. . Good Morning!
Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
Why speak of the use of poetry?
Poetry is what uses us.
– Hayden Carruth
Today is the anniversary of the birth of poet Hayden Carruth, who was born August 3, 1921, in Connecticut.
What a poem is
Is never known, for which I
Have learned to be grateful.
– Hayden Carruth
He graduated from Pleasantville High School in Pleasantville, New York with the class of 1939 as vice president of the senior class; he was credited with the “prettiest hair” (which may be why he scowls in so many of his photographs).
He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1943, and earned an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1948, serving in WWII in between. Then he hit the skids. From 1953 to 1954, he was confined to a mental hospital in White Plains, NY, for treatment of alcoholism and a nervous breakdown. After his release, he went through a long period of fear-wracked isolation, then worked as a farm hand and manual laborer. His first book of poetry, The crow and the heart, was published in 1959.
His poetry changed radically over time. This poem from his first collection shows a heavy influence of the classical.
The Birth of Venus
Surely we knew our darkling shore
None doubted that continual roar
Of gray waves seething, cold and huge;
None misconceived that beach, those reeds
Wreathed in the dark, dead, dripping weeds.
No fiction here, no subterfuge.
Came she then, borne from such sea-bed?
We think so. Clouds in violent red
Shone on her warmly, flank and breast,
And some remember how the foam
Swirled at her ankles. Other some
Look shrewd and smile behind the rest.
She gave us beauty where our eyes
Had seen but need, and we grew wise.
For wisdom could not fail the gift
Bestowed in the superb undress,
Value consigned as loveliness
From ocean’s riches, ocean’s thrift.
But, Love, then must it be the sea
That makes you credible, must we
Bear all to one phenomenon?
Aye, certainty is our seacoast,
The landmark of the plainly lost
Whose gathering waves drive on and on.
Great queen, an ignorant poet’s heart
Is all his faith, and yet his art
Can prick your source to tell the truth.
So teach him, lady. Then always
Among voices here that praise
Your powers, one will be Carruth.
“The Birth of Venus” from The crow and the heart, © 1959 by Hayden Carruth
You can see how much his writing evolved in this poem, written much later, which looks back at the time when he wrote “The Birth of Venus.”
Notes on Poverty
Was I so poor
in those damned days
that I went in the dark
in torn shoes
to steal fat ears
of cattle corn
from the good cows
and pound them
like hard maize
on my worn Aztec
stone? I was.
“Notes on Poverty” from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995, © 1996 by Hayden Carruth – Copper Canyon Press
Carruth lived in Johnson, Vermont, teaching at Johnson State College (1972-1974). From 1977 to 1988, he was the poetry editor of Harper’s Magazine. He taught at the University of Vermont (1975-1978), then in 1979, became a tenured professor of English at Syracuse University before taking emeritus status in 1991. His fourth wife, poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin, is the author of The Banshee Diaries.
Sometimes we don’t say anything. Sometimes
we sit on the deck and stare at the masses of
goldenrod where the garden used to be
and watch the color change form day to day,
the high yellow turning to mustard and at last
to tarnish. Starlings flitter in the branches
of the dead hornbeam by the fence. And are these
therefore the procedures of defeat? Why am I
saying all this to you anyway since you already
know it? But of course we always tell
each other what we already know. What else?
It’s the way love is in a late stage of the world.
“Silence” from Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991, © 1992 by Hayden Carruth – Copper Canyon Press
He was a big fan of jazz; his essays and poems about jazz were collected in Sitting In.
Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey
Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren’t we fine tonight?
When Hank set up that limping
treble roll behind me
my horn just growled and I
thought my heart would burst.
And Brad M. pressing with the
soft stick and Joe-Anne
singing low. Here we are now
in the White Tower, leaning
on one another, too tired
to go home. But don’t say a word,
don’t tell a soul, they wouldn’t
understand, they couldn’t, never
in a million years, how fine,
how magnificent we were
in that old club tonight.
“Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey” from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995, © 1996 by Hayden Carruth – Copper Canyon Press
But Carruth also had a very New England trait, something I’ll call, for lack of a word, a pessimistically optimistic outlook:
“The point is, there’s a losing kind of man who still will save this world if anybody
can save it, who believes . . . oh, many things,
that horses, say, are fundamentally preferable
to tractors, that small is more likeable than big,
and that human beings work better and last longer
when they’re free.”
Bears at Raspberry Time
Fear. Three bears
are not fear, mother
and cubs come berrying
in our neighborhood
like any other family.
I want to see them, or any
poking across the brook
into briary darkness,
but they have gone,
noisily. I go to bed.
Fear. Unwritten books
already titled. Some
idiot will shoot the bears
soon, it always happens,
they’ll be strung up by the paws
in someone’s frontyard
maple to be admired and
measured, and I’ll be paid
for work yet to be done—
with a broken imagination.
