For over thirty years, the University of Michigan Press’ “Under Discussion” series has published exemplary books on contemporary American poets. Now there is one on Hayden Carruth, and it is long overdue. From Sorrow’s Well: The Poetry of Hayden Carruth presents essays, interviews, poems, and reviews of his work that span forty years and parse his achievements into four broad categories: realist, jazzman, survivor, and innovator. Allow me to get the caveats and criticisms out of the way at once, then proceed to praise From Sorrow’s Well.
Firstly, Shaun Griffin, the editor of this volume, should have written a lengthy introduction that explained the context and principles of selection for the various pieces gathered herein. Griffin’s original manuscript was apparently twice its current size. Who made the final excisions that slimmed it down to 240 pages? And while the oldest essay is from 1970 and the newest from 2008, the bulk of these essays were first published in a 1990 issue of The Seneca Review (one assumes that Deborah Tall must have launched a special issue of that magazine dedicated to Carruth, but Griffin never tells us). Why were there not more recent essays on Carruth from 2005-2012, which might have focused on his final books? Were more recent essays simply not good enough, or were none being produced? One is left wondering whether there is continued scholarship on Carruth today, but Griffin doesn’t address the question. Secondly, Griffin needed to consider more fully the permeability between the categories he establishes in the book’s four sections. In section 2, for instance, on Hayden as jazzman, he is celebrated as an improviser and innovator, but in section 4 he is again featured as “innovator—creator of multiple poetic forms,” which covers some of the same stylistic territory. Similarly, several essays from section 3, on Hayden as survivor, examine the paradox of Carruth as rural isolationist who nevertheless insists on poetry’s social utility; but this overlaps with Section 1, whose very title, Carruth as “realist—the social art of a solitary man,” promises more of the same subject matter. Lastly, and most importantly to the arc of these essays and the import of the entire book, Griffin needed to argue for the urgency of this volume on Carruth (and the struggle to get it to press). The “Under Discussion” series focuses on contemporary American poets “about whom the consensus has not yet been formed and the final vote has not been taken.” Griffin might have used this quote as a catalyst, reminding us (with proper indignation) how long it has taken for such a volume on Carruth to appear (2013, five years after his death) and comparing it to other volumes in the series, many of whose poets are still living (Jean Valentine, Frank Bidart, Louise Gluck, James Tate, Charles Simic, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell) or were alive at the time of their appearance in the “Under Discussion” series.
All of this matters because From Sorrow’s Well has a tone that is partly honorific but partly embattled—against whom? Doug Unger identifies some of the antagonists outright: literary critic Marjorie Perloff glorifies avante writers such as the “language poets” and dismisses Carruth as passé; Helen Vendler champions more urban darlings such as Jorie Graham and John Ashbery. In another essay, Denise Levertov takes Robert Duncan to task for his attacks on Carruth. Even the subtext of praise-pieces by Wendell Berry and Adrienne Rich suggest Carruth’s outsider status—a poet who is positioned (and positioned himself) as a rural isolationist, on the far edge of the literary establishment and the academic community, writing poems about the working class of Johnson, Vermont, at a time when most other poets paid little heed to these marginalized voices or to the formalist experiments Carruth was undertaking. As several of the volume’s essayists point out, Carruth’s poetic fame arrived late in life. Many of his books were out of print until Sam Hamill, editor of Copper Canyon Press, revived Carruth’s career by publishing The Collected Shorter Poems (1992) and The Collected Longer Poems (1993), and later, still, published Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Doctor Jazz, Letters to Jane, Toward the Distant Islands: New & Selected Poems (2008, the year he died), and a posthumous collection, Last Poems (2012). Now, with the publication of From Sorrow’s Well, there’s a compilation of essays and interviews equal to the task of addressing the many facets of Carruth, from formalist to poetic improviser and innovator; from rural northern farmer to urban jazzman and urbane literary critic; from neurotic isolationist to clear-eyed observer of insanity and its cure in social connection. I’m happy now to recount the wonders of this collection.
