RIP Hayden Carruth 1921-2008
September 30, 2008 3:31 PM   Subscribe

"Why don't you write me a poem that will prepare me for your death?" Hayden Carruth's wife, thirty years his junior, asked him. He did so, and it became one of his most popular poems. Carruth, who celebrated his 87th birthday last month died last night at his home in Munnsville New York. Carruth was the winner of the the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his poetry collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey. He edited Poetry magazine from 1949-1950 and was a poetry editor at Harpers.

A few more news pieces: Lives of a Poet (U of Chicago), a book review and more bio at the New York Times, additional bio information at the birthdays of poets blog.

A few more poems: Carruth describing and then reading a poem he wrote about Raymond Carver in May of this year, Of Distress Being Humiliated by the Classical Chinese Poets, The Cows at Night, The Afterlife: Letter to Stephen Dobyns II, and my favorite On Being Asked To Write A Poem Against The War In Vietnam (more)

An excerpt from the U Chicago link
Carruth, whose grandfather wrote speeches for Eugene Debs, calls himself an “old-line anarchist” and a “rural communist with a small c.” On this day he grumbles about President Bush. In 1998 he declined an invitation to the Clinton White House for a celebration of American poetry, explaining in a letter that “it would seem the greatest hypocrisy for an honest American poet to be present on such an occasion at the seat of the power which has not only neglected but abused the interests of poets and their readers continually, to say nothing of many other administratively dispensable segments of the population.” He has long resisted the notion that politics—or anything else—doesn’t belong in poetry. His poems are democratic in the broadest sense, siding with the weak against the powerful, oppressed against oppressor. His sympathies extend even to despised creatures like rats and car salesmen. “I’ve always felt sorry for the rats,” he says.
posted by jessamyn (23 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
well done, j.
posted by mds35 at 3:44 PM on September 30, 2008

This one was a favorite, and seems fitting tonight:

The Afterlife: Letter To Sam Hamill
Hayden Carruth

You may think it strange, Sam, that I'm writing
a letter in these circumstances. I thought
it strange too--the first time. But there's
a misconception I was laboring under, and you
are too, viz. that the imagination in your
vicinity is free and powerful. After all,
you say, you've been creating yourself all
along imaginatively. You imagine yourself
playing golf or hiking in the Olympics or
writing a poem and then it becomes true.
But you still have to do it, you have to exert
yourself, will, courage, whatever you've got, you're
mired in the unimaginative. Here I imagine a letter
and it's written. Takes about two-fifths of a
second, your time. Hell, this is heaven, man.
I can deluge Congress with letters telling
every one of those mendacious sons of bitches
exactly what he or she is, in maybe about
half an hour. In spite of your Buddhist
proclivities, when you imagine bliss
you still must struggle to get there. By the way
the Buddha has his place across town on
Elysian Drive. We call him Bud. He's lost weight
and got new dentures, and he looks a hell of a
lot better than he used to. He always carries
a jumping jack with him everywhere just
for contemplation, but he doesn't make it
jump. He only looks at it. Meanwhile Sidney
and Dizzy, Uncle Ben and Papa Yancey, are
over by Sylvester's Grot making the sweetest,
cheerfulest blues you ever heard. The air,
so called, is full of it. Poems are fluttering
everywhere like seed from a cottonwood tree.
Sam, the remarkable truth is I can do any
fucking thing I want. Speaking of which
there's this dazzling young Naomi who
wiped out on I-80 just west of Truckee
last winter, and I think this is the moment
for me to go and pay her my respects.
Don't go way. I'll be right back.


This poem always resonates with me because I spent a week studying poetry with Sam Hamill many years ago and the subject matter, and Hayden's authentic voice and careful detail seems like exactly the kind of writing that Sam loved to share. Now, the poem feels oddly prophetic, although I'm quite sure Hayden knew that would be.

posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:19 PM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Man. Just yesterday I was reading my beloved copy of The Voice That Is Great Within Us, Carruth's terrific selection of American poems of the first half of the last century and thinking "I need more of his guy's stuff." For all that his editing was generous to lesser known works from quieter poets, he admitted to the collection less than two pages of his own poetry, a handful of haiku.

Why speak of the use
of poetry? Poetry
is what uses us.

Ah, you beast of love,
my cat, my dove, my spider
-- too late I'm natured.

A hard journey. Yes,
it must be. At the end they
all fall asleep.

Your tears, Niobe,
are your children now. See how
we have multiplied.

