I, I, I
I, I, I
I, I, I
In 1996, American poet Hayden Carruth published his poem "I, I, I" in his collection, Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995. At that time, Carruth was already an established and popular poet who had published many collections of poetry since 1959. While he is viewed as a proponent of twentieth-century modernism, he defies categorization and, indeed, has consciously resisted it. In his poetry, Carruth moves easily between free verse and verse written in rhyme and meter.
Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1996 was generally well received by critics and won a National Book Award in poetry for the poet in the year 1996. "I, I, I" is written in non-rhyming free verse. Thematically, the poem is a poetic version of the bildungsroman (a novel dealing with the development or coming-of-age of a young protagonist). It raises and, to some extent answers, questions about self-identity through a memorable boyhood experience of the speaker. The poet's treatment of the experience is highly personal but shows the influence of existentialism and Eastern mysticism. The poem appears to be autobiographical, in that it is written in the first person and the speaker's physical appearance matches that of Carruth himself.
Hayden Carruth was born on August 3, 1921, in Waterbury, Connecticut, to Gorton Veeder
Carruth, a newspaper editor, and Margery Barrow Carruth. He received a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1943 and an M.A. in English from the University of Chicago in 1947. During World War II, Carruth served for two years in the United States Army Air Corps. From 1949 to 1950, he was the editor of Poetry magazine. He was associate editor at the University of Chicago Press from 1950 to 1951, and project administrator for Intercultural Publications, the publishing project of the Ford Foundation, from 1952 to 1953.
In 1953, Carruth suffered an emotional breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in White Plains, New York. His doctors encouraged him to write as a means of therapy, and he kept journals and wrote poetry.
He left the hospital in 1955, and for the next five years, Carruth lived a life apart from the mainstream of society in his parents' house in Pleasantville, New York. He subsequently lived for two years in Norfolk, Connecticut. From 1962 on for a period of eighteen years, he and his third wife, Rose Marie Dorn, lived in seclusion in the woods of northern Vermont, mixing with the local farmhands and writing about the rural poor. This was not an ideologically motivated move; Carruth's chronic psychiatric disorders had made life in a city and work in an office or classroom intolerable.
In 1970, Carruth was appointed advisory editor for Hudson Review, a position he held for twenty-five years. From 1977 to 1981, he was the poetry editor of Harper's magazine. In 1979, Carruth accepted a professorship at Syracuse University, where he worked until his retirement in 1991.
Carruth's failed suicide attempt in 1988 paradoxically heralded a positive phase in his life. He notes in his essay "Suicide" (cited by Eric Murphy Selinger in his article on Carruth, "The Importance of a Small Floy Floy") that since childhood, he had been struck by a sense of "the purposelessness of it all, of existence as such." Even the most beautiful or compelling things, he writes, "were pointless." In contrast, after his suicide attempt, he reflected, "I discovered in suicide a way to unify my sense of self, the sense which had formerly been so refracted and broken up."
Politically, Carruth described himself as an anarchist. He publicly opposed the Vietnam War, and, in 1998, refused an invitation from President Bill and Hillary Clinton to attend a celebration at the White House, on the grounds that the government only cared about the interests of those for whom poets and the poor were irrelevant. In 2003, galvanized by President George W. Bush's announcement of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he posted a poem of protest on the website of Poets Against War (http://www.poetsagainstwar.com/chapbook.asp#Carruth).
Carruth published many books, chiefly of poetry but also a novel, four books of criticism, and two anthologies. His subject matter varies widely but includes man's place in the universe and in nature, rural people and their lives and work, human relationships, and jazz music, which many critics believe influenced his poetry. One of his most admired poetry collections is Brothers, I Loved You All (1978). The book in which "I, I, I" appears, Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995 (1996), won the National Book Award for Poetry for Carruth in 1996. Later works are Selected Essays & Reviews (1995); Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays (1998); Doctor Jazz: Poems 1996-2000 (2001); and Collected Shorter Poems 1946-1991 (2001). A poetry anthology edited by Carruth, The Voice That Is Great within Us (1970), was in the early 2000s still considered one of the finest collections of contemporary American poetry.
The many prizes, grants, and honors awarded to Carruth include the University of Chicago's Harriet Monroe Award (1960), Guggenheim Fellowships (1965, 1979), National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1968, 1974), the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for Brothers, I Loved You All, the Shelley Prize of the Poetry Society of America (1979), and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1990). In 1988, he was named a senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Carruth's first three marriages ended in divorce. He has a daughter by his first wife, Sara Anderson, and a son by his third, Rose Marie Dorn. In 1989, Carruth married the poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin. As of 2006, they lived in Munnsville, New York.
First, the self. Then, the observing self.
The self that acts and the self that watches. This
The starting point, the place where the mind
Whether the mind of an individual or
The mind of a species. When I was a boy 5
I struggled to understand. For if I know
The self that watches, another watching self
Must see the watcher, then another seeing that,
Another and mother, and where does it end?
And my mother sent me to the barber shop, 10
My first time, to get my hair "cut for a part"
(Instead of the dutch boy she'd always given me),
As I was instructed to tell the barber. She
Dispatched me on my own because the shop,
Which had a pool table in the back, in that 15
Small town was the men's club, and no woman
Would venture there. Was it my first excursion
On my own into the world? Perhaps. I sat
In the big chair. The wall behind me held
A huge mirror, and so did the one in front, 20
So that I saw my own small strange blond head
With its oriental eyes and turned up nose repeated
In ever diminishing images, one behind
Another behind another, and I tried
To peer farther and farther into the succession 25
To see the farthest one, diminutive in
The shadows. I could not. I sat rigid
And said no word. The fat barber snipped
My hair and blew his brusque breath on my nape
And finally whisked away his sheet, and I 30
Climbed down. I ran from that cave of mirrors
A mile and a half to home, to my own room
Up under the eaves, which was another cave.
It had no mirrors. I no longer needed mirrors.
In "I, I, I," the speaker tells of an incident that happened in his boyhood. If it is assumed that Carruth is describing his own experience, this would have taken place in the 1920s. The speaker begins by describing his understanding of the nature of his self from the point of view of mature adulthood. The self is divided into two aspects: the self and the observing self; "The self that acts and the self that watches." He now knows that this realization, this self-awareness, marks the point where the mind of an individual or of a species begins.
The speaker shifts back in time to his boyhood. He struggles to understand the nature of his self. He can grasp the idea of the first self that watches, but the fact that he ("I") can know this watching self means that there must be another "I" who is the knower, a self beyond the first watching self. If he can know this other watching self, then there must be yet another self, watching that watching self, and so on to infinity. As the speaker asks, remembering the bewilderment of his boyhood, "where does it end?"
The speaker remembers an important incident in his childhood that related to his questions regarding the self. His mother sends him to the barbershop to get his hair cut. She tells him to inform the barber that he needs it to be "cut for a part," with the hair parted on one side. It is the first time that he has been to the barber's for a haircut, as prior to this, his mother has always cut his hair in a "dutch boy" style—the kind of haircut that results from placing a bowl on a child's head and cutting around it.
The boy's mother sends him to the barbershop on his own because the shop has a pool table in the back. In the small town where they lived, this was the men's club, and women never ventured there. He wonders whether it was his first excursion into the world on his own and concludes that it may have been.
The boy sits in the barber's big chair. In front of him on the wall is a huge mirror, and behind him on another wall is another mirror. He looks at his image in the mirror in front of him. His image is reflected by the mirror behind him, so that he sees a reflection of his "small strange blond head" repeated in ever diminishing images, one behind another. He strains to see the farthest one, but cannot. He sits rigidly in silence.
The barber finishes cutting the boy's hair. He blows the pieces of hair from the boy's neck and removes the sheet that he has put around his shoulders. The boy climbs down from the chair. He runs from "that cave of mirrors," the barbershop, to his home a mile and a half away. He goes to his room under the eaves of his house, and it seems to him to be another cave. There is one difference, however: this cave has no mirrors. The boy realizes that he no longer needs mirrors. He has reached an understanding that makes them redundant.
The Nature of the Self
"I, I, I" explores the nature of the self, a topic that the speaker has come to understand better as an adult than he did as a child. The poem presents the concept that there are two selves: one that acts and another that watches or witnesses the action. Carruth is describing the moment of individuation, when the self becomes conscious of the self and the concept of I is born: "The starting point, the place where the mind begins." Although it is a moment in time, it is also a state of being, in that it is possible to maintain a simultaneous awareness of the self that acts and the self that watches in everyday activity. Indeed, the boy in the poem has this experience and struggles to understand it; his adult self maintains this experience and has understood it, thanks to the episode in the barbershop.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Write an essay in which you compare and contrast "I, I, I" with William Wordsworth's poem "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." What differences and similarities do you see between the spiritual experiences described in each poem? How does each speaker respond to his experience, and what are the implications or consequences of the experience for him?
- Write a poem about an experience (spiritual or otherwise) that changed your life. You may use free verse or rhyme and meter as you wish. Write a short paragraph on what was gained or lost from writing in verse as opposed to writing your account in prose.
- Research the topic of coming of age and initiation ceremonies in at least two different cultures and create a class presentation on your findings.
- Write an essay in which you relate the experience of the boy speaker in Carruth's "I, I, I" to your own and/or your friends' childhood or teenage experiences. In your view, how usual is his experience and his response to it?
- Research the topic of spiritual experiences from history and the present day. Write a report about the different types of experience and give your view of what is happening in each case.
The concept behind Carruth's poem is that of the dual nature of the self. This concept suggests that one part of the self, the small individual self, is engaged in action in the material world. The other part, the large self, which is eternal in its nature, does not act, but silently witnesses the small self's actions. It remains uninvolved and serene. This concept is common in Eastern mystical traditions. It is found in ancient Indian texts, Buddhist thought, and the writings of some Christian theologians, including St. Augustine and Meister Eckhart.
As a boy, the speaker finds the implications of this idea difficult to grasp. He finally reaches understanding through the incident in the barbershop, which graphically illustrates and makes concrete what previously was only an abstract idea. He looks in the mirror and sees an infinite number of images of himself receding into the "shadows," an image that connotes death. Afterwards, he no longer needs the mirrors that showed him his small self, because he knows the nature and destination of this small self: death.
