Hayden Carruth: Child of the Depression

Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey” is Hayden Carruth’s most recent collection of works. Published in 1996, it reflects a dark, booze-washed view of the world through the eyes of a 76-year-old man. His works reflect his personal experiences and his opinion on world events. Despite technical merit, Carruth’s works have become depressing.

Hayden Carruth is a child of the Depression born in Vermont in 1921, where he lived for many years. He now lives in upstate New York, where he taught in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University until his recent retirement. He has published twenty-nine books, mostly of poetry but also a novel, four books of criticism, and anthologies as well. Four of his most recent books are “Selected Essays; Reviews,” “Collected Longer Poems,” “Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991,” and “Suicides and Jazzers.”

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He edited poetry for Poetry, Harper’s, and for 20 years, The Hudson Review. He has received fellowships from the Bollingen Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, most recently in 1995, a Lannan Literary Fellowship. He has won many awards, including the Lenore Marshall Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Vermont Governor’s Medal, the Carl Sandburg Award, the Whiting Award, the Ruth Lily Prize, the National Book Award, and The National Book Critics’ Circle Award for “Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991.”

In “Another,” Carruth comments on the goal of poetry. He begins by dismissing truth and beauty: “Truth and beauty were never the aims of proper poetry, and the era which proclaimed them was a brutal era.” – Another The era might have been brutal, but “truth and beauty” were and still are a large part of “proper poetry.” The collected works of William Shakespeare and Robert Frost both have a great deal of truth and beauty in their works, as well as the tragic ordeals in life, while Carruth only sees the brutality of life.

Carruth goes on to name the goal of poetry as: “…let justice be primary when we sing…” – Another Even though his primary goal is justice, this collection of poems seems to be one long complaint about injustice. It is easy to agree with Carruth in the “Quality of wine” when he says “this wine is really awful,” unlike the poet, it is his unremitting whining that is awful. Like self-commentary, Carruth writes: “Language is defeated in the heavy, heavy day.

Limp lines on the page like grass mown in the meadow.” – The Heaviness

This utter heaviness can be seen in the horrific poem “The Camp,” all 21 verses of which lament man’s hardness of heart. In the second verse, a lighter thought reads, “As the kittens were born, the father of the little girl bashed the head of each one against a rock. She watched.” – The Camps

In this and many other of his works, he illuminates the harshest situations but rarely offers a solution. If justice is truly Carruth’s goal, why does he not offer a solution to his readers instead of concentrating on the hopelessness he sees in life? It would seem that Carruth is in agreement when he writes, “True, I’ve noticed in who knows how many poems, this life is hell, the inferno of everyday, every miserable day…” from “The Best, the Most.”

The grisly details and sad musing of Carruth’s third world voyeurism reek of CNN or, more likely, The Nation: “on the beaten earth the right hands heaped in a little pile for you to encounter on your journey and think of those who lost them, helpless in a forest, children probably bleed to death – a village in every possible way abandoned.” – Mort aux Belges. He seems to trail with an eye for the dark underside, blind to the joy and triumphs of the human spirit.

At best, he writes of the difference between our ideals and our true actions: “How we cherish the dove on the peaceful flag even while the real dove at our bird-feeders fight viciously among themselves and against the smaller sparrows, finches, and chickadees for the seed I place there in abundance.” – The Chain.

Perhaps the dry, grieving depression of this collection can be attributed to the impending death of his daughter due to liver cancer. He includes three poems in the work illuminating this tragedy in his life. First, “Auburn Poem,” written to his first wife and mother of his daughter. The second, “Pittsburgh,” an account of his time with his daughter at Allegheny General Hospital. The third, “Overlooking Pittsburgh,” a poem about his daughter’s paintings of the city while a patient in the hospital. They are the best of the lot, balancing somewhat sweet yet profoundly sad; beautiful but self-centered with grieving.

Others have lost their youth, health, and even loved ones and not been filled with such despair. Carruth tells us he has a loving wife, good friends, and a comfortable life, but he seems to find so little joy in them. Talking in future tense of happiness not to be found in his presence. In “Graves,” he has a self-revelation when he writes: “I wouldn’t go look at the grave of Shakespeare if it was just down the street. I wouldn’t look at – ” And I stopped, I was about to say the grave of God until I realized I’m looking at it all the time….” – Graves.

Perhaps to a man who believes God is dead, the mystery that is life ends here and in a demeaning fashion. That viewpoint could turn the colors of life to gray and the sweetness to bitter.

Category: Biographies.

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