Inveterate wordsmith and drinker Hayden Carruth was born in 1921 in Connecticut U.S.A. He lived most of his adult life in Vermont, teaching and writing something like thirty books of poetry and criticism. His poems can observe the hardships of rural life, ruminate on his skepticism, or express his politics. He is capable of an as effusive an elegy as anyone but I feel like he's celebrating that place or that life "as it was" - no romantic he. He is a self described "pessimist and grump." His poems are unsentimental, the forms are simple and have jazz influence, his diction plain, his tone curmudgeonly, you can hear the gravel of drink and the lilt of New England in his voice. Here is a frank portrait of him done for the University of Chicago Magazine. A little excerpt:
Writes Pulitzer-winning poet Galway Kinnell, “More than in the case of any other poet, Carruth responds to Whitman’s words: ‘I was the man, I suffer’d, I was there.’”
For Carruth struggle has been the stuff of life and poetry. “If you’ve got any courage and any sense of responsibility, you’ll do what you have to do,” he observes. “I don’t give myself any extraordinary credit for that. But the difficulties were there and the difficulties made my poetry better. I’m convinced of that.”
I'll include some earlier poems and some from his more recent Doctor Jazz - which feels to me like a departure - including a section called The Afterlife, a section on Basho the Japanese poet - the first poem is from that set - I think it is wickedly funny, another set he calls Faxes, and an impressive elegy to his daughter, whom he has outlived. I adore the poem Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey.
Had you air, Basho?
I mean enough to climb those
mountains? Or did you
stop every ten steps,
leaning on your staff and gasping
like a fish ashore?
The Way of the Coventicle of the Trees
Just yesterday afternoon I heard a man
Say he lived in a house with no windows
The door of which was locked on the outside.
This was at a party in New York, New York.
A deep Oriental type, I said to myself,
One of them indescribable Tebootans who
Habitate on Quaker Heights and drink
Mulled kvass first thing every morning
With their vitamins. An asshole. And
Haven't I more years than he? Haven't
I spent them looking out the window
At the trees? Oh the various trees.
They have looked back at me with their
Homely American faces: the hemlocks
And white birches of one of my transient
Homes, the catalpas and honey locusts
Of another, the sweet gum and bay and
Coffee trees, the hop hornbeam and the
Spindle tree, the dogwood, the great.
Horse chestnut, the overdressed pawpaw
Who is the gamin of that dominion.
Then, behind them, the forest, the sodality.
What pizzazz in their theorizing! How fat
The sentimentibilities of their hosannas!
I have looked at them out the window
So intently and persistently that always
My who-I-am has gone out among them
Where the fluttering ideas beckon. Yes,
We've been best friends these sixty-nine
Years, standing around this hot stove
Of a world, hawking, phewing, guffawing,
My dear ones, who will remember me
For a long, long time when I'm gone.
Words in a Certain Appropriate Mode
It is not music, though one has tried music.
It is not nature, though one has tried
The rose, the bluebird, and the bear.
It is not death, though one has often died.
None of these things is there.
In the everywhere that is nowhere
Neither the inside nor the outside
Neither east nor west nor down nor up
Where the loving smile vanishes, vanishes
In the evanescence from a coffee cup
Where the song crumbles in monotone
Neither harmonious nor inharmonious
Where one is neither alone
Nor not alone, where cognition seeps
Jactatively away like the falling tide
If there were a tide, and what is left
Is nothing, or is the everything that keeps
Its undifferentiated unreality, all
Being neither given nor bereft
Where there is neither breath nor air
The place without locality, the locality
With neither extension nor intention
But there in the weightless fall
Between all opposites to the ground
That is not a ground, surrounding
All unities, without grief, without care
Without leaf or star or water or stone
Without light, without sound
anywhere, anywhere. . .
Coming home with the last load I ride standing
on the wagon tongue, behind the tractor
in hot exhaust, lank with sweat,
my arms strung
awkwardly along the hayrack, cruciform.
Almost 500 bales we've put up
this afternoon, Marshall and I.
And of course I think of another who hung
like this on another cross. My hands are torn
by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced
by my ulcer, not a lance. The acid in my throat
is only hayseed. Yet exhaustion and the way
my body hangs from twisted shoulders, suspended
on two points of pain in the rising
monoxide, recall that greater suffering.
Well, I change grip and the image
fades. It's been an unlucky summer. Heavy rains
brought on the grass tremendously, a monster crop,
but wet, always wet. Haying was long delayed.
Now is our last chance to bring in
the winter's feed, and Marshall needs help.
We mow, rake, bale, and draw the bales
to the barn, these late, half-green,
improperly cured bales; some weight 150 pounds
or more, yet must be lugged by the twine
across the field, tossed on the load, and then
at the barn unloaded on the conveyor
and distributed in the loft. I help-
I, the desk-servant, word-worker-
and hold up my end pretty well too; but God,
the close of day, how I fall down then. My hands
are sore, they flinch when I light my pipe.
