Hayden Carruth | Critical Review by Roger Mitchell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Hayden Carruth.
This section contains 1,643 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Roger Mitchell

SOURCE: "Voice Is Everything," in The American Book Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, November-December, 1985, pp. 19-20.

Mitchell is an American poet, educator, and critic. In the following review, he applauds the skill with which Carruth employs a variety of voices and themes in If You Call This Cry a Song.

I would like to begin this review of Hayden Carruth's [If You Call This Cry a Song] by saying that voice is unimportant to poetry, but too many crimes are committed in such a remark, not the least of which is imprecision, since it isn't clear exactly what voice is. Whatever it is, though, a great deal is said about it, mostly in its defense. Those who use the word say, further, that true poets have their own—which is to say, a single—voice, and that the poet's worth can be measured precisely by this quality, possession of a unique and ubiquitous voice, like a brand label found in every shirt made by a given manufacturer. Departures from this voice are usually "regrettable," betraying either esthetic uncertainty or, worse, "insincerity" on the poet's part. To depart from one's voice is to depart from one's feeling and self and is thought therefore to be a sin against nature, a tampering with the givenness of life, an imposition of that hated, though human, quality—will—on a world of inviolable intuition and feeling. Thousands of poets are earnestly searching for their voices, and if I'm not mistaken, most are failing. The question is: Is this a real failure? Is voice, so conceived, an adequate measure of the value of poetry?

If my sense of voice is at all correct, it is chiefly a manifestation of the poet's originality. Voice is everything in speech or language that makes a poet that poet and no other. Like fingerprints, no two voices are supposed to be alike. Put this way, it seems that voice is really a property of the Romantic imagination, the underlying esthetic which values originality above nearly every other quality in the making of art. If this is so, and I believe it is, then voice is not an absolute requirement in the making of poetry but a negotiable one, a thing which some poets have and others do not. A. E. Housman, for instance, has voice, as has Hopkins, and a poem by Housman or Hopkins is instantly recognizable because of that voice. Robert Browning, on the other hand, has no voice, nothing in speech or language that would be unmistakably his. Poems of his are usually unmistakable, but it is not voice that makes them that way. That Housman had voice is vividly demonstrated when he argues against himself in "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff" in a voice that is obviously not his own. But Housman had that other voice in him, strong and sure.

Hayden Carruth on "the Natural World":

I have a close but at the same time uncomfortable relationship with the natural world. I've always been most at home in the country probably because I was raised in the country as a boy, and I know something about farming and woodcutting and all the other things that country people know about. That kind of work has been important to me in my personal life and in my writing too. I believe in the values of manual labor and labor that is connected with the earth in some way. But I'm not simply a nature poet. In fact, I consider myself and I consider the whole human race fundamentally alien. By evolving into a state of self-consciousness, we have separated ourselves from the other animals and the plants and from the very earth itself, from the whole universe. So there's a kind of fear and terror involved in living close to nature. My poems, I think, exist in a state of tension between the love of natural beauty and the fear of natural meaninglessness or absurdity.

Hayden Carruth, in an interview with Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Volume 4, Gale Research, 1981.

When the great reckoning is made a thousand years from now, Housman will be remembered, if at all, for the poem in which he let the other voice out, along with the one he cultivated as his own. I believe it is the natural state of the mind for it to be inhabited by voices, just as it is natural to feel many different things and to be puzzled and even divided by those feelings. Further, I believe it is a natural longing in us all to silence all but one of those voices, to be or to believe one thing, to not waver, to be sure. As readers, we like to hear what we've heard before in a poet. This, or something like it, accounts for two things in the poetry of Hayden Carruth: the diversity of modes and voices in his work and his anguish over that diversity. He says it plainly in "Late Sonnet":

        For that the sonnet no doubt was my own true
        singing and suchlike other song, for that
        I gave it up half-coldheartedly to set
        my lines in a fashion that proclaimed its virtue
        original in young arrogant artificers who
        had not my geniality nor voice, and yet
        their fashionableness was persuasive to me,—what
        shame and sorrow I pay!