Coming of Age
There are elements of the boy's experience at the barbershop that are reminiscent of a coming of age or moment of maturation such as might be described in a bildungsroman. In particular, some elements of the experience connote an initiation ceremony into manhood such as are performed in certain cultures, including some Native American and African societies. Common aspects of these traditional ceremonies are that the boy leaves his mother to symbolize his new independence and spends some time alone. The speaker in "I, I, I" also leaves his mother behind, since the place where he is going (the barbershop) is a male domain for two reasons: first, a barber is a hairdresser for men, and second, the shop has a pool table at the back, and playing pool is a traditionally male pastime. The ceremonial nature of the occasion is foreshadowed by the momentous phrase, reminiscent of an adventure story, "no woman / Would venture there."
The sense of initiation is reinforced by the fact that this is his first trip to the barber, and it is possibly his first lone excursion into the world. In addition, the barbershop is described as a "cave," and his own room, on his return from the barber, has become "another cave." Caves, or huts from which all light is blocked out, are traditional sacred locations for initiation ceremonies. The idea is that in the darkness and silence of the cave, distractions that pull the senses outward are minimized, so that the attention can be turned within. The cave in such ceremonies has a dual symbolic aspect: it is both a tomb in which the old self is laid to rest and a second womb from which the initiate is born into a new phase of life. Even the cutting of hair is an important ritual in many cultures. It symbolizes a purification of the old life and a new beginning, as, for example, in some Christian orders of monks and nuns, where the hair is cut when a novice takes vows to enter the order.
All initiation ceremonies aim to ensure that the initiate returns to his home changed in some way: he is wiser, more independent, more of an adult. The boy in Carruth's poem is no exception. He returns home no longer needing mirrors in which to see the reflection of his small self, since he has gained some knowledge of who he is.
"I, I, I" is filled with imagery of contrasting size. The boy speaker and his mother live in a "Small" town; when he gets to the barbershop, the boy sits in a "big" chair; the walls in front of him and behind him hold "huge" mirrors; his head is "small"; the image of his head in the mirror is repeated "In ever diminishing images"; the barber is "fat" and, therefore, bigger than he is; after his haircut, he "Climbed down" from the chair. The overall effect is to emphasize the boy's smallness in a big world. Infinity is bigness drawn out to the ultimate extent, and the image of the small boy peering into the unfathomable distance is a graphic representation of the theme of the poem: the small self being faced with the concept of infinity. The contrast gives an impression of the insignificance and unreality of the small self, and this is reinforced by the strangeness of the boy's face to himself and the repetition of the images of his head. The small self becomes depersonalized, an object which is almost disowned. This is in line with Eastern traditions such as Hindu and Buddhist thought, which view the small self as fundamentally unreal and teach that it is part of the maya, or illusion, of the material world. In these traditions, this concept is not thought of as an abstract or theoretical idea, but as the subjective experience of many people, regardless of culture, religion, or belief.
The barber contrasts with the boy in other ways than size. To the barber, with his quick, snipping movements and "brusque breath," the boy's visit means only another haircut. The barber is in a different world from the boy: he inhabits the everyday world in which time and space are the governing realities and in which speed and efficiency matter. The boy, on the other hand, experiences a moment outside time and space and beyond his familiar small world. Sitting rigid and wordless, he witnesses the dissolution of the ego, the small self that inhabits the world of time and space. He finds himself face to face with death.
The Run-on Line
In poetry, a run-on line is one in which the end of the line does not correspond with a completed unit of meaning. "I, I, I" contains many run-on lines, with commas or periods often occurring within the lines to mark a pause, known as a caesura. The caesura can be used to emphasize what follows or to add the power of silence to what has gone before it. There is a particularly remarkable series of caesuras in a significant part of the poem. The line "To see the farthest one, diminutive in" contains a comma to mark a pause, as the boy strains his eyes to see the most distant image of his head in the mirror. The next line intensifies the boy's effort and failure to bring infinity within the grasp of his senses: "The shadows. I could not. I sat rigid / And said no word." The comma of the previous line has become three periods in just one and a half lines. The pauses are longer and weightier as the power of thought, words, and ideas fails in the presence of infinity. The boy's awed silence is not merely described, but enacted by means of the insistent caesuras.
Carruth repeats certain words in the poem to reinforce the meaning. Lines 2 through 8 has many recurrences of variants on the word watch, which serve to emphasize the progression to infinity of the concept of the watcher, the knowing and conscious self that is conscious of the small, acting self. Lines 7 through 9 repeat the word another, which has a similar effect, drawing attention to the endless repetition of the knowing self to infinity; the word recurs in line 24, as the boy sees the repeated series of images of himself. Lines 25 and 26 echo "farther … farther … / farthest" as he strains to see the most distant image. The repeated words also express the ever-onward march of the boy's busy and bewildered mind as he seeks to force it to contain the uncontainable. Significantly, these repetitions end with a series of caesuras (the comma in line 26 and the three periods in lines 27 and 28) as the seemingly unstoppable activity of his mind freezes into silence.
Though Carruth frequently writes poetry in rhyme and meter, he has written "I, I, I" in free verse, meaning that there are no rhymes and the meter is irregular. This contributes to the informality of the poem, which approximates everyday speech. The ordinariness of the presentation and setting contrasts with the somewhat momentous experience of the boy. Carruth thereby draws attention to the profound possibilities within the mundane events of people's lives and emphasizes the central role of the subjective experience in interpreting the world.
Existentialism and Eastern Thought
Carruth long had an interest in the philosophy of existentialism, and its influence on his work is discernible from the time of his 1964 publication of a book-length imaginary dialogue with the French author and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) entitled After "The Stranger": Imaginary Dialogues with Camus.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1920s: Society in small towns in the United States is to some extent gender-segregated, in that there are places where women do not generally venture. These include public bars, pool rooms, and barbershops.
Today: Gender segregation has largely disappeared. Both women and men frequent bars and pool rooms, and men's barbershops have in many cases been replaced by dual-gender hair salons.
1920s: Ideas prevalent in existentialist and Eastern philosophies are known in some circles of the intelligentsia and academe, but they are not known or discussed in society in general, particularly, perhaps, in small towns in the United States.
Today: Elements of existentialist and Eastern thought are widely disseminated throughout society, for example, through films, popular books, television, and magazines. Eastern religions are taught in religious education classes in schools and colleges. The mystical aspects of religions and New Age ideas are popular with increasingly widespread discussion of spiritual experiences. Consequently, some of the fear and isolation that has often surrounded such experiences in the West has dissolved.
Existentialism is a philosophy that attempts to understand the fundamentals of the human condition and its relation to the world. It eschews externally located absolute values such as reason and religious doctrine and rejects the notion that life has an inherent meaning, instead emphasizing that each individual must evolve his or her own subjective values. As a result, subjective experience is seen as being of paramount importance. According to music critic Annie Holub in her review of "Nowhere Man: Considered to Tears (I Like Red Recordings)" for the Rhythm & Views section of the Tucson Weekly, Hayden Carruth defined existentialism as "the reestablishment of the individual in the face of Nothingness and absurdity." This is also an apt summary of the theme of "I, I, I." The "Nothingness and absurdity" lie in the boy's bewildered imagining of an endless series of watching selves, ending with the exasperated question, "and where does it end?" The "reestablishment of the individual" lies in the boy's attempt to make some sense of his experience in the barbershop.
The boy's sense of alienation is emphasized by his response to the sight of his own reflection, which seems both unfamiliar and foreign: "my own small strange blond head / With its oriental eyes." The "oriental eyes" both reflect a fact of Carruth's physical appearance and recall his interest in Eastern thought. For example, the Chinese poet Tu Fu (712-770) forms the subject of Carruth's poems "A Summer with Tu Fu" and "Peace on the Water," and "Rubaiyat" refers to the Persian poem, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, attributed to the Persian mathematician Omar Khayyam (1048-1123). All these poems appear in Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995.
Insofar as it is possible to generalize about the many traditional philosophies of the East, it is safe to say that they excel in such self-reflection as is enacted in "I, I, I." They lay greater emphasis than is found in the Western philosophical traditions on the subjective experience of the self, and they offer frameworks that define the relationship of the individual self to the material universe and to the infinite, or divine.
Carruth's speaker's "oriental eyes" alert the reader to a philosophical framework that is not native to the small American town where he and his mother live but that has its home in the Eastern countries. This philosophical framework may seem incongruous in the mundane small-town setting of the barbershop, but that is part of the point of the poem. The alienated boy who finds his own image "strange" finds answers to his questions of identity in the kind of self-examination that is central to philosophies of distant Eastern countries. He does not have to move outside his own small world to find those answers, but this is because the philosophies of the East are based on subjective spiritual experience, which is universally available to everyone, even a boy sitting in a barbershop in a small town in the United States.
The boy receives an answer to his question, "where does it end?" in the barbershop. He finds that it (the watching self) does not end but stretches to infinity. Infinity cannot be grasped or seen by the senses, but lies "in / The shadows," an image that suggests death. Whether this lends meaning to the boy's life is not made explicit, but it is clear that he gains an understanding that makes him independent of the mirrors, and the small self that they symbolize.
When Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995 appeared in 1996, the critical reception of the collection was generally positive. Though no critic picked out "I, I, I" for particular comment, the poem was posted on various websites and is anthologized in The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, edited by Sue Ellen Thompson (2005).
Eric Murphy Selinger concludes his essay on Carruth, "The Importance of a Small Floy Floy," with a consideration of Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995, calling it a "first-rate new collection." Selinger credits the collection with two qualities widely praised in Carruth's poetry, spontaneity and emotional honesty, in his commendation of the poet's "apparently off-the-cuff, heart-on-sleeve verses." This comment could easily apply to "I, I, I."
Ray Olson, reviewing the collection for Booklist, notes the influences on Carruth of the poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, concluding, "Contemporary American poetry doesn't get any richer than this." In her review of the collection for the Christian Science Monitor, Elizabeth Lund writes, "Hayden Carruth has never been afraid to wrestle with life's hardest questions." Lund notes that the poems in the collection are "straightforward and simple," and, agreeing with Selinger, she remarks on their honesty. However, she adds, "the magic is missing," and writes, "One would hope for more of the stunning music and imagery that occasionally allows the work to change the reader as well as challenge."