The first section of From Sorrow’s Well explores Carruth’s social realist poetry (poems about his hardscrabble Vermont neighbors—farmers and loggers—as well as the working class of Syracuse, NY), his anarchist politics, and his philosophical predilections. Among the best pieces is an interview with David Weiss, in which Carruth discusses the origins of his beliefs. His father, the editor of a daily newspaper, told him, “Don’t ever take any job that isn’t a service to the community.” From there, we learn of Carruth’s disaffection with Modernist poets who, he says, “created in their poems an imaginary world that would be saner and safer and more bearable than the actual one.” By contrast, Carruth’s commitment is to poetry about the real world: “That’s been the guideline of my work. I have never been a poet for poetry’s sake.” Carruth rejects Modernism in other ways too: for instance, he dismisses the notion of “masterpieces,” of perfectly made art objects independent of the world from which they were constructed. At best, says Carruth, in the contemporary period where old belief systems have broken down, we make fragmentary objects in “the chaotic situation we now live in.” In his anarchist politics, Carruth champions, above all, individual freedom. The only safeguard to that, he says, is through imagination and creative work, produced in the service of “the real,” to help people be “more aware of life in general.” Finally, we learn of his philosophical underpinnings: his existentialism rooted especially in Camus, as well as his admiration for Kant and Schopenhauer. Carruth identifies himself as both philosopher and poet, saying that the poet works with imagination and the philosopher with reason, both of which he requires in his poetry and which yield much abstract talk and ideation alongside the richly detailed images of his poems.
Adrienne Rich, represented by a book review she wrote in 1971 on two of Carruth’s early volumes, For You: Poems and The Clay Hill Anthology, presciently imagines (and counsels) the future direction of his poetry. On the one hand, she gently criticizes Carruth for imitating Ezra Pound, especially “the verbal nostalgia and hyper-musicality at the expense of naturalness—qualities into which Pound’s imitators, including the best of them, have often fallen.” On the other hand, she praises Carruth where he discovers a more common language, poems of “tensility, toughness and genuine music—the music of a real man’s voice speaking his own language.” She looks forward to his future books which will throw off all influence and speak, as Carruth himself might have said, from the voice that is great within us. She also praises Carruth for confronting madness—”poems out of Bedlam were not yet fashionable in 1957″—for confronting inward despair with a language that is tough enough to be a tool for his own survival—as Rich says, “first for oneself, then perhaps for others.” Thus, Rich admires in Carruth what is also important to her: how he turns inward struggle to social utility, how he moves among the actual facts of existence, looks into the core of nothingness “with the most acute, unswerving, unhysterical perception of absurdity” and still produces poems that might help others to live their lives.
The most up-to-date essay in From Sorrow’s Well is undated, but one suspects it was written as a eulogy by his friend and fiction-writing colleague at Syracuse University, Douglas Unger. Like the other writers assembled in this section, Unger praises Carruth for the political engagement and social utility of his poetry, and he rails against postmodern critics such as Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler who harshly dismissed Carruth’s work as narrative, formalist, passé. For Unger, Carruth “is the master in poetry of the speaking voice,” and Voice arises not from deconstructionist experiments but from commitment to real political and social issues. Unger laments the lack of political backbone in American poetry, and he conjectures that the voices in Carruth’s poems that “argue for their own worth, offering a system of countervailing values to the obscene culture of American consumerism” will become more necessary, more sought after as our late-Capitalist culture “crumbles around itself in the new century” and readers seek meaning and value again in American poetry.