On the other hand, we now have, in If You Call This Cry a Song, his wonderful variation on Frost's "Mending Wall," where the neighbor, Mr. Davis, "is entirely red pine, / / a stand of ranks / and files" while he [Carruth] is a "weedy / mixed-up clamor / / where all the voices / proclaim their own." Surely, among all its other possibilities, this is a defense of the natural multiplicity of voices in his work.

I am not one of those who believes (as I sometimes think Carruth himself believes) that he "found his voice" in Brothers, I Loved You All. The aging, embattled, Yankee dirt farmer of that book (as much fiction as fact, as far as I can tell) is simply one of the voices in his head, one he hears particularly well, but no more "real" or profound than the man who wished to make grand, Miltonic (or is it Homeric?) music in For You:

       Colder than land is the random sea, shriveling
       Vein and sinew as the long tow took me, tumbled me,
       Forward and down through the waves wheeling and plunging
 
       …

or the man who reinvented the romance and a language of the romance in The Sleeping Beauty:

       And there in the sky is the known face half-hidden
       In rippling lights, askance, the eternal other
       Toward whom the poem yearns, maiden
       Of the water-lights, brother
       Of the snow-fields, Androgyne!

We have no reason to expect Carruth's newest book, If You Call This Cry a Song, to be the equal of the two previous books. Brothers and The Sleeping Beauty are, after all, two of this time's best. It is the nature of the new book, though it is not said, to be a gathering of what would not fit in the two earlier books. These poems span the years 1964 to 1979 and show us what sorts of things were passing through Carruth's mind as he wrote his way toward Brothers and The Sleeping Beauty. One or two seem rehearsals for the long neoromance. One or two are written in the Yankee voice of Brothers. "Marvin McCabe," perhaps the best poem in the book, was probably written too late to be included in Brothers, where it would seem natural for it to be.

Aside from a few embarrassing attempts to write of or with the aid of jazz, If You Call This Cry a Song is a book of bright and near-bright moments, variations on what have come to be Carruth's necessary themes, spoken in his several voices. For instance, there are a number of poems that reach toward the "pure moment from an existence / in the other consciousness where time / is stilled." There are also the persistence yarns, "Regarding Chainsaws" and "Marvin McCabe," celebrations of Yankee grit. There is Carruth's characteristic fascination with the inarticulate, the uneducated, the mentally deficient, animals, flowers, nature itself. Marvin McCabe wrecked his car after drinking too much. As a result, he can't speak. So, Carruth gives him speech. "I have to rely on Hayden," he says,

            He's listened to me so much
        he knows not only what I'm saying but what
        I mean to say, you understand?—that thought
        in my head. He can write it out for me.

There are recurring bouts with loneliness and entropy—"work yet to be done—/ / with a broken imagination." Little is right in Carruth's world. The retreat to the Vermont woods signifies that. Even there, though, "the vision of the void," existential loneliness, haunts him, just as the litter of beer cans outrages him, "the obscene / brown glint in the grass."

        I have been alone, always
        essentially alone,
        like the Indian now, and God,
        and everyone,

and one of the reasons for that has been the "rain of / metal and glass and plastic" that "falls to the earth undiminished." Finally, there is the antique lyric grace, the deliberate archaism, as in "Bouquet in Dog Time":

        A bit of yarrow and then of rue,
        steeplebush and black-eyed susan,
        one fringed orchis, ragged and wry,
        some meadowsweet, the vetch that's blue,
        to make a comeliness for you.

Here, in faint outline, are the voice, the attitude, the awareness of language and people and nature which Carruth warns us we cannot do without, but which our whole way of life seems bent on eliminating.

This is a great deal from a book which is thought even by its maker to contain "former" favorites, "including a few I had in fact forgotten." A book and a career that demonstrates, as F. T. Prince has said, that "perhaps those poets who have most obviously become themselves in their art are those who have been made up of the most contradictory, wavering, clashing or simply alternating, selves."

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This section contains 1,643 words
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Buy the Critical Review by Roger Mitchell
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