The anonymous reviewer for Publishers Weekly calls the collection "bittersweet, sometimes celebratory, occasionally rueful," adding that it is "generally moving" but "uneven." The reviewer writes that Carruth's poetry is "at its best when it mixes colloquial diction with an elegiac lyricism," a comment which could apply to "I, I, I." The reviewer adds that when the colloquial takes over, Carruth's verse becomes "almost flat." The reviewer concurs with other critics that the collection illustrates "the openness and honesty with which Carruth addresses the world" and notes "the mixed compassion and outrage with which he responds to it."
The power of "I, I, I" is identified by Matthew Miller's general comment in Midwest Quarterly on Carruth's body of work that it is especially distinguished by its "truth value." The brand of truth for which Carruth strives and often achieves, Miller writes, is not the truth of the ego in narcissistic reverie, nor is it "the presumption of objective truth handed down from the twin mountains of religious and intellectual tradition." It is "the truth of impassioned subjectivity … as Carruth puts it … ‘the whole individual subjectivity, the spirit-body-soul.’"
Robinson has an M.A. in English. She is a writer and editor and a former teacher of English literature and creative writing. In the following essay, she examines how "I, I, I" illustrates an idea of the self that runs through the ancient Indian and other spiritual traditions.
When the author Roger Housden included a poem by Hayden Carruth in his book Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime, he wrote by way of introduction, "Carruth, a social realist and a political radical, is wary of mysticism, yet his work carries some of the most penetrating insight—spiritual insight—to be found anywhere." Indeed, Carruth's poem "I, I, I" addresses the fundamental paradox of the Upanishads, one of the ancient Indian texts known as the Veda: "By what … should one know the knower?" Lest this should seem an impossibly obscure question, Carruth asks the same question in his characteristically clear language at the beginning of "I, I, I." There is "The self that acts and the self that watches." But if the speaker of the poem knows the self that watches, then there must, logically, be another watching self beyond the first watching self, and this other watching self must be the knower. Every watching self, in order to be known, demands another knower beyond itself. The speaker cannot comprehend how this never-ending process can conclude: "and where does it end?"
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Carruth's Brothers, I Loved You All: Poems, 1969-1977 (1978) is widely considered to be his best collection of poems. It covers a variety of themes, including the insanity of society, the people and natural environment of Vermont, and the jazz music that he loves.
- Carruth's Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays (1998) is a collection of essays in which the poet discusses with characteristic honesty his suicide attempt, hospitalizations, nervous breakdowns, divorces, and other disappointments, alongside his successes, joys, and creative life.
- Ralph Metzner's The Unfolding Self: Varieties of Transformative Experience (1998) is a popular yet scholarly book that uses stories and metaphors to look at the different stages of spiritual growth, bringing sense and order to what for many is a challenging or even frightening experience.
- The poet William Carlos Williams exercised a considerable influence on Carruth's work, and readers who enjoy Carruth's poetry may appreciate that of Williams. Williams's poetry is characterized by its honesty, its clarity of thought and expression, and its concreteness of imagery. Many of his best poems are collected in William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems (2004).
Carruth is describing a common spiritual experience of people of every culture and of all shades of religious belief and non-belief: that there is an aspect of the self that is involved in activity in the world, and an aspect of the self that does not act, but stands apart and silently witnesses the busy-ness of the acting self. The first self is frequently called the small self or ego, the self that identifies with the material world, with change, with time and space constraints, and with the fears and anxieties that come from a feeling of individuality and separateness from the rest of creation. The second self (sometimes capitalized as Self) is sometimes described as the large self and is the self that feels serenely uninvolved with the bustle of activity. It stands beyond time and space and beyond the separations and divisions of the material world.
The Upanishads describe the two aspects of the self as follows:
Two birds, companions (who are) always united, cling to the self-same tree. Of these two, the one eats the sweet fruit and the other looks on without eating. On the self-same tree, a person immersed (in the sorrows of the world) is deluded and grieves on account of his helplessness. When he sees the other, the Lord who is worshipped and his greatness, he becomes freed from sorrow.
In the Christian tradition, St. Augustine (cited in The Principal Upanisads) wrote of the "two virtues … set before the soul of man, the one active, the other contemplative." The first is engaged in "toil" that cleanses the heart to prepare it for the vision of God, and the other enables the person "to repose and see God"; the first is bound by time and space, the second eternal.
If the self can be brought to identify with its expanded aspect, then, depending on the person's belief system, the experience may be felt as being at one with the creator, God, infinity, eternity, or the transcendent. Those people who consciously experience this state describe it as a unified state of being, a feeling of being at one with God or with the universe as a whole, and as profound bliss or peace.
Mystical traditions, including those of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian origins, teach that the process of witnessing activity from the point of view of the transcendent can be consciously cultivated through meditation. It also appears to happen involuntarily to many people who have had near-death experiences. Equally, it can occur through extreme circumstances such as a serious illness or a life-threatening experience. People who become very absorbed in an activity, such as sportspeople or musicians, often describe so-called peak experiences in which they seem to stand apart from the self that performs the activity. Finally, it can happen in periods of transition, for example, in puberty, or in the moments of transition between different states of awareness, such as passing from sleep into the waking state. Carruth's boy speaker appears to be in just such a period of transition, when he takes his first trip into the world unaccompanied by his mother.
Mystics often describe the ultimate conclusion of the experience, the expansion of the self into the infinite, as one of pure bliss. However, many people initially find the process of getting to that point disturbing or frightening. This is because it can seem to involve the diminishment of the small self to a point smaller than the smallest before it expands to become bigger than the biggest, into infinity. Carruth's poem features a graphic enactment of the diminishment of the small self, in the form of the receding images of the self in the mirrors to an infinite degree of smallness. There is no blissful sense of expansion into infinity. Insofar as a conclusion to the experience can be located, it is "in / The shadows," an image that connotes darkness and death. To the boy, the experience does not seem pleasant; in fact, it is so disturbing that he sits "rigid" and speechless while it takes place and runs home as fast as he can immediately afterwards. The boy has the first half of the experience, the diminishment of the ego, but seems unwilling or unable to pass through the Biblical "eye of a needle" (Matthew 19:24) into infinity. His experience is incomplete.
The boy's experience is reminiscent of the song by the American songwriter and guitarist Jimi Hendrix, "Room Full of Mirrors":
I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Then I take my spirit and I smash my mirrors
And now the whole world is here for me to see.
Many writers have used the symbol of passage through and beyond a mirror to mark the transition into another, wider world of expanded potential from which the protagonist returns transformed. These writers range from the French poet, playwright, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in his film The Blood of a Poet to the English author Lewis Carroll in his book Alice Through the Looking Glass.
The boy's experience in the barbershop may be understood as an example of the dark night of the soul, a phrase coined by the sixteenth-century Spanish poet and mystic St. John of the Cross to describe a period of desolation in spiritual development. A person in this state has ceased to identify the self with the material world of the senses, but has yet to attain the blissful expansion of the self into union with God; he is alone, between two worlds, with nothing. The silence into which the speaker of "I, I, I" falls is a recognition that the self has passed into a state beyond words; his rigidity suggests the rigid fear of death. The dark night of the soul generally precedes a surge in spiritual development and the discovery of a greater meaning to life. Carruth does not explicitly say whether this occurs to the boy speaker. However, the episode clearly marks a milestone in his development, as afterwards, he no longer needs the mirrors that showed him the nature of the self. He knows that the small self is an illusion that he can leave behind, but he does not yet know the reality that lies beyond.
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on "I, I, I," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Carruth's work.
"Now and then a poet comes along whose work ranges across wide and diverse territories of form, attitude, and emotion—yet with the necessary intelligence that belies a deep, lifelong engagement with tradition—so that variance never seems mere experimentation or digression, but improvisation," wrote Midwest Quarterly contributor Matthew Miller. "Hayden Carruth is such an artist."
The [National Book Award] won by Carruth in 1996 for his collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey provided a grace note for a long academic and literary career that has seen the author become known as an proponent of twentieth-century modernism. Though recognized primarily as a critic and editor, Carruth is also, according to the Virginia Quarterly Review, "a poet who has never received the wide acclaim his work deserves and who is certainly one of the most important poets working in this country today…. [He is] technically skilled, lively, never less than completely honest, and as profound and deeply moving as one could ask." Characterized by a calm, tightly controlled, and relatively "plain" language that belies the intensity of feeling behind the words, Carruth's poetry elicits praise from those who admire its wide variety of verse forms and criticism from those who find its precision and restraint too impersonal and academic.
Commenting in his book Babel to Byzantium, James Dickey speculated that these opposing views of Carruth's work may result from the occasionally uneven quality of his poetry. In a discussion of The Crow and the Heart, for example, Dickey noted "a carefulness which bursts, once or twice or three times, into a kind of frenzied eloquence, a near-hysteria, and in these frightening places sloughing off a set of mannerisms which in the rest of the book seems determined to reduce Carruth to the level of a thousand other poets…. [He] is one of the poets (perhaps all poets are some of these poets) who write their best, pushing past limit after limit, only in the grip of recalling some overpowering experience. When he does not have such a subject at hand, Carruth amuses himself by being playfully skillful with internal rhyme, inventing bizarre Sitwellian images, being witty and professionally sharp."
American Poetry Review critic Geoffrey Gardner, who characterized Carruth as "a poet who has always chosen to make his stand just aside from any of the presently conflicting mainstreams," said that such linguistic playfulness is typical of the poet's early work. He attributes it to Carruth's struggle "to restore equilibrium to the soul [and] clarity to vision, through a passionate command of language," a struggle that gives much of his poetry "a Lear-like words-against-the-storm quality." Continued Gardner: "I won't be the first to say Carruth's early work is cumbered by archaisms, forced inversions, sometimes futile extravagances of vocabulary and a tendency of images and metaphors to reify into a top heavy symbolism…. But the courage of [his] poems can't be faulted. From the earliest and against great odds, Carruth made many attempts at many kinds of poems, many forms, contending qualities of diction and texture…. If the struggle of contending voices and attitudes often ends in poems that don't quite succeed, it remains that the struggle itself is moving for its truthfulness and intensity…. Carruth uniformly refuses to glorify his crazies. They are pain and pain alone. What glory there is—and there are sparks of it everywhere through these early poems—he keeps for the regenerative stirrings against the storm of pain and isolation."