At last I dream. Our
plum tree, little, black,
twisted, gaunt in the
orchard: how for a moment
last spring it flowered
before yielding its usual
summer crop of withered
leaves. I waken, late,
go to the window, look
down to the orchard.
Is middle age what makes
even dreams factual?
The plum is serene and
bright in new moonlight,
dressed in silver leaves,
and nearby, in the waste
of rough grass strewn
in moonlight like diamond dust,
what is it?—a dark shape
moves, and then another.
Are they … I can’t
be sure. The dark house
nuzzles my knee mutely,
pleading for meaty dollars.
Fear. Wouldn’t it be great
to write nothing at all
except poems about bears?
“Bears at Raspberry Time” from Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991, © 1992 by Hayden Carruth – Copper Canyon Press
The Cows at Night
The moon was like a full cup tonight,
too heavy, and sank in the mist
soon after dark, leaving for light
faint stars and the silver leaves
of milkweed beside the road,
gleaming before my car.
Yet I like driving at night
in summer and in Vermont:
the brown road through the mist
of mountain-dark, among farms
so quiet, and the roadside willows
opening out where I saw
the cows. Always a shock
to remember them there, those
great breathings close in the dark.
I stopped, and took my flashlight
to the pasture fence. They turned
to me where they lay, sad
and beautiful faces in the dark,
and I counted them-forty
near and far in the pasture,
turning to me, sad and beautiful
like girls very long ago
who were innocent, and sad
because they were innocent,
and beautiful because they were
sad. I switched off my light.
But I did not want to go,
not yet, nor knew what to do
if I should stay, for how
in that great darkness could I explain
anything, anything at all.
I stood by the fence. And then
very gently it began to rain.
“The Cows at Night,” from Toward the Distant Islands: New & Selected Poems, © 2006 by Hayden Carruth – Copper Canyon Press
Raymond Carver and poet Tess Gallagher met in 1977. He was a master of the short story, and inspired her to write three short story collections of her own. He had a problem with alcohol until he stopped drinking on June 2, 1977. For eleven years they were friends, lovers, editors and sounding boards, before his death from lung cancer at age 50. After he was diagnosed with cancer, she became his second wife, and he was her third husband – for the last six weeks of his life.
How many guys are sitting at their kitchen tables
right now, one-thirty in the morning, this same
time, eating a piece of pie? – that’s what I
wondered. A big piece of pie, because I’d just
finished reading Ray’s last book. Not good pie,
not like my mother or my wife could’ve
made, but an ordinary pie I’d just bought, being
alone, at the Tops Market two hours ago. And how
many had water in their eyes? Because of Ray’s
book and especially those last poems written
after he knew: the one about the doctor telling
him, the one where he and Tess go down to
Reno to get married before it happens and shoot
some craps on the dark baize tables, the one
called “After-Glow” about the little light in the
sky after the sun sets. I can just hear him,
if he were still here and this were somebody
else’s book, saying, “Jesus,” saying, “This
is the saddest son of a bitch of a book I’ve
read in a long time,” saying, “A real long time.”
And the thing is, he knew we’d be saying this
about his book, he could just hear us saying it,
and in some part of him he was glad! He
really was. What crazies we writers are
our heads full of language like buckets of minnows
standing in the moonlight on a dock. Ray
was a good writer, a wonderful writer, and his
poems are good, most of them and they made me
cry, there at my kitchen table with my head down,
me, a sixty-seven-year-old galoot, an old fool
because all old men are fools, they have to be,
shoveling big jagged chunks of that ordinary pie
into my mouth, and the water falling from my eyes
onto the pie, the plate, my hand, little speckles
shining in the light, brightening the colors, and I
ate that goddamn pie, and it tasted good to me.
Politically, Carruth was a disgruntled and cynical liberal.
He had gained little recognition as a poet until 1992, at age 71, when his Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 won the National Book Critics Circle Award, It was followed in 1996 by a National Book Award for Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995. He didn’t attend the awards ceremony, and two years later, when the Clintons invited him to the White House, he shared his RSVP on National Public Radio:
. . . Thank you for thinking of me. However, it would seem the greatest hypocrisy for an honest American poet to be present on such an occasion at the seat of power which has not only neglected but abused the interests of poets and their readers continually, to say nothing of many other administratively dispensable segments of the population. Consequently, I must decline. — Hayden Carruth
Carruth died from complications after a series of strokes at age 87 in 2008. He has been called America’s most famous unknown writer.
“. . . 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.”
The Hayden Carruth Museum Library is set in the hill valley of Stockbridge Township, Madison County, among working dairy farms and orchards, in the landscape which inspired much of his later work.
Mug: Johnson, Vermont
River in Madison County, New York