Finally, among the many pieces in section 1, there’s a fine book review of Brothers, I Loved You All by Geoffrey Gardner, published in American Poetry Review (1981). Firstly, Gardner worries that in the current (1981) climate of deconstructionist criticism, Carruth’s book might not be read at all; secondly, he praises it for the “rich scope of its materials,” “the overwhelming mastery of forms and styles,” the wholeness of its poetic enterprise, and the insistence of its connections between art and life. “Reading a book like this,” says Gardner, “I become furious that for years and years and years . . . our poetry has been read by virtually no one but poets and college students and their teachers.” He places Carruth “among our best poets” who write “what is urgent, common, primary, and public,” and he takes to task those poets who create “exhaustless chains of images” but lack any musicality, necessity, or conviction in their work. Not only does Carruth have an ear finely attuned to language and cadence, he also hears voices, says Gardner—both the human speech of Yankee Vermonters and the inhuman speech of wind in the trees or brook-water over stones. And this “uncanny fidelity to the speech of the people around him,” suggests Gardner, is tied to his great capacity for empathy. Gardner covers all of the important poems in Brothers, I Loved You All, including the poem “Vermont,” which is a masterful reply to Frost’s poem “New Hampshire,” parodying the Frost piece, demonstrating what the real speech of the region sounded like, and extending Frost’s discourse on rural life to “an overwhelming protest against grinding poverty and the destruction of farming and native character that are the consequences of development and tourism . . . . Carruth comes to the politics of all this with a vengeance and avoids absolutely anything like the foolishness of Frost’s persona of official public sage.” Gardner ends with the final long poem of the book, “Paragraphs,” and cannily answers the concerns Adrienne Rich raised ten years previous when, in her 1971 book review of The Clay Hill Anthology, she worried about Ezra Pound’s influence on Carruth. Gardner concludes, “’Paragraphs’ . . . is true to Pound’s ideals of clarity and hardness of detail and the avoidance of sentimentality. But Carruth’s language itself, its cadences and feeling, owes nothing to Pound. Unlike so much Pound inspired work, this is no imitation.”
In section 2, Carruth as jazzman, David Budbill delivers a spirited piece on his friendship with Carruth, how they spent more time listening to jazz than talking about poetry. Budbill focuses on the quality of that listening—attentive, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, rapturous—and how Carruth converted that listening to poetry. Here’s Carruth writing about jazz trombonist Vic Dickenson soloing on a tune called “Society Blues”: “smears, brays—Christ / the dirtiest noises imaginable / belches, farts / curses / but it was music.” As Budbill interprets it, “how else is a Black man lost in a racist society to have his say and still keep his neck the length it is supposed to be?” Overall, Budbill argues that Carruth’s “great ears” (for listening to jazz) are also great ears for listening “to the world both outside and inside the self” and then expertly, rhythmically articulating it. This talent also extends to Carruth’s ability to listen to and then ventriloquize exactly the speech and cadence of northern Vermonters or suburbanites around Syracuse, Carruth’s two home-bases in the last fifty years of his life.
Sascha Feinstein, too, in an exuberant interview with Carruth, hypothesizes (and Hayden concurs) that there are similarities between the way Vic Dickenson composes a jazz solo and the way Carruth composes a poem. For starters, says Carruth, the jazz musician “who’s playing a twelve bar blues,” is playing a “form that’s absolutely fixed—as fixed as a triolet in poetry, or any other artificial form—and yet it provides him or her with almost limitless freedom . . . in the way of harmonic and rhythmic invention. In my writing of poetry, I have always tried to emulate the improvisation that occurs within a fixed and sure and recognizable form.” Beyond this rather generic analogy between poetry and jazz, Carruth praises Dickenson’s playing because it’s “raucous and ripe,” it “exploits the instrument fully and with great technical virtuosity,” it has “exuberance and vitality” and “sweetness of emotional fabric.” Of course, Carruth hopes (and Feinstein concurs) that these same elements exist in his poetry.
Two other essays, among the many pieces gathered in section 2, stand out. Matt Miller examines, too, how Carruth’s poetry emanates from jazz, especially with its notion of improvisation within a fixed form and its ambition to communicate “a love supreme,” with words, beyond words. Miller praises the “truth value” in Carruth’s poems, then goes on to define a complex notion of truth, which is like the jazz musician finding it in the moment of the music—both a solitary discovery, but also a social one, in that it is delivered to an audience. Miller’s essay is the most comprehensive, covering almost a dozen Carruth books, from early ones such as The Crow and the Heart and Nothing for Tigers to books from his middle years such as The Sleeping Beauty and Brothers, I Loved You All. And Miller uses this wide-ranging study to demonstrate how Carruth broke away from the Modernist influences one sees so clearly in his rather stiff early books with their “finely tempered mixes of stress, sound, and objectified imagery,” to arrive at a style more influenced by jazz, in which he “loosens his hold on the language and becomes casual, intimate, more himself . . . pressing toward speech . . . a more rounded mastery of form and a deepening of vision.”
