Hayden Carruth | Critical Essay by Judith Weissman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Hayden Carruth.
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Critical Essay by Judith Weissman

SOURCE: An introduction to Working Papers: Selected Essays and Reviews by Hayden Carruth, edited by Judith Weissman, The University of Georgia Press, 1982, pp. xv-xxiii.

In the following essay, Weissman surveys Carruth's critical works, concluding: "[Carruth's progress has taken him continuously deeper into the knowledge of his own humanity, and of the humanity of literature."]

It is difficult to write an introduction to the works of any living author, and it is particularly difficult to write about this selection of Hayden Carruth's essays and reviews. His work seems awesomely rich, full, complete—thirty years of essays that begin with Pound and end with numerous younger poets in mid-flight. But the appearance of completeness is illusory, for these essays are no more than a tenth of those Carruth has written. I am particularly sorry not to include a review of a group of critical books on Spenser and three notes on Pope, to whom Carruth brings the same sense of joyful discovery that he brings to poets whom he is actually reading for the first time. But some principles of selection were necessary, and one was that I would try to present, through these essays, a history of the last thirty years of literature. (Occasional departures from even this principle were made, as in the inclusion of the review of Casanova's memoirs. I included that review because it was thematically so well connected with others on love and aristocracy.) This selection concludes with a review that points toward the future, on what poets may do in the 1980s, because this volume should not appear to be nicely and neatly finished. Plenty of people are still writing, and Carruth is still reviewing them.

The title, Working Papers, modest as it is, was chosen by Carruth years ago, when he first planned to publish a collection of his essays. It is still appropriate now: it is modesty that characterizes these essays, and Carruth's poems, and Carruth himself. In addition, the subtle pun of the title, the several meanings of the phrase, are too important to abandon. It is true that this book is sketchy, a draft, in a way, of the polished book of literary criticism that Carruth might have written in another life. Most of these essays and reviews were written as real work—which, in our society, means labor performed in exchange for money. The reviews, particularly, were the work Carruth did instead of being part of a university—they got him out of school, like the working papers of sixteen-year-old boys in the 1930s.

In need of money, Carruth has taken review assignments as they came, on books which he did not choose. The few long, fully developed essays here—like those on Robert Lowell and on "Poetry and Personality"—make me wish that he had been able to write more of them, rather than being driven by necessity into doing so many brief reviews. But there is no reason to mourn over what he has done, or to treat this volume as one of promise rather than fulfillment, of frustration rather than realization. How many people in the privileged world of academia have written anything as good as this collection of reviews? Their genesis as work, as daily labor, has given them life. Carruth wrote them, not for the audience of scholarly journals, but often for newspapers or political magazines like The Nation or the New Republic. (Some, of course, were for more literary journals, though not academic ones, like Poetry and the Hudson Review.)

Some of the humanity of these essays and reviews also springs from Carruth's knowledge that he could help to determine the success of other people's books and affect how much money they made. The importance of reviewing, and of Carruth's reviewing in particular, became strikingly clear to me one evening when we attended a reading by a middle-aged poet who will never be rich or famous. He was amazed and delighted that Hayden Carruth had driven thirty miles to hear him, and after the reading, in private talk, recalled Carruth's review, many years earlier, of one of his books. "My marriage was falling apart, I was cracking up. I had written what I knew was my best book, and no one would review it. Except you. You knew it was good. Man, you saved my life." The man was not joking.

A well-known reviewer has a lot of power. He can give outrageously high praise to his friends, who will then of course return the favor; he can put down rivals and newcomers who are potential rivals, and anyone who has dared to insult him; above all, he can advertise himself. Carruth never does any of this. The unspoken values of these essays and reviews—humility, modesty, generosity, self-effacement—are the most important values of all. Carruth occasionally acknowledges the flawed, human self which, like everyone else, he certainly has—as in the essay on Robert Lowell, when he says that he envies Lowell's wealth and privilege, and easy success and fame as a poet—but how miraculously free from the bitterness of self these essays and reviews are! How encouraging to the young, how respectful to the old and out of fashion, how sincerely interested in the work of other writers.

