Oct/Nov 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Portable Carruth

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Toward the Distant Islands: New & Selected Poems.
Hayden Carruth, Sam Hamill, editor.
Copper Canyon Press (2006)
ISBN 1-55659-236-1.

Sam Hamill, whose Copper Canyon Press has published Hayden Carruth's books since 1990, and who created the Hayden Carruth Award, given annually for a full-length poetry manuscript, begins his introduction to Toward the Distant Islands on the dominant note of the poet's long life: "Hayden Carruth has wrestled with daemons and angels alike, not least of all himself, in his long writing life."

Nothing could be more true. Few poets' work is as intimately a product of their lives as is Carruth's.

In particular, his long battle with mental illness, the subject of so much introspection, and not a little inspection from without, informs his work. The wiz kid editor of the Chicago journal Poetry, at 28 years of age, in 1950, his erratic behavior cost him the job after less than a year. His wife divorced him. He married again and divorced again shortly thereafter. By 1953, after what has been described as "an alcoholic breakdown," he had begun a year and a half in Bloomingdale, a private asylum. Later he would reveal his diagnosis in a group of poems (not included in the present volume) about the experience:

The diagnosis is
Anxiety psychoneurosis
(Chronic and acute)
Complicated by
Generalized phobic
Extensions and alcoholism.

More bluntly expressed by Hamill: "He has struggled his entire life with severe chronic depression..."

Carruth left Bloomingdale to live for some five years seldom emerging from his parents' attic. It was a period of time during which he refers to himself as having been "agoraphobic." He relied on substantial doses of Thorazine in order to cope even to the extent that he did.

Somehow he managed, during the extremely dysfunctional years in that attic, to assemble the poems for a first volume The Crow and the Heart. He also managed, with the help of a therapist, to move from his parents' house into a cottage provided by James Laughlin, the owner of the publishing house New Directions, whom he had known before his breakdown. With the publication of The Crow and the Heart, by Macmillan, in 1959, the poet seems to have recovered still more of his self-confidence; enough so that he married yet again and purchased a home in Johnson, Vermont.

For twenty years, Carruth worked odd jobs during the day and did freelance writing and editing during the evenings in a small, cluttered cow shed near the house. Occasionally, during the late hours, he would find some time to put towards his own poetry:

Why I went to verse-making

is unknowable, this
grubbing art. Trying,

Harmony, to fix your beat
in things that have none

and want none — absurdity!

It was a life of drudgery but also a life in which there was little time or money for unhealthy excesses of self-indulgence.

During the twenty years that he lived in Johnson, Hayden Carruth became the poet we discover in Toward the Distant Islands. Little by little he came to fully appreciate a world of chain-saws and haying and simple friendships. In time he wrote Brothers, I Loved You All (1978), with its simple poetry describing his neighbors:

                    I have written
of Marshall often, for his presence is in my poems
as in my life, so familiar that it is not named;
yet I have named him sometimes too, in writing
as in life, gratefully. We are friends. Our friendship
began when I came here years ago, seeking
what I had once known in southern New England,
now destroyed. I found it in Marshall, among others.
He is friend and neighbor both, an important

It is perhaps as good as any volume he has written. While the poems are clearly mindful of Robert Frost's best work, the voice is his own.

This is not to say that Carruth became altogether a different person. Much of his freelance work continued to come to him from contacts he'd made during his Chicago days. The alternately humble and crotchety letters he wrote to literary friends, and their occasional visits, also constituted a valued part of his life. He continued to smoke two packs of cigarettes per day and to drink with the best of them.

When Martha, the daughter of his first marriage, became pregnant, at 16 years of age, she moved in with her father and enrolled in the local high school. She married in his house:

was the era of the Stones, Joan Baez singing
"We Shall Overcome," the trial of the Chicago
Seven. Martha asked us to baby-sit sometimes
when her class schedule demanded it, and also
occasionally in the evenings when she and Ames
wanted to go out to smoke a little grass and get
mildly tanked.

Her death, at 46 years of age, after a long bout with cancer, is the subject of the poem "Dearest M—". "The immensity of what should be said / defeats me," Carruth wrote and a sense of casting about to find words is evident throughout the poem's 15 pages. The sense of helplessness is palpable. The sundering thought that he must live minute by minute, day by day, in a world in which she no longer exists is almost too much to bear:

Martha was dead for two minutes, then two hours,
then ten, and will it become a day, two days, with her
not here? Impossible. I cannot think of it.
Yet the lighted numbers on my watch keep turning,
Ticking and turning.

The poem is the equal of anything in the volume, or, for that matter, in most volumes. The humanity of the moment and the immediacy of the grief are a powerful combination.

By the time that Martha passed out of his life, in 1997, Hayden Carruth had long been teaching at Syracuse University's graduate program for creative writing. He had already been the recipient of many of the most prestigious grants and awards in the poetry world, including the National Book Award for his volume Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey (1996).

His poetry has continued to feature the hard-won quotidian virtues it gained in little Johnson, Vermont, as well as an appreciation of nature, directly sensual celebrations of the women he has loved, paeans to friends and blunt advocacy for the little man in the face of the overwhelming and too often bloodless machinery of authority. Among the new poems in Toward the Distant Islands, he reflects upon another tragedy befallen another daughter:

And now we've bombed a wedding party in the desert
outside Baghdad! Can you believe it? Bright shreds of
the wedding tent flying away, bloody pieces of people
flying and flopping on the sand. Pieces of the lovely bride,
pieces of the groom, pieces of the attending elders,
pieces of children, musicians, drivers, and the religious

Again, the details are compelling. Even trailed by his oxygen machine, through the sun room of his home on the outskirts of Syracuse, Hayden Carruth remains a valuable and cantankerous witness.

In his introduction to Toward the Distant Islands Sam Hamill, describes his editing criteria:

"While rereading Carruth's oeuvre, I held in mind two objectives: to provide a good introductory sampling from his shorter poems, hoping the uninitiated reader would be enticed into exploring the larger body of work; and to produce a worthy "portable Carruth," a little celebration of "greatest hits" including some recent and previously unpublished work..."

He has achieved his stated objectives and more.


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