So be it. I am
a wholeness I'll never know.
Maybe that's the best.

posted by Iridic at 4:26 PM on September 30, 2008

Oh wow, I hadn't expected that to hit me so profoundly. I shouldn't read poetry about death during computer lab.
posted by arcticwoman at 5:26 PM on September 30, 2008

I've haven't poetry in while. This is lovely reintroduction, thanks.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:41 PM on September 30, 2008

I'm not sure if that letter to Sam Hamill came before or after this letter from Hamill, but I love the way this letter to Carruth from Hamill ends
Yes, poetry saves lives.
All wars begin at home
within the warring self.
No, our poems cannot stop
a war, not this nor any war,
but the one that rages from
within. Which is the first
and only step. It is
a sacred trust, a duty,
the poet's avocation.
We write the poetry we must.
I was lucky enough to see Hayden Carruth read poetry in the Vermont State House in 2002, as one of a series of tribute evenings all over the state of Vermont. He was even then a wizened and unhealthy looking and sounding old man with a firebrand of a wife attending to him constantly. It was mostly people reading his poems, their favorites, friends of his like Galway Kinnell and David Budbill. It was clear that there was a whole community of poetry-writing tree-hugging peace-loving miscreants and hippies all over the hills of Vermont and the whole Northeast region. I was new to the area, just about moved here for good and the whole quirky event, celebrating the cranky anarchist in the Senate Chambers, just made me feel right at home.

VPR, blast them, has made their interviews with him impossible to find but I remember listening to them at the time. According to them, this is the poem of his that ended the evening from his book Brothers, I Loved You All.
Good night ladies in your hurtling house. The time of the mouse has come. The rain strums on your roof. Keep close and keep warm. Bless me if you are able. Commend me to the storm. Good night. Good night.
posted by jessamyn at 5:45 PM on September 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

It seems certain that The Voice That Is Great Within Us engendered quite a few poets and readers of poetry. My own copy, a battered coverless paperback nearly rounded from use, has been lugged across continents and decades and now sits quietly on a shelf. However, that's a deceptive docility: picking it up to skim can rewardingly blow an entire afternoon and evening right out of a perfect fall day.
posted by Haruspex at 6:35 PM on September 30, 2008

I love Metafilter.
posted by wrapper at 7:29 PM on September 30, 2008

This is my favorite Carruth poem:

Regarding Chainsaws
by Hayden Carruth

The first chainsaw I owned was years ago,
an old yellow McCulloch that wouldn't start.
Bo Bremmer give it to me that was my friend,
though I've had enemies couldn't of done
no worse. I took it to Ward's over to Morrisville,
and no doubt they tinkered it as best they could,
but it still wouldn't start. One time later
I took it down to the last bolt and gasket
and put it together again, hoping somehow
I'd do something accidental-like that would
make it go, and then I yanked on it
450 times, as I figured afterwards,
and give myself a bursitis in the elbow
that went five years even after
Doc Arrowsmith shot it full of cortisone
and near killed me when he hit a nerve
dead on. Old Stan wanted that saw, wanted it bad.
Figured I was a greenhorn that didn't know
nothing and he could fix it. Well, I was,
you could say, being only forty at the time,
but a fair hand at tinkering. "Stan," I said,
"you're a neighbor. I like you. I wouldn't
sell that thing to nobody, except maybe
Vice-President Nixon." But Stan persisted.
He always did. One time we was loafing and
gabbing in his front dooryard, and he spied
that saw in the back of my pickup. He run
quick inside, then come out and stuck a double
sawbuck in my shirt pocket, and he grabbed
that saw and lugged it off. Next day, when I
drove past, I seen he had it snugged down tight
with a tow-chain on the bed of his old Dodge
Powerwagon, and he was yanking on it
with both hands. Two or three days after,
I asked him, "How you getting along with that
McCulloch, Stan?" "Well," he says, "I tooken
it down to scrap, and I buried it in three
separate places yonder on the upper side
of the potato piece. You can't be too careful,"
he says, "when you're disposing of a hex."
The next saw I had was a godawful ancient
Homelite that I give Dry Dryden thirty bucks for,
temperamental as a ram too, but I liked it.
It used to remind me of Dry and how he'd
clap that saw a couple times with the flat
of his double-blade axe to make it go
and how he honed the chain with a worn-down
file stuck in an old baseball. I worked
that saw for years. I put up forty-five
run them days each summer and fall to keep
my stoves het through the winter. I couldn't now.
It'd kill me. Of course they got these here
modern Swedish saws now that can take
all the worry out of it. What's the good
of that? Takes all the fun out too, don't it?
Why, I reckon. I mind when Gilles Boivin snagged
an old sap spout buried in a chunk of maple
and it tore up his mouth so bad he couldn't play
"Tea for Two" on his cornet in the town band
no more, and then when Toby Fox was holding
a beech limb that Rob Bowen was bucking up
and the saw skidded crossways and nipped off
one of Toby's fingers. Ain't that more like it?
Makes you know you're living. But mostly they wan't
dangerous, and the only thing they broke was your
back. Old Stan, he was a buller and a jammer
in his time, no two ways about that, but he
never sawed himself. Stan had the sugar
all his life, and he wan't always too careful
about his diet and the injections. He lost
all the feeling in his legs from the knees down.
One time he started up his Powerwagon
out in the barn, and his foot slipped off the clutch,
and she jumped forwards right through the wall
and into the manure pit. He just set there,
swearing like you could of heard it in St.
Johnsbury, till his wife come out and said,
"Stan, what's got into you?" "Missus," he says
"ain't nothing got into me. Can't you see?
It's me that's got into this here pile of shit."
Not much later they took away one of his
legs, and six months after that they took
the other and left him setting in his old chair
with a tank of oxygen to sip at whenever
he felt himself sinking. I remember that chair.
Stan reupholstered it with an old bearskin
that must of come down from his great-great-
grandfather and had grit in it left over
from the Civil War and a bullet-hole as big
as a yawning cat. Stan latched the pieces together
with rawhide, cross fashion, but the stitches was
always breaking and coming undone. About then
I quit stopping by to see old Stan, and I