Everyone who has read Carruth's poems knows some of the troubles of his life and can figure out that he wrote these lucid and kind reviews under some of the most difficult of human circumstances. The tone and texture are so even, strong, almost imperturbable, that it is an effort to remember that Carruth's daily intercourse with the human world has been unusually painful and difficult, and that he lived most of the last twenty years in northern Vermont, an especially poor man in a place where nearly everyone was poor. These reviews do not have the feeling of loneliness, which always does harm, though it sometimes also does good. They are so friendly, social, communicative. They could not be more different from the cranky soliloquies that we might expect from someone who has lived Carruth's life.

That life is not entirely absent here, however. The changes in the essays reflect Carruth's own life as well as his participation in a general cultural life. Most important is a change in his language. At the beginning, he sounds like what he was, an ambitious young editor of a prestigious urban magazine, Poetry, located in a big city, Chicago. By the end, we can hear Vermont in his voice. He is looser, more colloquial, more concerned with everyday life, nature, agriculture. One sentence, from the last review, will be sufficient illustration: "Dullness sprang up in the fertile soil of American poetry during the seventies like colorless saprophytes in a damp pine forest." This is not the talk of a Vermont farmer. It is the talk of an extraordinarily intelligent and observant man who knows both the world of poetry and culture, and the plants of the Vermont woods, and understands both well enough to make use of one as an exceedingly precise metaphor for the other. A cultural tragedy is implied in this, a tragedy that informs Carruth's sense of the world. No one would bother to remark that Shakespeare or Milton or Wordsworth knew both culture and nature, but in our country the division has been growing deeper and deeper between the country and the city, agriculture and learning, the small community and the larger world. Carruth's life is extraordinary because he has known all of these possibilities so fully, and it has also been extraordinarily sad because he has known the pain of losing each of them.

Carruth's personal history is of less importance here than the other histories he writes about. The events of the world, as excluded from the New Criticism as the personalities of the poet and critic, are very much in evidence here. World War II, the Holocaust (before it became a fashionable topic), atomic weapons, racism in the United States (do other critics remember George Jackson?), and always, the suffering of the poor under the innumerable oppressions of government and bureaucracy. We hear occasionally about the problems of artists, too; but thank God we never hear that their sufferings are greater than those of the rest of the world. Justice and injustice, happiness and suffering, good and evil—yes, good and evil—and their consequences for the human race as a whole—those are always the final terms by which Carruth tests literature. These essays are not crudely utilitarian in any way; Carruth never says that some piece of writing is good simply because it contains some particular social idea or value. The utilitarianism (an unjustly disparaged philosophy in any case) is subtle and indirect, it lies in Carruth's refusal to let us forget that the ultimate context for art is the world—and that the world has been a very ugly place in the last thirty years. He has seen horror as clearly as anyone can, but has resisted the temptation to believe that an artist has the right to isolate and protect himself. He has held onto his vision of the sufferings of the world tenaciously, grimly, and above all, without cynicism.

The book, however, is primarily about neither Carruth nor the fall of the West. It is about literature and literary criticism. Carruth's interest in the literary criticism of the last thirty years has been more limited than his interest in poetry. He has not bothered with the bizarre explosion of academic criticism in the last few years, and we do not yet know what he has to say about the likes of Lacan and Derrida. Here he has written mainly about the New Criticism and some reactions to it, in his reviews of Karl Shapiro, Northrop Frye, Paul Elmer More, Joseph Frank, Martin Price, Eliseo Vivas, John Hall Wheelock, Edmund Wilson, George Steiner. Carruth shows the same respect and generosity toward other critics as he does to other poets; he admires intelligence, learning, scholarship, and love for the tradition of literature, in others. He deplores readings that include no glance at the outside world or that rest on esthetic values alone.