Finally, Brian Henry’s essay makes an interesting case for the singularity of Carruth’s jazz methods: Carruth is distinguished “from other poets who have written about jazz rather than from within it.” Henry’s examination of the jazz-like qualities in Carruth’s poetry constitutes the most overtly musical analysis of this section. To my ear, he’s sometimes spot-on in his assessments, but at other times his analyses of a poem’s jazz rhythms and structures seem overly fussy without capturing the jazz quality; and at his worst moments, his analyses sound protracted and pedantic, more willful than actually accomplished. Henry is best at analyzing how Carruth creates structure and then improvises on it, much as jazz musicians do. Like Carruth, he insists on the musical quality of poetry, as well as its grammatical and visual beauty, if it is to be a poem at all. And he conjectures that Carruth might be our premiere “blues poet,” not only because of his love of refrain (and variation within refrain) but also because of his life’s content—mental illness, divorce, ill health, poverty, suicide attempts, isolation, hard manual (and intellectual) labor—most of which inhabit the province of the blues.
The third section of From Sorrow’s Well examines Carruth as “survivor—writing through poverty, personal chaos, and literary isolation”—and it records reminiscences from several of Hayden’s long-distance admirers who grew to be solicitous and long-time friends, including Wendell Berry, Denise Levertov, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and Carolyn Kizer. Berry’s essay, “My Friend Hayden,” starts with a story about the significance of Hayden’s book North Winter. Long before Berry met Carruth, he had read North Winter in manuscript form when his (and Hayden’s) mutual friend Denise Levertov “handed me a sheaf of poems, a carbon copy on yellow paper.” Those poems recreated a very specific place—Johnson, Vermont—that was not a literary place, not a famous art center, not even famous in Vermont, but that through Hayden’s passion, attention, and imagination, became for the reader an important place in the world. It was because of this book, Berry says, that he found the courage to leave New York City and return to his farm in Kentucky where he would live and write for the rest of his life. Over those years, he would meet Carruth, who became both a good friend and a mentor. Berry’s love of Hayden has something to do with the “extraordinary continuousness between listening to Hayden and reading him,” which Berry attributes to Hayden’s realism. By that, he means Hayden doesn’t idealize things in his poetry and therefore is not a different man in his life than in his art. Rather, there is a seamlessness to Hayden which comes from trying to have a livable life, one that might be on the “losing side of the ideal” but is nevertheless a life of struggle, lit with periodic optimism, and therefore, an affirmation. Berry quotes a few lines from Hayden’s poetry: “the point is, there’s a losing kind of man / who still will save the world if anybody / can save it.” Berry praises Hayden’s book Brothers, I Loved You All and focuses particularly on the poem “Marshall Washer,” which is at once an homage for that eponymous farmer and neighbor and an elegy for the disappearance of small-scale farming in modern times. The loss of those “cowshit farmers” is the loss of that manure which is “the link eternal,” the bond between humans and the land. For Berry, poetry and farming are both necessary arts, and Hayden’s poem is an appreciation and reverence for both of them. Berry praises Carruth for being a survivor in this isolated rural world and for championing those who live in it.
The other marvelous essay in this section is by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who writes about Hayden’s contrarian and contradictory nature: On the one hand, he’s a pessimist who complains about discontent, misery, and raw wretchedness (Schwartz is a kindred spirit, who befriends him initially on this basis); on the other hand, he praises hard work, necessity, and love, as if the world had meaning (and this, ultimately, is what endears him to Schwartz and, I suspect, to all his other admirers and friends). He despairs about the limits of language (“only one tenth of experience can be translated into words,” he says) even as he devotes himself to poetry. He complains of old age and the depletion of his body and mind, even as he believes that with old age he’s drawing closer to a blessed state of “egolessness,” which represents a kind of ineffable omnipresence. Schwartz praises Hayden’s bravery and commitment to “emotional and intellectual accuracy;” and while he is a hard-headed realist, she also admires him for contrary feelings like this—”In the mystery of the word/is a force/contained but not expressed”—or this—”The stuff / of ego with which we began . . . / filters away/as love accumulates. Now / I am almost entirely love.”