don't feel so good about that neither. But my mother
was having her strokes then. I figured
one person coming apart was as much
as a man can stand. Then Stan was taken away
to the nursing home, and then he died. I always
remember how he planted them pieces of spooked
McCulloch up above the potatoes. One time
I went up and dug, and I took the old
sprocket, all pitted and et away, and set it
on the windowsill right there next to the
butter mold. But I'm damned if I know why.

posted by cows of industry at 7:51 PM on September 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


Thanks for all the personal Carruth anecdotes and links to his poems. I miss New England.
posted by bwanabetty at 8:03 PM on September 30, 2008

His book of essays suicides and jazzers is one of my favorites that I keep coming back to.
posted by NickPeters at 8:37 PM on September 30, 2008

posted by joannemerriam at 8:43 PM on September 30, 2008

Thanks jessamyn. I hadn't come across Carruth before and now I want to read more. What a great and long life he had! I hope that when I die mine will have been at least half as fulfilled as his.
posted by Kattullus at 9:19 PM on September 30, 2008

"The moon was like a full cup tonight,
too heavy, and sank in the mist
soon after dark, leaving for light"

posted by nickyskye at 9:32 PM on September 30, 2008

And that's how you post an Obit-thread.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:53 PM on September 30, 2008

Ohhhh, that's the guy who wrote the poem about driving at night in summer and in Vermont and the cows. Thank you.
posted by not_on_display at 4:42 AM on October 1, 2008

Goddammit. I can't say this is unexpected news, but that doesn't make it any easier to take. For many years I've been saying Carruth was one of my favorite living poets, and now I have to remove one of those qualifiers. I became acquainted with him through The Voice That Is Great Within Us and didn't discover his own poetry for years afterwards, but I made up for lost time. His Collected Shorter Poems and Collected Longer Poems are essential for any poetry collection, and if you can find a CD of him reading his poetry, he's one of those rare modern poets who can really do justice to his own poetry (I envy jessamyn having heard him in person).

Not Transhistorical Death, or at Least Not Quite

Jim Wright who was a good poet and my friend, died two or three years ago.
I was told at the time that we did not lose him.
I was told that memories of him would keep him in this world.
I don't remember who told me this, just that it was in the air, like the usual fall-out from funerals.
I knew it was wrong.

Now I have begun to think how it was wrong.
I have begun to see that it was not only sentimental but simplistic.
I have examined Jim in my mind.
I remember him, but the memories are as dead as he is.
What is more important is how I see him now.
There, there in that extreme wide place, that emptiness.
He is near enough to be recognizable, but too far away to be reached by a cry or a gesture.
He is wearing a light-weight, brightly colored shirt.
His trousers belong to a suit, but the coat has been discarded.
His belt is narrow and somehow stays straightly on his pot belly.
His shoes are thin and shiny.
I think he bought those shoes on his last journey to Europe.
He is walking away, slowly.
He is wandering, meandering.
Sometimes he makes a little circle.
Sometimes he pauses and looks to one side or the other.
Sometimes he looks down.
Occasionally he looks up.
He never looks back, at least not directly.
Although he recedes very gradually, and becomes very gradually smaller, I continue to see all the aspects of his face and figure clearly.
He is thinking about something and I know what.
It is not the place he now occupies in my life.
He cannot imagine that, only I can.
He is neither what he was (obviously), nor what he his (for I am
quite sure I am inventing that).
Is he Jim Wright? Is he not someone else?
Yes, he is Jim Wright. No, he is not someone else. (Who else could
he possibly be?)
When I die, he will arrive at where he is going. And I will set off
after him.
posted by languagehat at 6:11 AM on October 1, 2008