In his essay, Miller looked at one major influence on Carruth's poetry. "Carruth's relationship to jazz music has been lifelong," he noted, "and it has expressed itself on many different levels in his work." Carruth produced an essay, "Influences: The Formal Idea of Jazz," in which he described his personal feelings about the musical genre. He did read the prominent poets Ben Johnson, William Yeats, and Ezra Pound, but added that "the real question is not by whom I was influenced, but how." To Miller, Carruth's early grounding in traditional poetic forms prepared him to "improvise" later on, much like the way jazz musicians often study classical music early in their training: "The discipline must precede the rejection of discipline."
In Carruth's poetry, that means using an external, fixed poetic structure upon which to launch improvisation. But even when he works in a spontaneous, "jazz" mode, his "poetic improvisation does not mean the abandonment of form or rhyme," declared Miller, "nor does it limit itself to any particular attitude or emotion…. What improvisation ultimately amounts to is structure becoming a function of feeling, whatever that feeling may be." Miller pointed to Brothers, I Loved You All as a prime example of Carruth in his spontaneous prime.
Like many poets, Carruth also turns to personal experience for inspiration; however, with the possible exception of The Bloomingdale Papers (a long poetic sequence Carruth wrote in the 1950s while confined to a mental hospital for treatment of alcoholism and a nervous breakdown), he does not indulge in the self-obsessed meditations common among some of his peers. Instead, Carruth turns outward, exploring such "universal opposites" as madness (or so-called madness) and sanity or chaos and order. He then tries to balance the negative images—war, loneliness, the destruction of the environment, sadness—with mostly nature-related positive images and activities that communicate a sense of stability—the cycle of the seasons, performing manual labor, contemplating the night sky, observing the serenity of plant and animal life. But, as Gardner pointed out, "Carruth is not in the least tempted to sentimentality about country life…. [He recognizes] that it can be a life of value and nobility in the midst of difficult facts and chaos." Nor is he "abstractly philosophical or cold," according to the critic. "On the contrary," Gardner stated, "[his poems] are all poems about very daily affairs: things seen and heard, the loneliness of missing friends absent or dead, the alternations of love for and estrangement from those present, the experiences of a man frequently alone with the non-human which all too often bears the damaging marks of careless human intrusion." Furthermore, he said, "Carruth comes to the politics of all this with a vengeance…. [His poems] all bear strong public witness against the wastes and shames of our culture that are destroying human value with a will in a world where values are already hard enough to maintain, in a universe where they are always difficult to discover. Carruth does not express much anger in [his] poems. Yet one feels that an enormous energy of rage has forced them to be."
Concluded Alastair Reed in the Saturday Review: "[Carruth's] poems have a sureness to them, a flair and variety…. Yet, in their dedication to finding an equilibrium in an alien and often cruel landscape, Vermont, where the poet has dug himself in, they reflect the moods and struggles of a man never at rest…. His work teems with the struggle to live and to make sense, and his poems carve out a kind of grace for us."
In the 1990s, the appearance of anthologies and collections of Carruth's verse and prose allowed critics to assess his career as a whole. In reviewing Collected Shorter Poems, which appeared in 1992, Poetry contributor David Barber called attention to the rich diversity of the poet's oeuvre: "Hayden Carruth is vast; he contains multitudes. 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." Somewhat deceptively titled, Collected Shorter Poems, which won the 1992 National Book Critics' Circle Award, is not a comprehensive volume but is comprised of selections from thirteen of Carruth's previously published volumes, together with many poems appearing for the first time. Writing in the Nation, Ted Solotaroff found the volume to be a welcome opportunity for giving a "full hearing" to "a poet as exacting and undervalued as Carruth generally has been." Solotaroff high-lighted two characteristics typifying Carruth's poetic achievement. First, he describes him as a "poet's poet, a virtuoso of form from the sonnet to free verse, from medieval metrics to jazz ones." Secondly, Solotaroff drew attention to the moral seriousness of Carruth's work as a critic of contemporary poetry, claiming that the poet "has also been, to my mind, the most catholic, reliable and socially relevant critic of poetry we have had in an age of burgeoning tendencies, collapsing standards and a general withdrawal of poets from the public to the private sector of consciousness."
The 1993 volume Collected Longer Poems received similar praise from many critics, who felt that this collection contained much of the poet's best work. Anthony Robbins, commenting in American Book Review, characterized Carruth's poetry as being "grounded in the traditions of Romance, in entre-les-guerres modernism revised in light of mid-century existentialism, and in his own personal forms of nonviolent anarchism." Both Robbins and Bloomsbury Review contributor Shaun T. Griffin called attention to the importance of the volume's opening selection, "The Asylum," which details the poet's experiences of being hospitalized for a breakdown. Griffin judges these "among the most honest and harrowing in the volume," maintaining that "they ring with the compelling voice of despair; the wind floats through them, and the reader finds himself staring at the November landscape, leafless, dark, and dormant."
Carruth's prose discussions of poets and poetry were anthologized in the 1995 volume Selected Essays and Reviews. Spanning thirty years of his critical writing, this collection was enthusiastically received by critics, who singled out for particular praise the essays on Alexander Pope, Edwin Muir, and Paul Goodman. In the following year, Carruth published Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995, a volume that centers on meditations of such themes as politics, history, aging, nostalgia, guilt, and love, a book that would garner [for Carruth] the National Book Award in 1996. Another collection, Doctor Jazz: Poems, 1996-2000, was written as Carruth approached his ninth decade and includes a fifteen-page elegy to the author's daughter, Martha, who died in her forties of cancer. That poem in particular "refuses to release us until its final syllable," said Library Journal reviewer Fred Muratori.
In 1998 Carruth turned to a different form of self-narrative with Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays. These essays—the words of a self-described "old man in his cave of darkness, regretting his arthritis and impotence and failing imagination"—speak frankly of his often troubled life, including treatment for depression, debilitating phobias, and a nearly successful suicide attempt. Peter Szatmary, writing in Biblio, found the "fractured" nature of Carruth's life reflected in his prose: "At its best, [Reluctantly] isolates idiosyncratic clarity. At its worst it betrays arbitrary self-indulgence." In a similar vein, "fragmentary" was the word used by Ray Olson of Booklist to describe the memoir, though Olsen also characterized the book as a "powerful autobiography." A Publishers Weekly critic had a similar impression, saying the Reluctantly shows that "although life is messy and unpredictable, it is possible to survive, to write well and to salvage from the wreckage a redemptive dignity."
Carruth once told CA: "I have a close but at the same time uncomfortable relationship with the natural world. I've always been most at home in the country probably because I was raised in the country as a boy, and I know something about farming and woodcutting and all the other things that country people know about. That kind of work has been important to me in my personal life and in my writing too. I believe in the values of manual labor and labor that is connected with the earth in some way. But I'm not simply a nature poet. In fact, I consider myself and I consider the whole human race fundamentally alien. By evolving into a state of self-consciousness, we have separated ourselves from the other animals and the plants and from the very earth itself, from the whole universe. So there's a kind of fear and terror involved in living close to nature. My poems, I think, exist in a state of tension between the love of natural beauty and the fear of natural meaninglessness or absurdity.
"I think there are many reasons for poets and artists in general to be depressed these days…. They have to do with a lot … [of] things that are going on in our civilization. They have to do with the whole evolution of the sociology of literature during the last fifty years. Things have changed; they've turned completely around. I don't know if I can say it briefly but I'll try. When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry, as we called it then, we still felt beleaguered; modern poetry was still considered outrageous by most of the people in the publishing business and in the reading audience at large. We still spoke in terms of the true artists and the philistines. We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature. Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It's pretty obvious that good writing doesn't really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it's a hope; we have no proof."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Hayden Carruth," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.
Eric Murphy Selinger
In the following excerpt, Selinger refers to Carruth's divided nature as a poet: there is the self that is tough and philosophical and views poetry as pointless, and the self (to borrow the words from a Carruth poem, the "Small Floy Floy") that is subtler, more tender, more charming, and appreciative of the power of love and music to make something beautiful out of nothing.
Carruth dedicates his first-rate new collection, Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, to his wife, the woman who "lives with me / and is my love." The echo of Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love" is unusually overt. But this is a book that keeps calling to mind the shepherd's promise to give his darling "beds of roses / And a thousand fragrant posies," even if his modern incarnation is a little the worse for wear. "Let's make a bouquet of lilac / For our old bedside table," one poem proposes; "Then the fragrance in the night / Will make me form-idable." The jokey forced rhyme suits Carruth's engaging self-portrait. But it also hints at Flatfoot Floogie facts other pieces make clear. This is a lover, after all, who must visit "the banker, the broker, those strange / people, to talk about unit trusts, / annuities, CDs, IRAs, trying / to leave you whatever I can after / I die" ("Testament"). As Sir Walter Raleigh wrote in his answer to Marlowe, "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," the pleasures of both love and verse will "soon break, soon wither, soon [be] forgotten." This husband and wife, both poets, know that source too.
Near the end of Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, Carruth's wife challenges him to write "a poem that will prepare me for your death." He doesn't exactly jump at the invitation. ("A jay slanted down to the feeder and looked at me behind my glass and squawked. / Prepare, prepare." The echo of Frost's "Provide, Provide!" sets him off as much as the nagging reminder. "F——you, I said, come back tomorrow.") He knows, after all, how easily any such poem can slip into mere platitude or sob. In a way, though, the book as a whole is his answer. Some poems call quits to old quarrels, whether with his parents ("Flying into St. Louis") or with Frost ("February Morning"). Others take up the poet's longstanding political concerns. "This is the summer of war in Bosnia," one poem begins; "A few summers ago the war was somewhere else." From a man who's written about (and against) wars in Abyssinia, Algeria, Korea, and Viet Nam, such weariness is understandable. And it's no wonder he slips into the self-irony of A Summer with Tu Fu, where the two poets are simply "two old guys" who are "confronting their final / futility after years of futile awkwardness / in the world of doing." (The hooting long "oo" s are a nice touch, and almost carry the dead weight of that second "futile.") But Carruth's radicalism has survived those blues; and one believes his confession that the thought of "everyone comfortable and warm / The great pain assuaged" is, for him at least, "a moment / of the most shining and singular sensual gratification" ("Ecstasy").
