he passed away. It’s a wonderful tribute.

  2. LOVE Hayden. He had a hard life and might be glad to be reunited with earth, I don’t know. A long life and it wasn’t easy but he still managed to leave beauty behind, along with the sorrows. Raise a glass to Hayden, all!

    Soon sistah!

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