Carruth's own criticism is always on the verge of becoming philosophy. And he writes comfortably, surely more comfortably than most poets would, about philosophical and historical prose. Camus, Sartre (on Genet), Genet, de Rougemont, Eliot, Eliot on Bradley, Casanova, Yevtushenko, Irving Singer, Gottfried Benn, Wyndham Lewis—a rather odd collection here, which, we must remember, Carruth did not choose. Such a disparate group does, oddly, belong together, for Carruth has unified them with two recurrent themes, the difficulties of human love, and the relation of art to the world. The European existentialists are among the heroes of this book, and surely its villains (I do not choose the word lightly) are Benn and Lewis. They are the primary examples of the evil to which men can come when they decide that they have the right to choose art over life. Carruth does not simply label them fascists and let them go, as a less conscientious critic might have done. He gives them the same intelligent care in reading that he gives to the others, and even praises them when they deserve praise. But he never allows their virtues—intelligence, skill, style—to obliterate his knowledge of the wickedness of what they believe. He cannot pardon them for writing well when what they say is evil.

Poetry is the subject of most of these essays, which constitute a perpetual reproach to the joylessness of academic criticism. There is joy in them. Read them—and remember what it was like to read for the first time Pound. Williams, Auden, Stevens, Muir, Ferlinghetti, Levertov, Aiken, Rukeyser, Duncan, Eliot, Perse, Lowell, Schwartz, Jarrell, Berryman, Zukofsky, Berry. Carruth is a graceful master of the myriad techniques of literary criticism, using them with ease to range widely, in lucid analysis of individual poems or poets, or the psychological development of a poet's work, or the poet's connection with a tradition which Carruth knows and reveres (a tradition which includes John Clare and William Barnes along with Shakespeare and Wordsworth). Though Carruth calls only a few human failings evil—cruelty, selfishness, fakery—he finds goodness in many places.

Paterson … is a poem intense, complicated, and absorbing, one of the best examples of concision of poetry that I know.

The love poems [of MacLeish], and there are many, written during every phase of the poet's career and under every aspect of feeling, are often splendid, composed with a restraint and exactness of language that is songlike, reproducing the sensuousness of ideas very evocatively, the basic eroticism of human thought.

Opulence—it is the quality most of us would ascribe to the poetry of Wallace Stevens before all others; profusion, exotic luxuriance.

This is hard substance, and the poems [of Muir] have about them, beyond their verbal utilitarianism, a kind of obduracy of spirit that we associate with the Scotch Presbyterian sensibility.

Force, directness, affection for the separate word and the various parts of speech (especially participles), knowledge of cadence and syntax, as components of meaning rather than vicissitudes of fabrication—there can be no doubt that Miss Rukeyser can write good poetry.

Perse writes a kind of pure poem of sensibility, an analytic of the heart, a conceptualizing poem. Without meter, without any rhythm except the self-sustaining verbal flow, his poetic principle, as one would expect in so abstract a composition, is pure grammar.

He has resolved to accept reality, all reality, and to take its fragments indiscriminately as they come, forging from them this indissoluble locus of metaphorical connections that is known as Robert Lowell.

In his war poems Randall Jarrell did rise, as if in spite of himself and at the command of a classical force outside himself, to his moment of tragic vision.

They all derive from his [Wendell Berry's] experience as a subsistence farmer, and they celebrate the earth and the strength a man gains from contact with soil, water, stone, and seed. Make no mistake, these are poems in praise of Aphrodite of the Hot Furrow, full of generative force, even though their manner is seldom rhapsodic.

What word can describe Carruth's way of reading? Pleasure and joy have become debased—perhaps the word I am searching for is celebration.

Finally, Carruth has written a few, late, precious essays on the general subject of poetry—"The Writer's Situation," "Seriousness and the Inner Poem," "The Question of Poetic Form," "The Act of Love: Poetry and Personality"—which I would not attempt to summarize. They are rich and graceful and lucid, and unashamedly intelligent. And so I return to Carruth's history—not, this time, the change from the city to the country or from privilege to chosen poverty—but the history of growth into simultaneous modesty and confidence, seriousness and humor, humanity and wisdom. Again, I look for a word: can adult or mature still mean anything good when they have come to mean "pornographic"? I cannot think of one word with which to express my recognition that all these qualities could not belong to a young man. The complementary qualities of these late essays are highlighted in two sentences in "The Question of Poetic Form":

Well, it seems to me that Plato made a very shrewd observation of human psychology when he conceived his ideals—if he was the one who actually conceived them (I am ignorant of pre-Socratic philosophy)….

