Hayden Carruth | Robert B. Shaw

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Hayden Carruth.
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Robert B. Shaw

SOURCE: A review of The Selected Poetry of Hayden Carruth, in Poetry, Vol. CXLIX, No. 2, November, 1986, pp. 98-100.

In the following review of The Selected Poetry of Hayden Carruth, Shaw remarks: "Warts and all, this is a collection animated by a seriousness of purpose, a vocational commitment which few poets nowadays can match."

I wonder why Hayden Carruth has not made this selection of his poetry [in The Selected Poetry of Hayden Carruth] himself. Galway Kinnell, who supplies an appreciative foreword, has done the job; it is unclear to what extent the author has been consulted. I can well imagine that someone who writes as copiously as Carruth might find the task of winnowing past work onerous. He is not only prolific but, as a stylist, extremely varied. In his readiness to experiment, to move on, he reminds one of the final lines of Frost's great poem, "The Wood-Pile":

                                  I thought that only
        Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
        Could so forget his handiwork on which
        He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
        And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
        To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
        With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

Frost comes to mind for more than casual reasons. Many of Carruth's poems are set in Vermont, and we see in them the countryside Frost knew in his youth as it now is, nearly a century later. It is not a reassuring vision. The darker pieces depict a land from which the farms are disappearing, either bought up and gentrified or left to fester as rural slums. It is interesting (and melancholy) to compare the poems Carruth has written about work—elemental chores like cutting wood or baling hay—with those of Frost. For Frost such labor is the foundation of society—indeed, of human existence—and respect for it is assumed. Carruth, while he himself may share such a view, knows that lives spent in such labor are seen now by many as marginalized and quixotic. This consciousness, with the sorrow and anger it induces, gives his work a defiant, embattled air that is compelling. And when he can single out some aspect of the country or the life lived in it that has escaped ruin, he makes us feel the exhilaration of his small victory.

I like especially those poems of Carruth's which begin with rapt description and move, with delicate tact, into a more reflective mode. "The Ravine" starts out as brilliant inventory:

       Stones, brown tufted grass, but no water,
       it is dry to the bottom. A seedy eye
       of orange hawkweed blinks in sunlight
       stupidly, a mink bumbles away,
       a ringnecked snake among stones lifts its head
       like a spark, a dead young woodcock—
       long dead, the mink will not touch it—
       sprawls in the hatchment of its soft plumage
       and clutches emptiness with drawn talons.

But by the end the poet is musing on his own painful gift for bringing together such noticings into a single composition: "These are my sorrow, / for unlike my bright admonitory friends / I see relationships, I do not see things." (To "see relationships": it is an unassuming but commanding summary of what the poet's work is all about.) Other fine poems of this kind include "Once More," "The Cows at Night," "My Meadow," and "The Loon on Forrester's Pond," with its wonderful capturing of "this insane song, wavering music / like the cry of the genie inside the lamp," which in the end, Carruth tells us, "seemed / the real and only sanity to me."

Sanity, and its fragility, are recurrent themes. Carruth's poems about mental derangement and time spent in an asylum are not his best, but they lend perspective to the rest of his work. We get the sense of one who can acknowledge vulnerabilities which once overwhelmed him, and can turn them to a creative purpose. I respect these poems; I do not like them. I feel a similar respect, and a similar lack of enthusiasm, for the pieces in which Carruth imitates Frost most closely, not merely in choice of landscape but in formal means. Such monologues and narratives in relaxed blank verse don't appear to know when to stop; the pathos of the depleted lives they picture is exhausted long before they come to an end. I wish Carruth had imitated Frost's dramatic compression as well as his relaxed iambics. It should be said, though, that Carruth's unsuccessful poems have behind them more ambition than most poets' failures have. His lapses are courageous attempts gone wrong, and may often seem more worth reading than poems whose only distinction is that they have avoided obvious missteps. Warts and all, this is a collection animated by a seriousness of purpose, a vocational commitment which few poets nowadays can match.

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This section contains 783 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Judith Weissman
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