I heard Carruth read at Cooper Union several years ago and it was without a doubt the best reading I have ever attended. Sad to hear of his passing. I guess it's time to read that copy of Appendix A that's been sitting on my shelf for 8 years.
posted by mds35 at 7:21 AM on October 1, 2008

Peace for one who had precious little of it during his life. I'll miss him.



You understand the colors on the hillside have faded,
    we have the gray and brown and lavender of late autumn,
the apple and pear trees have lost their leaves, the mist
    of November is often with us, especially in the afternoon
and toward evening, as it was today when I sat gazing up into
    the orchard for a long time the way I do now,
thinking of how I died last winter and was revivied.
    And I tell you I saw there a cross with a man nailed
to it, silvery in the mist, and I said to him: "Are you
    the Christ?" And he must have heard me for in his
agony, twisted as he was, he nodded his head affirmatively,
    up and down, once and twice. And a little way off
I saw another cross with another man nailed to it,
    twisting and nodding, and then another and another,
ranks and divisions of crosses straggling like exhausted
    legions upward among the misty trees, each cross
with a silvery, writhing, twisting, nodding, naked
    figure nailed to it, and some of them were women.
The hill was filled with crucifixion. Should I not be
    telling you this? Is it excessive? But I know something
about death now, I know how silent it is, silent, even
    when the pain is shrieking and screaming. And tonight
is very silent and very dark. When I looked I saw
    nothing out there, only my own reflected head nodding
a little in the window glass. It was as if the Christ
    had nodded to me, all those writhing silvery images
on the hillside, and after a while I nodded back to him.
posted by aught at 7:38 AM on October 1, 2008

Sad this. But it makes me think of another poem about death from an unlikely, to me anyway, source

Old Men
People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when…
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.

Ogden Nash
posted by donfactor at 9:23 AM on October 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Thank you for the great, jessamyn. I'm glad I read it and the comments. Those poems, wow--I hadn't heard of Hayden Carruth before, but he'll surely be added to the list of great people who I sadly only heard of via their obituaries on metafilter (Grace Paley and Utah Phillips are others)

posted by eponymouse at 10:41 AM on October 1, 2008

Ack! That should read "thank you for the great post, jessamyn", duh.
posted by eponymouse at 10:43 AM on October 1, 2008

Heard Carruth read in 1998 at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Connecticut. At that point I'd never heard of him, and now I have his Collected Shorter Poems on my lap and am crying over the poems I always cried over--and, of course, they're all about death. The beautiful one about reading Raymond Carver's last book after his death, and crying at the kitchen table and eating pie ("and I/ate that goddamn pie, and it tasted good to me.") The one right after that about the death rituals of Greeks and Navajos ("But actually//none of these things happened. You just died.") And probably my favorite, which I did hear him read that night, and sought out:


So many poems about the deaths of animals.
Wilbur's toad, Kinnell's porcupine, Eberhart's squirrel,
and that poem by someone - Hecht? Merrill? -
about cremating a woodchuck. But mostly
I remember the outrageous number of them,
as if every poet, I too, had written at least
one animal elegy; with the result that today
when I came to a good enough poem by Edwin Brock
about finding a dead fox at the edge of the sea
I could not respond; as if permanent shock
had deadened me. And then after a moment
I began to give way to sorrow (watching myself
sorrowlessly the while), not merely because
part of my being had been violated and annulled,
but because all these many poems over the years
have been necessary - suitable and correct. This
has been the time of the finishing off of the animals.
They are going away - their fur and wild eyes,
their voices. Deer leap and leap in front
of the screaming snowmobiles until they leap
out of existence. Hawks circle once or twice
above their shattered nests and then they climb
to the stars. I have lived with them fifty years,
we have lived with them fifty million years,
and now they are going, almost gone. I don't know
if the animals are capable of reproach.
But clearly they do not bother to say goodbye.

Among other things, this poem has always made me want to compile an anthology of all those animal elegies (and there are many more that I can think of, right off the bat) with this as its frontispiece. And maybe now I'll try to do that.

posted by dlugoczaj at 10:29 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

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