… I believe the closed pentameter couplet was natural to Pope, "organic," if you like, and if his poems are not as well unified poetically as any others of a similar kind and scope, if the best of them are not poems in exactly the same sense we mean today, then I don't know how to read poetry. (But I do.)

He feels free to offer an interpretation of Plato and also admits the limitations of his knowledge—an admission which itself establishes a breadth of knowledge which exceeds that of most current critics, who do not mention the fact that pre-Socratic philosophy exists. A younger and more anxious critic might have written a pompous little aside on where the interested reader might check up on pre-Socratic philosophy. Carruth can let it go. And he can also assert himself as a younger person could not, and say, in a biting parenthetical clause, that of course he knows how to read poetry. How good it is to read the work of someone whose knowledge and experience are so deep that he can make judgments without arrogance and without defensiveness.

But it would be wrong to make Carruth sound too much like the wise, good-hearted elder sage. There is always a more mysterious power in his writing, a power generated by the simultaneous existence of another pair of paradoxical qualities. I will use his own words, first on Lowell, second on Leroi Jones, to define those qualities: "this is tough, this is homely, this is American" and "our Shelley." Most of what I have praised in the essays belongs to the homely, American side of Carruth, to his affinity with Twain and Whitman, who never call people stupid or ugly, but only cruel or hypocritical or self-righteous, who value sanity and love, the natural world and the common man. Shelley is here too, in the combination of rage and spirituality, visions of horror and visions of ethereal beauty, and fury at the sight of wrong that can only be felt by someone who wants perfection. Parts of the first essay in the book, Carruth's defense of Pound, sound almost as if they were copied from Shelley's "Defense of Poetry."

Poetry is the reason for all things humanly true and beautiful, and the product of them—wisdom, scholarship, love, teaching, celebration. Love of poetry is the habit and need of wise men wherever they are, and when for some reason of social or personal disadjustment they are deprived of it, they will be taxed in spirit and will do unaccountable things. Great men will turn instinctively to the poetic labor of their time, because it is the most honorable and useful, as it is the most difficult, human endeavor. Every spiritual faculty of man is a poetic one, and in poetry is that working of the spirit which engages man and his world in an intelligible existence. Only in poetry is man knowable to himself.

In the late essays the language is compressed, the tone, sober—but Shelley is still here, for example, in "The Act of Love: Poetry and Personality":

It follows that poetry is social, though not in any sense of the term used by sociologists. It follows that poetry is political, leaving the political scientists far behind. Maybe it even follows that if the substance of a poem, or part of it, is expressly though broadly social or political, this fact will reinforce the subjective communalism of the poet's intention in his transcendent act; but that is a question—the interrelationship of substance and the vision of form, or of moral and aesthetic feeling—to which twenty-five years of attention have given me no answer. Yet many, a great many, of our finest poems, especially as we read backward toward the evolutionary roots of poetry, seem to suggest such a hypothesis, and in any event we know that political substance is not, and in itself cannot be, inimical to poetry. Finally it follows that the politics of the poet, in his spirituality, will be a politics of love. For me this means nonviolent anarchism, at least as a means; I know no end.

Carruth has none of the qualities that alienate some people from Shelley—frothy poetic excess, squeamish disdain for earthly life—but the two are alike in their deep, pessimistic, undying spirituality. Despite his personal suffering, Carruth's spirituality has endured, as Shelley's might not have. Carruth never writes with the weary ease that often comes with self-confident skill and assured success. The late essays are less joyful than the early ones but just as loving; they are less hopeful but more dogged in their vitality. Carruth has endured without settling into stoicism because he has refused to cease either suffering or hoping. His progress has taken him continuously deeper into the knowledge of his own humanity, and of the humanity of literature.

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