Section 4 examines Carruth as “innovator—creator of multiple poetic forms like the paragraph, georgic, epic, and Vermont poems.” Though there’s considerable overlap—in subject matter and stylistic analysis—with previous essays in the book, there are nevertheless some fine essays to explore. Marilyn Hacker, a gifted formalist poet, demonstrates her knowledge of versification by analyzing Carruth’s borrowings of verse forms from Greek and Latin (“the modified alcaic stanza”) and haiku, and categorizing Carruth’s invented verse forms such as the “paragraph,” (a 15-line “accentual”—not accentual-syllabic—”sonnet” with rhyme scheme) and the “georgic” (“quatrains of alternating eight- and six-syllable lines, with the second and fourth rhyming”). I’m surprised Hacker doesn’t discuss Carruth’s Vermont monologues in which he invents the orthography for various rural dialects, from Yankee farmer to French-Canadian logger to Downeaster. This accomplishment, it seems to me, is more unique than his erotic lyrics or elegies or even his borrowings from the haiku.
The best and longest essay in the book is by a writer previously unknown to me, Ben Howard. Were he still alive, Hayden Carruth would praise this essay for its fearless, clear-eyed, no-nonsense examination of the poet and his poetry. Howard’s piece is not honorific fluff; instead he offers the deeper honor of a full, intelligent examination of the contradictions in Carruth’s poetry—both fruitful contradictions that yield his greatest poems, as well as contradictions that create flaws and inconsistencies in his work and perhaps limit his greatness (in the larger scheme of things where we rank the immortals). Overall, Ben Howard praises Carruth’s work and its meaningful contradictions that demonstrate the great sweep of his intelligence and his varied interests, some of which demand traditional lyrics using strict or loose metrical and rhyme schemes, and others of which call for open-ended, fragmentary texts. Howard suggests that Carruth is never whimsical in his choice of poetic subject or structure but that it’s tied to a deeply personal, philosophical, and aesthetic vision of the world. Carruth is both old-school humanist and hard-headed realist of “what is.” He is both a passionate and moral lover of the human and natural worlds, as well as a cold, objective observer. Carruth embraces existentialism, which means that he sometimes sinks toward pessimism, madness, and suicide, and yet he celebrates those who despite adversity endure and survive. Howard is especially good at examining the deep logic of Carruth’s “equivalentism” or “radical relativism.” For Carruth, a stone, a star, a human, and art itself are equal and deserve equal attention inside a poem. While Howard quibbles with this philosophy as it’s applied to the practicalities of the literary world—i. e., on what basis does “Carruth the editor select poems for an anthology or Carruth the critic value one poem or author over another”?—Howard turns a laser-like focus on the poetic methods Carruth employs to achieve this philosophical end in his poems. Answer: “Carruth’s diction reflects a principle of inclusiveness; his imagery projects a vision of interrelatedness”—and Howard offers plenty of examples of both. Howard also demonstrates Carruth’s expansiveness by looking at the range of dictions, tones and voices he uses in his poetry: from the colorful vernacular of Yankee New England and upstate rural New York to the abstract philosophical terminology and highfalutin languages inside the Academy; from personal lyrics in the author’s own voice to persona poems spoken through a variety of masks; from human-centered selfish concerns to selfless contemplation of the stars in a universe that will go on long after him. As Howard says in his closing praise of Carruth, “To attend to the garbage and slaughter, as well as the comeliness in nature and humanity, is a mark of spiritual maturity. And to give nearly equal weight to those opposed elements, seeing them as they are, is a singular virtue of Hayden Carruth.”
As Shaun Griffin does in From Sorrow’s Well, I’ll give Hayden Carruth the final word:
At last, at last the night
lies down beneath the hill
and the busy city in the sky
becomes visible. What
a bustling and confusion of
activity up there! I
can see the rape of Helen
and hear my own first cry
when I was born, for both
of which I feel profoundly
sorry. Somewhere nearby
meanwhile a Paleolithic
confides his commentary.
HC, Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey
- On From Sorrow’s Well: The Poetry of Hayden Carruth by Shaun T. Griffin, ed. - April 10, 2015
- Neil Shepard on the First 25 Years of GMR - January 9, 2013