I think of those who have done slave labor,
less able and less well prepared than I.
Rose Marie in the rye fields of Saxony,
her father in the camps of Moldavia
and the Crimea, all clerks and housekeepers
herded to the gaunt fields of torture. Hands
too bloodied cannot bear
even the touch of air, even
the touch of love. I have a friend
whose grandmother cut cane with a machete
and cut and cut, until one day
she snicked her hand off and took it
and threw it grandly at the sky. Now
in September our New England mountains
under a clear sky for which we're thankful at last
begin to glow, maples, beeches, birches
in their first color. I look
beyond our famous hayfields to our famous hills,
to the notch where the sunset is beginning,
then in the other direction, eastward,
where a full new-risen moon like a pale
medallion hangs in a lavender cloud
beyond the barn. My eyes
sting with sweat and loveliness. And who
is the Christ now, who
if not I? It must be so. My strength
is legion. And I stand up high
on the wagon tongue in my whole bones to say
woe to you, watch out
you sons of bitches who would drive men and women
to the fields where they can only die.
Because I Am
in mem. Sidney Bechet, 1897-1959
Because I am a memorious old man
I've been asked to write about you, Papa Sidney,
Improvising in standard meter on a well-known
Motif, as you did all those nights in Paris
And the World. I remember once in Chicago
On the Near North where you were playing with
A white band, how you became disgusted
And got up and sat in front next to the bandstand
And ordered four ponies of brandy; and then
You drank them one by one, and threw the empty
Glasses at the trumpet-player. Everyone laughed,
Of course, but you were dead serious - sitting there
With your fuzzy white head, in your rumpled navy
Serge. When you lifted that brass soprano to your
Lips and blew, you were superb, the best of all,
The first and best, an Iliad to my ears.
And always your proper creole name was mis-
Pronounced. Now you are lost in the bad shoadows
Of time past; you are a dark man in the darkness,
Who knew us all in music. Out of the future
I hear ten thousand saxophones mumbling
In your riffs and textures, Papa Sidney. And when
I stand up trembling in darkness to recite
I see sparkling glass ponies come sailing at me
Out of the reaches of the impermeable night.
I don't think I can resist giving you some of Dearest M - . It's a sixteen-page elegy Carruth wrote for his daughter. Here's just a little bit:
Martha did her painting in private. We rarely
saw her at work.
If by chance we did, she would stand pointedly
in front of her easel, shielding the canvas
from our view. Similarly, she did not talk
about her painting, perhpas because she was
self-taught and didn't know the words -
but that's nonsense.
She was as language-driven as her father,
she had plenty of words. Bujt process was
something she did not wish to discuss.
were neither representational nor abstract.
She painted what she saw, supplying color and contrast
from the deepest recesses of her imagination,
as when one dreams
of what one has seen just before falling asleep.
An outdoor table and umbrella
by the sea with a white sailboat in the distance
and the shadow of the umbrella falling just so,
steeply pitched across the astonishing pineapple
and the bottle of wine.
Can a father recover his daughter in a painting?
Or in an orange-and-umber blouse he gave her
ten years ago?
Well, sometimes the heart in its excess enacts
such pageantry. But it is hollow, hollow.
The apple tree is gone. Eurydice has gone back
to hell, weeping and grim, betrayed. The night
is Pluto's cave. I've turned on all the lights
in this little house on the hill, my defiance
of metaphysical reality and the Niagara-Mohawk
Power Corporation. Idly, as so often, I am
staring at my watch, the numbers clicking away,
hours, minutes, seconds, but time is the most
unrealizable quantity. How long has Eurydice
been gone - a moment or always? And now
suddenly the lights go off. Something somewhere
is broken. The autumn wind has blown down
a tree across the lines. Where did I put that candle
I used to have? Somewhere a glitch is glitching, yet
this is a familiar place, I can move in the dark.
Martha was dead for two minutes, then two hours,
then ten, and will it become a day, two days, with her
not here? Impossible. I cannot think it.
Yet the lighted numbers on my watch keep turning,
ticking and turning. The numbered pages of my books
smolder on my shelves, surrounding me. Alas my dear,
alas. Time and number are a metaphysical reality
Scrambled Eggs And Whiskey
Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren't we fine tonight?
When Hank set up that limping
treble roll behind me
my horn just growled and I
thought my heart would burst.
And Brad M. pressing with the
soft stick and Joe-Anne
singing low. Here we are now
in the White Tower, leaning
on one another, too tired
to go home. But don't say a word,
don't tell a soul, they wouldn't
understand, they couldn't, never
in a million years, how fine,
how magnificent we were
in that old club tonight.