As I read Scrambled Eggs, I kept thinking of my initially enthusiastic, then wary, more critical response to Brothers, I Loved You All. Was I moved by the ache and consolation of "The Camps" or by the refugee scenes it described? By the verse he writes for his adult daughter "in the crisis of forever inadequately medicated / pain," or by the simple fact that she has cancer? The Small Floy Floy of sentimentality is at once "the worst and best" of our failures, Carruth insists, refusing to throw his poems off course to avoid it. And, I'll confess, I found myself won over, not least by the graceful composition of the volume, which starts with the poet alone, about to take some sleeping pills and wine and slip off to bed, only to bring him back as a lover and a fighter and a father and a writer, as casual as you please. ("What is this poem," he wonders for a moment in "Isabel's Garden, May 14," "—is it / necessity or an exercise? I am too old / to think about this any more," he decides.) A closer look at his most apparently off-the-cuff, heart-on-sleeve verses also reminded me, however, of how long he's been at this "grubbing art." Even when he slips off key he plays with the grace of Pee Wee Russell, the clarinetist who, as Carruth writes elsewhere, once "picked up / his horn and blew / a mistake so lovely" that tears came to a smartass critic's eye. Consider the last poem, the collection's title piece and a new addition to the poet's fine body of verses on jazz:
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.
There's an easy, after-hours lilt to those first lines, as "bleak, God knows" winks a rhyme at "Chicago" and the twin long "ee" s of "sweet" and "bleak" ask the wallflower final syllable of "whiskey" for a dance. And you can trace the echoes all the way through, as the breathy "e" of "Eggs" comes back in "set" or the "i" of "whis-" in the "limping / treble roll." When Carruth turns that "roll" to "growled," in line eight, hitting the new sound hard, the poem grins. There's even a nod to "Paragraphs" in the phallic humor: the way he uses his wife the singer's name to pivot from Brad's "soft stick" to a scene in the "White Tower," ending with a memory of "that old club" where they swung the blues. Even clichés like "don't tell a soul" or "never / in a million years" find a home in this heady, friendly, artful interplay.
Is the performance really "magnificent?" That's the whiskey talking, or the scrambled eggs. But in this poem and much of this new collection—hell, throughout his long career, particularly when he writes of jazz and love—Carruth has earned the right to call himself "So / good, so good." And sometimes, with the Floogie pressing, and the Floy Floy swinging low, he's done better than that. He's been fine.
Source: Eric Murphy Selinger, "The Importance of a Small Floy Floy," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 22, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer 1997, pp. 277-79.
In the following essay interview, Carruth evaluates modernism and postmodernism, discusses who influences him, talks about Ezra Pound, his life-long interest in jazz, his fondness of Vermonters, and gives a brief autobiography.
It is billed as "an evening with Hayden Carruth," and the audience gathering in the wood-paneled lounge on the University of Nebraska at Lincoln campus buzzes with excitement as it awaits the arrival of the well-known poet and editor of The Voice That Is Great Within Us (Bantam, 1970). Literary figures associated with the university—Willa Cather, Loren Eiseley, and Mari Sandoz prominent among them—look on, seemingly bemused, from their photographs along one wall. Then, at one end of that row of photographs, a door opens, and Carruth comes in. Suddenly the room is still.
As he is introduced the poet looks bemused himself. Introduction over, he leans forward slightly, holding himself in readiness for the first question. It comes from a student, his long hair in a ponytail, who asks for an evaluation of modernism/postmodernism. Carruth gives a very succinct summary of modernist literature, says that as a movement it is dead, though its landmark achievements—the works of Joyce, Eliot, et al.—live on. He suggests that young poets today should be thinking of what poetry will be like in the 21st century. "I have no idea," he says, "but I know it will be very different from what we have had, and from what we have right now."
Someone asks about early influences. Shakespeare and Mother Goose, he replies, and the audience titters, but he is serious; the Mother Goose rhymes, he notes, inculcate in young readers and listeners a sense of the syncopated line, and he recommends to the audience Theodore Roethke's essay on the Mother Goose poems ("Some Remarks on Rhythm," On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke, University of Washington Press, 1965). Responding to a question about the major themes in his poetry, he says, "My poetry is about the spiritual dimension of human experience." When asked about Eastern influences on the poems in Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands (New Directions, 1989), he speaks of his admiration for the classical Chinese poets and refers to them as part of "The Grand Community," a phrase of poet Paul Goodman's that he uses to indicate the great writers of the past. It is important to him, he says, to feel connected to such literary ancestors as Li Po, Euripides, Herodotus, and Emily Dickinson.
Toward the end of the hour-long session, someone in the audience wants to know Carruth's views on Ezra Pound's anti-Semitism: should Pound's virulent prejudice weigh against his work? Carruth replies that every reader has to decide that for himself. So far as he is concerned, Pound's prejudice and political judgment are things to be wished away, but they do not negate Pound's worth as an innovator and stylist. He follows this up by saying that he feels young writers should be aware of prejudice and injustice both in general and in the world immediately around them. He tells of the systematic slaughter of Indians in Nova Scotia, where the British offered a bounty of £20 for each Indian scalp—man, woman, or child's—and how this resulted in the extermination of the native population. Our own history, he says, is built on the bones of our native peoples. "If you can't be bothered to write about things like that," he almost shouts, "you can't be bothered to write about anything!" Abruptly he thanks the audience and rises, leaving us as he found us—in silence. After a moment we recover ourselves and begin to clap, but he is already at the door; and our applause follows him down the hallway like a patter of rain.
Walking across campus to my car, under a cold, star-bright February sky, I think of Carruth's honesty and intensity. Earlier he had said that every good writer he has known has also been a good person, and it is clearly important to him to be as good a person as he can be; his writing is an extension of that conviction. What I have gleaned from the evening is a first-hand impression of the man himself and a better sense of how to read his poems. When I get home I pick up my copy of Collected Shorter Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1992) and begin to reread.
I see him again the next day. He has come to Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, for lunch and a late afternoon reading. He wears a gray herring-bone tweed jacket, a checked shirt with open black collar, and tan slacks. Though initially nervous, in a few moments he is chatting amiably with the small group of students and faculty that has gathered in a private dining room. He sips at a cup of coffee as he reminisces and responds to questions.
We talk about his fondness for cryptograms, stemming from his service as a cryptographer in Europe in World War II, then talk of his long stint—from the 1950s through the 1970s—as a freelance reviewer and editor. He calls this his "hack work," though anyone familiar with Carruth's reviews knows what an astute and even-handed critic he has been. Looking back on this period, when he and his family lived primarily on the small income from his reviewing and editing, he marvels at having survived such hand-to-mouth conditions, but it was exhilarating too, he says, and good for his poetry. At the time he was living in the country in northern Vermont, and his days were occupied with work around the farm; in the evening he would read for his reviewing assignments and then go out to the shed near the house and write the reviews. Only when he had all other obligations taken care of would he allow himself to begin work on a poem, often at three or four in the morning. He remembers frequent all-night sessions that concluded with a walk down to the mailbox to post a manuscript just as the sun was coming up. He had to read so much on assignment in those days, he says, that he hardly reads anything for pleasure anymore.
Carruth has an impish sense of humor and something of the iconoclast about him, and now, as we discuss his teaching at Syracuse University in the 1980s, he berates, in the presence of academics, the whole idea of requiring research papers. We should not be surprised to get back tentative or plagiarized papers, he says, for we are fostering an entirely unnatural situation in which the student is being asked to submit the product of his or her own forming sensibility to the judgment of an expert in the subject. It is an exercise in futility, he feels, and he says that he has never read a student research paper that wasn't stilted as a result. Instead, he suggests, teachers should be assigning nothing but personal essays. I notice the students' eyes light up at this.
When he has eaten and had a smoke I sit down with him in a large quiet room nearby, and we make small talk as I fiddle with a lapel mike, which I decide, for comfort's sake, to place on the table in front of him instead of clipping to his jacket. I begin by asking him about his days as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina (UNC).
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was at UNC with Carruth, "But," he says, "I don't recall that we ever met"; so was Theodore Weiss. The people he knew well were, like Carruth himself, interested in journalism: among his friends were Louis Harris, the pollster, and Richard Adler, author of Pajama Game and other Broadway musicals. Carruth worked on the college daily and thought at one time that he would become a newspaperman, but he discovered that he was too shy to do a proper interview or go out and gather the news. He feels that he was a good editor and columnist, however, and he thrived on the pressure of a deadline. "I liked the idea of writing something in the afternoon and then seeing people read it the next morning at breakfast. That was exciting to me."
After the war, when Carruth was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins (whom he calls "the greatest university administrator ever—at least since Erasmus") was chancellor, the faculty included scholars of worldwide reputation such as Jacques Maritain, and Saul Bellow and Paul Goodman were fellow students. Those years were pivotal to Carruth's development as a poet. He says that he had never even heard of T. S. Eliot before arriving in Chicago, but "As soon as I got into the bookshops along 57th Street I was reading Eliot and Williams and Stevens and all the rest of them just as avidly as I could, and that's when I became truly serious about my own poetry."
In 1949 Carruth became editor of Poetry, a position that he occupied for two years and found enormously enjoyable. "I think the biggest literary boost in a way that I ever got was sitting in the editor's chair, which was in a very small room with a very old battered desk, and the walls all around behind me and up above my head just filled with back issues. The magazine had been going since 1912. And I could pluck one of those issues down and blow the dust off it and there would be a poem by, say, Wallace Stevens. What more could you want?"
