Hayden Carruth, A Poet With A Jazzman’s Touch
by Tom Cole
Prize-winning poet, editor, essayist and novelist Hayden Carruth died Sept. 29 in his home in Munnsville, N.Y. He was 87.
The grandson of a journalist and the son of an editor, Carruth began writing when he was 6 years old. Over the course of his career, he published more than 30 books of poetry, prose, criticism and essays.
Carruth’s poetry was shaped by the troubled times of his life. He lived in poverty for most of his early career. In 1953, suffering from alcoholism and a nervous breakdown, he spent 18 months in a mental hospital, where he underwent electroshock treatment. When he got out, he moved to northern Vermont, where he wrote while working as a mechanic and farm laborer.
Rural life and hard work became central to Carruth’s writing, but the poet’s relationship to the natural world was an uneasy one. He told Contemporary Authors: “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.”
In 1988, Carruth attempted suicide; later, he told The University of Chicago Magazine “the difficulties made my poetry better, I’m convinced of that.” Carruth was also a jazz fan. One critic wrote that the poet used his thorough grounding in traditional poetic forms to improvise with words in much the same way jazz musicians improvise on chord structure or a melody.
Carruth was recognized with an award from Poetry magazine in 1954, and his first collection, The Crow and the Heart, was published in 1959. But it wasn’t until 1992 that he reached a wider national audience when Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Four years later, he won a National Book Award for Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995.
Despite the recognition, Carruth seemed unsure that his — or any — writing mattered. He told Contemporary Authors:
When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry… 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. …[but] 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.
Carruth is survived by his wife, poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin Carruth.
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