While discussing Carruth's work, I discover his great affection for the up-country Vermonters he has written about in his monologues and narrative poems. We talk about the humor in his poems, often based on the laconic and sometimes exaggerative qualities characteristic of New England speech. As one widely read in 19th-century American dialect literature, he relishes his characters' semi-literate speech and their propensity to tell stories on themselves as a means of handling disappointment and hardship. He admires their capacity for hard work, the physical labor that is at the heart of life in the country, the rural impetus toward interpersonal relationship and community. Many of the poems from the years Carruth spent in Vermont deal with labor, either as focus or backdrop. In the meditative "Essay on Love," for example, the speaker expresses his feelings for "my best friend, Rose Marie" by cutting and stacking firewood for her and, near the end of the poem, thinks of labor as "the only meaning."
Carruth writes in meter, free verse, and syllabics with equal facility, a fact which can be partly accounted for by his lifelong interest in jazz. He constantly entertains the possibilities of improvisation in his poems, and I ask him whether the syllabic quatrains of "Essay on Love" derive from this impulse. Yes, he says, they probably do. We get to talking about the many good modern poets whose works are on the verge of being forgotten, and Carruth observes that this has doubtless always been true; he mentions Winfield Townley Scott and Conrad Aiken as poets who are seldom read anymore. He has a particular admiration for Aiken and rates his work as highly as Pound's. And Aiken's anthology Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Modern Library, revised edition, 1963), Carruth tells me, served as his model in compiling his own highly successful anthology, The Voice That Is Great Within Us.
Late that afternoon, Carruth and I are sitting in the front row at the bottom of the small tiered auditorium at Doane, an audience of perhaps 100 at our backs, waiting out the last few minutes before I introduce him. By now his slight nervousness has left him. I recall that the first time he was scheduled to give a reading, he became so nervous he ran out on his audience before he had said a word. As we talk about various things I am wondering how his reading in person will compare with his masterful performance on the cassette collection. Eternity Blues (Watershed Foundation, 1986).
It was this recording that drew me to a closer reading of Carruth's work. It gave me my first inkling of how his poems sound to him, and I heard there, in a way I had not, except intermittently, in my earlier desultory reading, his quiet power and range of subject matter. As the poems are read, one's impression of mastery grows: from "The Ravine," the meditation on a landscape with which the tape begins, to the jaunty "November Jeans Song," and what may be the best of Carruth's monologues, "Regarding Chainsaws," on through the pure Yankee humor of "Crow's Mark," and the austere lyricism of "The Oldest Killed Lake in North America," to "The Impossible Indispensability of the Ars Poetica," the amazing love lyric with which the recording ends. And when the listener turns reader, the poems are as shimmering and finally realized on the page as they are on the tape.
When I have introduced him he steps to the lectern and graciously thanks me. He has noticed me playing with the sound system and gauged its tendency to produce feedback; now, leaning a little to his right, away from the microphone, to compensate, he begins with "Regarding Chainsaws." I can hardly believe my cars: his live performance is nearly as good as the recording. Everyone laughs at the predicament of Old Stan, who has driven his Powerwagon through the back of the barn and into the manure pit, then howls when his wife asks. "Stan, what's got into you?" and Stan replies, "Missus … /ain't nothing got into me. Can't you see?/It's me that's got into this here pile of shit." From this point on the audience is his.
He reads several more poems from the tape ("Crow's Mark," "The Cows at Night") interspersed among twenty-some lesser known poems. One of these "I Tell You for Several Years of My Madness I Heard the Voice of Lilith Singing in the Trees of Chicago," alludes, if only through its title, to Carruth's nervous breakdown and hospitalization in the mid-1950s. Another, "Emergency Haying," is a monologue in unrhymed tercets whose range of reference and tone is all the more impressive for the poem's being so firmly rooted in an act of labor. He reads a number of haiku and several sonnets, including the witty "Well, she told me I had an aura," and concludes with "None," the next-to-last poem in Collected Shorter Poems, a meditation on Greek and Navajo conceptions of death and the afterlife. When he is finished reading there is a moment of great stillness, and then thunderous applause.
I shake his hand, thank him, and stand by as several people come down front to talk to him and ask him to inscribe copies of his books. After a while, engaged in conversation with a colleague, I notice that Carruth is no longer there. He is seated in the last row of the sloping hall, near the exit, examining a tin whistle that a woman has drawn from her tote bag. In a moment he is playing an Irish air on the instrument; the last of the hangers-on all turn to watch and listen. When he is done he hands the whistle back to the woman, and I hear him thank her. He has made, for the few of us still there, this parting gesture, a kind of exclamation point to the afternoon he has spent with us, a time during which he has offered, again and again, without stint, the gift of himself.
Source: Roy Scheele, "Hayden Carruth: The Gift of Self," in Poets & Writers, Vol. 24, No. 3, May-June 1996, pp. 45-49.
David W. Landrey
In the following essay, Landrey gives a critical analysis of Carruth's work.
Hayden Carruth first published a poem in 1946, and his poetry, essays, and anthologies now approach forty volumes with no sign of abatement. He has, moreover, by his own estimate written several thousand pieces for newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. He is often called a poet's poet, and his aid to and promotion of others has been remarkable. His eclectic anthology, The Voice That Is Great Within Us (1970), a survey of American poetry from Robert Frost to its date of publication, has been widely used and continues to be highly regarded. Carruth's influence and importance have grown markedly in the last decade, especially with the publications of his historical/mythical epic, The Sleeping Beauty (1982); Collected Shorter Poems (1992), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993; and Collected Longer Poems (1994). Furthermore, his essays and reviews, now collected in four volumes, including Suicides and Fazzers (1992), constitute a major overview of the craft of American poetry since World War II.
Carruth has been an editor of Poetry (1949-1950), associate editor at the University of Chicago Press (1950-1952), the project administrator for Intercultural Publications of the Ford Foundation (1952-1954), the poetry editor of Harper's magazine (1977-1981), and advisory editor for The Hudson Review (1970-present). His many prizes, grants, and honors include the University of Chicago's Harriet Monroe award (1960), Guggenheim Fellowships in 1965 and 1979, National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in 1968 and 1974, the Shelley Prize of the Poetry Society of America (1979), Senior Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts (1988), and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1990). Carruth is a member of American P.E.N., the Poetry Society of America, and the Academy of American Poets.
Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, Carruth's primary formative experience was of small-town and country life. He reports in an interview with David Weiss in In the Act: Essays on the Poetry of Hayden Carruth (1990) that his father, Gorton Veeder Garruth, a newspaperman, editor, and writer of verse, once told him, "Don't ever take any job that isn't a service to the community." Carruth has heeded this advice. His mother, for whom he wrote a long elegy in 1985, was Margery Barrow Carruth. His education includes a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina (1942) and an M.A. in English from the University of Chicago (1948). Before his emergence on the literary scene, he served two years in Europe during World War II as a member of the Army Air Corps.
Carruth has been married four times, the first three ending in divorce. He married Sara Anderson on 14 March 1943. He has a daughter by that marriage, Martha Hamilton. He married Eleanore Ray on 29 November 1952. His third marriage, to Rose Marie Dorn on 28 October 1961, produced his son, David Barrow, whom he calls "the Bo." The family lived for eighteen years in Johnson, Vermont, a period Carruth in Suicides and Fazzers recalls "afforded me the opportunity to put everything together, the land and seasons, the people, my family, my work, my evolving sense of survival (for when I'd been in the hospital the doctors had told me I'd never again have anything like a normal life), in one tightly integrated imaginative structure. The results were my poems, for what they're worth, and in my life a very gradual but perceptible triumph over the internal snarls and screw-ups that had crippled me from childhood on." Carruth married poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin on 29 December 1989. The couple resides in Munnsville, New York.
Although Carruth has said that he abhors repetition and has always employed a diversity of forms, some of his own invention, he has almost methodically examined and reexamined a cluster of themes and concerns. In "Influences: The Formal Idea of Jazz," an essay collected in Sitting In: Selected Writings on Fazz, Blues, and Related Topics (1993), Carruth writes that having poetry rather than music as his articulation of his lifelong absorption in jazz may account, "in part for the sorrow that appears to emanate from the center of my poems…. Poetry for me was, and is, second-best to jazz." Carruth's sorrow also has other powerful roots. He writes of the decline of the nation, especially of family farming, of the distraught lives of ordinary people, and of the destructive history of power politics; in the process, he often proclaims himself a "philosophical anarchist." To convey the starkness of these issues he recurs to such aspects of hard natural beauty as the stone, winter, birds, and trees as well as to the idea of "nothing," his own continuing struggle with psychological problems, and the voices of the men and women of his milieu. An abiding interest in philosophy, especially existentialism, underpins Carruth's thought. He has special interests in Søren Kierkegaard, Arthur Schopenhauer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, and Albert Camus. Although he says in Suicides and Fazzers, writing with passion of his own attempted suicide in 1988, that "every artist of the second half of the twentieth century knows that his or her working life is in at least one sense a resounding defeat," he maintains an elemental love of life.
In November 1953, after six years in Chicago, followed by his first divorce and second marriage, Carruth entered Bloomingdale psychiatric hospital in White Plains, New York, where he remained for fifteen months. He has often said that the time there did not help and may have made matters worse, but it clearly became a central issue in his early poetry and has never quite disappeared from his work. Part of his treatment consisted of his writing about the experience between November 1953 and January 1954, an effort that resulted in The Bloomingdale Papers, a volume not published until 1975 when his friend, the artist Albert Christ-Janer, persuaded Carruth to let the University of Georgia Press publish it. Despite the depth of his personal despair, Carruth was sensitive to the problems of his fellow inmates and to the madness of the larger world. "I think of it as a paradigm of the general quality of life in this country during the 1950s," he says in his preface, "Explanation and Apology, Twenty Years After." Taking "exile as the experience par excellence of the mid-twentieth century," Carruth writes:
The bitcheries of Madison Avenue
Where I lost my mind, where pigs that
learned to read
Talk money wise around the urn of love; …
The catalogue of our misfortunes, oh
How long it is, so have the false men
While he had not been able to function in the face of the "false men," he ends the book with a plea for his daughter:
That some small wisdom always may endure
Amidst your weariness; that lovers may
Be kind to you; that beauty may arouse
You; that the crazy house
May never, never be your home: I pray.
After emerging from the hospital Carruth settled in New England, where for the next twenty-four years he spliced together a bare living. From 1955 to 1960 he lived a secluded life in his parents' house in Pleasantville, New York. From 1960 to 1962 he lived in Norfolk, Connecticut, in a place provided by poet and publisher James Laughlin, who also provided Carruth with many writing and editorial tasks. (Carruth's friendship with Laughlin has been an enduring one. In 1994 Carruth wrote a warmly appreciative introduction to Laughlin's Collected Poems.) Besides working the land, the insomniac Carruth did reviews, ghostwriting, and editing at all hours. He fitted writing his own poems into spare moments.
The products of these years were his first three published volumes and the creation of his special form, the paragraph. In 1990 he explained that his invention of this fifteen-line form was
influenced by a sonnet of Paul Goodman … in which he displaced the final couplet and put it in the middle after the octet…. So when I invented the paragraph I put a rhymed couplet in the middle, a tetrameter couplet, and in a way the whole history of what I did with the paragraph was to get around that terrible barrier, that terrible problem I'd given myself, because having a rhymed couplet in the middle tends to break up the poem terribly and I had to find ways to flow through that.
Carruth's first collection, The Crow and the Heart, 1946-1959 (1959), includes poems written before, during, and after his Bloomingdale stay. The most important poem is the thirteen-part "Asylum," written in 1957 and later revised as the first section of For You (1970), his first effort using the paragraph form. Gaining perspective on his experience at Bloomingdale and musing on its relationship to the century's problems, Carruth plays on the meanings of asylum. He notes that "The nation was asylum when we came" and asks "is not the whole earth / Asylum? Is mankind / In refuge?" In the penultimate section, he asserts that "ultimately asylum is the soul"; but he ends the poem on a cryptic note: "Here am I—drowned, living, loving, and insane."
Journey to a Known Place (1961), written in 1959, takes a large step away from what Carruth calls in the introduction to The Bloomingdale Papers his "spirit caged and struggling." The four-part poem depicts a Dantean movement of the spirit through the primal elements, cast as a journey across a frozen land, a descent to the depths of the sea, an awakening on shore, and a soaring guided by an eagle and its song. The poem concludes, "Aspiring now in sun's cascading element,"
Each in his only ascertainable center,
The world of realization, the suffered reality,
Through which comes understanding.
The understanding attained, however, is not presented as a permanent haven.
The Norfolk Poems, 1 June to 1 September 1961 (1962) completes Carruth's Connecticut period. In this third collection he begins to examine his neighbors, to grapple with their fading world, and to make contact with the land. Disparaging the proclivity to make "the stone a thing that is less than stone, / A dolmen, a god," Carruth writes,
the stone is a greatness, itself in its grain,
Meaning more than a meaning, and more
than a mind
Thus Carruth moves to new stages of his thought, holding tightly to the forms of the natural world yet seeking a personal transcendence.
The first books published by Carruth during his long Vermont sojourn were North Winter (1964) and After the Stranger: Imaginary Dialogues With Camus (1965), both of which he worked on at the same time in 1963. The experimental nature of each book no doubt fed the other. In After the Stranger a painter named Aspen (Carruth is fascinated by the shimmering qualities of the aspen tree) recognizes his entrapment in his loft and in his work. Rather like the painter in Franz Kafka's The Trial (1925) or like Joseph Grand in Camus's The Plague (1947) Aspen is obsessed by a single motif, in his case a stone, which he constantly reconceives on canvas. To begin his liberation, he moves to Paris and engages for the balance of the book in conversation with Camus, mostly about the motives of the character Meursault in The Stranger (1942) and what, if anything, he attains. The result is Aspen's gradual emergence into painting things other than the stone and his finding love in the person of Dora. Instrumental in his change is Dora's former lover, D'Arrast, who bears the name of the protagonist of Camus's short story, "The Growing Stone," which was published in America in 1958.
In her contribution to In the Act, Maxine Kumin describes "North Winter" as "a tone poem in 57 strophes, subtly modulated here and there with little skips and riffs of typographical invention. Not ‘concrete’ poetry, but lightly shaped, like a homemade loaf." The blending of form, subject, and precise language is stunning. Carruth, who points out that he used no personal pronouns in the poem, leads his reader through winter's stages to a rebirth. In strophe 12 he urges the reader not to think of snow as chaste but to think
of stags raging down
the rutting wind and of northern
passion crackling like naked trumpets
in the snow under the blazing aurora.
In strophe 57, the poet emerges in spring, "brushing the / mist from his shoulders" to discover
the pools and freshets
releasing the ways of the
earth long frozen.
A section titled "afterword: / what thepoethadwritten," inspired by the 1909 arctic expedition of Commdr. Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson, concludes the poem:
north is the aurora north
is deliverance emancipation …
… north is
For Carruth existential acceptance is essential, but like Aspen in After the Stranger he has grown to new realms.
During the next decade Carruth settled in to his milieu, restructuring his Vermont home, enjoying family life, listening to the voices of those around him, and infusing his spirit with jazz. Building toward the major work Brothers, I Loved You All: Poems, 1969-1977 (1978), he yet had to take some important soul-searching steps. "The Smallish Son" from Nothing for Tigers: Poems 1959-1964 (1965) underscores the pain that continued to flow from Carruth's early years:
I who have dwelt at the root of a scream forever,
I who have read my heart like a man with no
reading a book whose pages turn in the wind,
I say listen, listen, hear me
in our dreamless dark, my dear. I can teach
But Carruth also heeds his own command to listen, as his close friend and fellow poet David Budbill points out in In the Act "This ability to listen to the world both outside and inside the self and then attempt to articulate what you hear is rife throughout Hayden's work." In Nothing For Tigers Carruth goes on to speculate on "Freedom and Discipline," addressing "Saint Harmony" and discovering that
Freedom and discipline concur
only in ecstasy, all else
is shoveling out the muck.
Give me my old hot horn.
In "Fragments of Autobiography" from Suicides and Fazzers Carruth recalls, "Once in 1965 I was able to give myself a whole month. I don't remember how this came about, but I wrote ‘Contra Mortem,’ a poem in thirty parts, doing one part a day for thirty days…. This poem remains my personal favorite among all the poems I've written." Published by Carruth's own Crow's Mark Press Contra Mortem (1967) is a reflection on "Being" and "Nothing" that concludes:
Such figures if they succeed are beautiful
because for a moment we brighten in a blaze
and yet they always fail and must fail
and give way to other poems
in the endless approximations of what we feel
Hopeless it is hopeless Only the wheel
endures It spins and spins winding
the was the is the will be out of nothing
and thus we are Thus on the wheel we touch
each to each a part
of the great determining reality How much
we give to one another Perhaps our art
succeeds after all our small song done in the
of lovers who endlessly change heart for heart
as the gift of being Come let us sing against
In this poem Carruth arrives at his clearest statement of the absurdist paradox and sets forth the terms of the rest of his work.
After revising five of his previously published long poems in For You—a book that traces the poet's journey from the asylum outward into the world—Carruth took his last major step toward Brothers, I Loved You All in the collection From Snow and Rock, from Chaos (1973). In poems such as "Emergency Haying" he identifies with his close friends, in this case Marshall Washer, and expresses the agony of work on the diminished farms of Vermont. His role as poet-participant is clear in "The Ravine":
These are what I see here every day,
not things but relationships of things,
quick changes and slow. These are my sorrow[.]
In the entry on Carruth in DLB 5 William Koon called Brothers, I Loved You All by far his best work. He adds, "Carruth seems to have endured his personal agony, his Bloomingdale, and emerged a more complete poet." Carruth opens the volume with "The Loon on Forrester's Pond," hearing the bird's cry:
it came from inside the long wilderness
of my life.
He realizes that the bird's laugh is
a vestige, the laugh that transcends
first all mirth
and then all sorrow
and finally all knowledge, dying
into the gentlest quavering timeless
woe. It seemed
the real and only sanity to me.
In this and other poems of the collection Carruth shows a deep understanding of both his spirit and surroundings. In the long poem "Vermont" he captures the geography, language, and feeling of the state in a cascade of wit.
Galway Kinnell's praise of Brothers, I Loved You All in his "Foreword" to The Selected Poetry of Hayden Carruth (1985) could apply to much of Carruth's later work:
One of the most striking things about his work is his ability to enter the lives of other people … and tell their tales…. I think this is so because he knows them through their speech. There is a reciprocity in all this, however. In telling their tales, he finds a means to express his own inner life. He gives them a voice, they give him a language.
The voices are those of his "brothers," in one sense all of humankind but particularly the jazz musicians who have given music to his language.
In the twenty-eight-part "Paragraphs" from Brothers he loosens (as he calls it) his invented form. The poem concludes with a vision of the recording session of "Bottom Blues" by Albert Ammons, Lips Page, Vic Dickenson, Don Byas, Israel Crosby, and Big Sid Catlett that occurred while the poet was fighting in World War II:
A day very solid February 12th, 1944
cheerless in New York City (while I kneedeep
elsewhere in historical war
was wrecking Beauty's sleep
and her long dream) [.]
He conveys "a moment ecstatic / in the history / of creative mind and heart" and prays,
holy spirit, ninefold
I druther've bin a-settin there, supernumerary
cockroach i' th' corner, a-listenin, a-listenin,,,,,,
than be the Prazedint ov the Wurrurld.
In If You Call This Cry a Song (1983) Carruth continues his exploration of others' voices, deepens his analysis of political and social corruption, and enlarges his use of jazz rhythms. "Marvin McCabe" is the dramatic monologue of a man rendered inarticulate by an auto accident who is now thought to be "good for nothing" by his father. McCabe says of Carruth,
He's listened to me so much
he knows not only what I'm saying but what
I mean to say, you understand?—that thought
in my head. He can write it out for me.
The poem is a bitter portrait of the failure of community. At its conclusion Carruth and McCabe seem to be speaking as one:
It isn't because we're a joke, no,
it's because we think we aren't a joke—that's
what the whole universe is laughing at.
no difference if my thoughts are spoken or
or if I live or die—nothing will change.
How could it? This body is wrong, a misery,
a misrepresentation, but hell, would talking
any difference? The reason nobody knows me
is because I don't exist. And neither do you.
Seemingly in the same spirit of negation is "On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam." He says he has done so and has written against many other wars as well,
and not one
breath was restored
But, as Wendell Berry observes in In the Act,
Mr. Carruth's protest poem is a poem against reduction. On its face, it protests—yet again—the reduction of the world, but its source is a profound instinct of resistance against the reduction of the poet and man who is the poet. By its wonderfully sufficient artistry, the poem preserves the poet's wholeness of heart in the face of his despair. And it shows us how to do so as well. That we would help if we could means that we will help when we can.
While the collection also features rollicking, jazzy poems such as "A Little Old Funky Homeric Blues for Herm" and "Who Cares, Long As It's B-Flat," perhaps its masterpiece is "Loneliness: An Outburst of Hexasyllables," another powerful poem of anguish. The poem was written, Carruth recalls in Effluences from the Sacred Caves: More Selected Essays and Reviews (1983), "in extreme emotion—agitation, depression, bitterness"—that is evident in its concluding lines:
I know that
I am a fool and all
men are fools. I know it
and I know I know it.
What good is it to know?
And yet Carruth's artistic integrity convinces the reader that the poet's spirit will prevail. His loneliness is like the snow-sculpted tree, "made by / the whole of motioning, / all in a concert."
Throughout the 1970s Carruth worked on the verses of his long poem The Sleeping Beauty, in which he reveals a sweeping vision of human history. He begins the 125-paragraph sequence in his favorite setting:
Out of nothing.
This morning the world was gone;
Only grayness outside, so dense, so close
Against the window that it seemed no season,
No place, and no thought almost,
Except what preys at the edge of thought,
But it was snow.
From "A presence gathering," at once beauty—"which is also love"—and his own consciousness, the poem begins.
Carruth identifies three principal "persons" in the poem, beginning with the princess from the fairy tale:
In all and nothing then, the vision from a name,
This Rose Marie Dorn,
Woman alive exactly when the Red Army came
To that crook of the Oder where she was born,
Woman who fled and fled in her human duty
And bore her name, meaning Rose in the
Her name, the mythologos, the Sleeping Beauty.
In a note included in Collected Longer Poems Carruth explains the allusion to his wife—"Because their family name was Dorn, her parents named her intentionally after the story of Dornröschen, and from this the poem sprang"—though he asserts that "nothing beyond this in the poem should be construed as a personal reference." The second person is the prince who would in his arrogance awaken Beauty but who "knows the horror of being / Only a dream."
Third is the poem, who must make
Presence from words, vision from seeing,
This no one that uniquely in sorrow rejoices
And can have no pronoun.
Throughout the poem, one may also hear "the echo of coincidental voices" as Carruth traces "this beauty in its centuries of wrong," beauty meaning not only the princess but the quality, especially as it is manifested in the spirit of art. As Sleeping Beauty dreams, the prince appears in many guises, as historical figures and events and as abstract entities—all beginning with the letter H. From Homer to Hayden, Carruth reveals Beauty's exploitation "In this history of the Slaughter / Of the Innocents." In section 108, where "Its peculiar name is Hydrogen Bomb," Carruth asks,
Yet was not each
Dream always precisely made for this power
At the heart of darkness, this violence, this
Of non-existence hulking beyond your horror?
Among the counterpoints of the poem are a woman's face in stone looking upward through the water of a brook and the voice of Amos, a Vermont farmer long dead. Carruth uses such images to gain perspective on the centuries of horror.
Sleeping Beauty is certainly a masterpiece. In his essay from In the Act Sam Hamill describes the poem as "perhaps Hayden Carruth's grandest achievement. It is astonishingly inclusive, making use of his enormous narrative skills as in Brothers, I Loved You All, formal without being awkward or selfconscious, lyrical in its execution and epic in its proportion, sweeping in its broad affections and horrors. Squarely in the American romantic-mythopoeic tradition, The Sleeping Beauty is a sustained visionary icon of our culture. It returns to us a spirit now too often missing in our poetry, one which dares the sustained experience, a spirit which encourages as many literary lions as housecats."
In 1979, as he relates in "Fragments of Autobiography," Carruth was worn out from the Vermont years of hard labor and needed money to send his son to the university. "The system had snagged me after all," he admitted. Although he somewhat reluctantly accepted a professorship at Syracuse University, where he would work until his retirement in 1991, he was entering into a new era of productivity.
The first published result of the Syracuse period was Asphalt Georgics (1985), a collection in which Carruth incorporates a whole new cast of voices—with names such as Septic Tanck, Capper Kaplinski, and Art and Poll—in an examination of urban life. Carruth exposes the vacuity of life caused by strip malls and housing subdivisions, but as in his earlier work his characters emerge with a stubborn dignity. The quirky quatrains of his "Georgics" seem suited to capture a diminished modern life. The poem "Cave Painting," for example, reviews the progressive extinction of species, down to "our own / fixed and impoverished being":
We were with them. They went away.
And now every bell in
every tower in every village
could toll the tocsin
of our sorrow forever and
still not tell how across
all time our origin always
is this knowledge of loss.
The theme of loss dominates The Oldest Killed Lake in North America: Poems, 1979-1981 (1985), titled after Syracuse's Onondaga, dead from pollution. Also lost are clean air and most human values. In "The Sleeping Beauty (Some Years Later)," Carruth writes that "The face in the water is gone" and records that the brook in which the face appeared is filled with the "damp dregs / of all the world."
Against the ubiquitous decay of life Carruth in his most recent verse and essays takes his stand mainly in two alternatives: love and cynicism. Sonnets (1989) presents a long sequence about rediscovered eroticism and political anger. Even though he knows "our country has no use for how / value survives" and lives "in a system more absolute / than any kingdom, for now the State is god," he is sustained by physical love and the love expressed in the act of writing. "The kiss is one and egoless," he proclaims; and although "my poems too are incorporated" in the system, he writes:
Always I wanted to give and in wanting was the poet. A man now, aging, I know the best of love is not to bestow, but to recognize.
In Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands (1989), Carruth argues that "The poem is a gift, a bestowal" and "is for us what instinct is for animals, a continuing and chiefly unthought corroboration of essence." In this volume of mostly longline poems, he adopts his posture as cynic. In "The Incorrigible Dirigible," the opening meditation on the alcoholism he has shared with Raymond Carver and John Cheever (a condition conquered by all three), he depicts Cheever and himself in a long discussion: "We were men buoyant in cynicism." In "Suicide" from Suicides and Fazzers he reveals a new joy in life after his 1988 suicide attempt: "My dictionary says: ‘The Cynics [in ancient philosophy] taught that virtue is the only good, and that its essence lies in self-control and independence’…. For me virtue is indeed the only good." The act of creation is his virtue, for "the artist must not only work but live in a state of devotion to things greater than himself."
In his influential essay, "The Act of Love: Poetry and Personality," collected in Working Papers: Selected Essays and Reviews (1982), Carruth defines personality as "the whole individual subjectivity, the spirit-body-soul." When that personality has been realized in a poem, he asserts, "It is no longer an object; it transcends objects." That realization he calls love. In "Sometimes When Lovers Lie Quietly Together, Unexpectedly One of Them Will Feel the Other's Pulse" from Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands he presents a moment in mid August when he feels no less than the pulse of the world itself, his ultimate lover: "And for a while I was taken away from my discontents / By this rhythm of the truth of the world, so fundamental, so simple, so clear."
Carruth currently is working with David Budbill to revive the reputation of the turn-of-the-century writer of sketches and stories Rowland Robinson. His Collected Shorter Poems includes a concluding section titled "New Poems, 1986-1991" in which he has written passionate elegies for friends George Dennison and Raymond Carver, and he has recently published Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, Poems 1991-1995 (1996) and Selected Essays and Reviews (1996).
Source: David W. Landrey, "Hayden Carruth," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 165, American Poets Since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 92-101.
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Olson, Ray, Review of Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995, in Booklist, Vol. 92, No. 16, April 15, 1996, p. 1409.
The Principal Upanisads, edited and translated by S. Radhakrishnan, George Allen & Unwin, 1953, reprint, 1974, pp. 201, 575, 686.
Review of Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 9, February 26, 1996, p. 101.
Selinger, Eric Murphy, "The Importance of a Small Floy Floy," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 22, No. 1-2, 1997, pp. 257, 274, 275, 277, 278.
Fu, Tu, Selected Poems of Tu Fu, translated by David Hinton, New Directions, 1989.
Tu Fu (712-770) is widely considered to be China's greatest poet, and he is one of Carruth's favorites. His highly personal poems tell of his own and his family's experiences in a period of history fraught with such disasters as famines, floods, and civil war, as well as the simple pleasures of life. David Hinton's translation has garnered much critical acclaim.
Kaufmann, Walter, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, The World Publishing, 1956, reprint, Plume, 1975.
Kaufmann provides a readable anthology of existentialist writings for the lay reader. In his illuminating commentaries on the various writers, which includes Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Søren Kierkegaard, he emphasizes that existentialist thinkers revolted against traditional philosophies and resisted categorization.
Pound, Ezra, ABC of Reading, New Directions, 1960.
In this enjoyable, clear, and accessible work, the modernist poet Ezra Pound, whom Carruth cites as an important influence, gives advice on how to develop the sensitivity to appreciate and get the most out of reading literature. The book contains a selection of passages from great literature.
Upanisads, translated by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 1998.
The Upanishads form the core spiritual thought of the Vedas, the scriptures of ancient India. They have had a profound influence on philosophers, artists, and writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. They also influenced Buddhism and existentialism. They explore the nature of consciousness, spiritual experience, and man's relationship to the universe and to God. Parts of the text are difficult, but other parts are immediately accessible.
Weiss, David, ed., In the Act: Essays on the Poetry of Hayden Carruth, Hobart & William Smith Press, 1990.
This collection of critical work on Carruth's poetry includes essays by Philip Booth, Wendell Berry, Maxine Kumin, David Weiss, Anthony Robbins, Sam Hamill, William Matthews, Geoffrey Gardner, and Carolyn Kizer. It examines Carruth's contribution to twentieth-century American poetry and provides a useful introduction for students.