Hayden Carruth: An Appreciation
So I can only respond to a few of his poems, now, and find space within them for something both personal and universal.
At Seventy-Five: Rereading An Old Book
My prayers have been answered, if they were prayers. I live.
I'm alive, and even in rather good health, I believe.
If I'd quit smoking I might live to be a hundred.
Truly this is astonishing, after the poverty and pain,
The suffering. Who would have thought that petty
Endurance could achieve so much?
Were they prayers? Always I was adamant
In my irreligion, and had good reason to be.
Yet prayer is not, I see in old age now,
A matter of doctrine or discipline, but rather
A movement of the natural human mind
Bereft of its place among the animals, the other
Animals. I prayed. Then on paper I wrote
Some of the words I said, which are these poems.
I have recently understood this poem better. I have recently found myself, in the morning, still lying in bed, or sometimes when sitting in the recent dark just after dusk has blued and purpled the land to shadows, turning my inner voice towards asking for friends and strangers alike to be held in the regard and succor of the Divine. I've been praying for them, in short. Not that I was not also praying for myself, my own healing, my own well-being and duration in this body, on this earth. But that I started outwards before I moved inwards. It's always easier to pray for others than for myself; I guess I'm still innately a caregiver. No wonder I've been having a hard time with asking when it was going to be my turn, my needs and desires to be listened to. Who would have thought that petty / Endurance could achieve so much? Indeed, durance is the state of being we too often find ourselves in. Waiting for something to happen; waiting for our purpose in life, the moment of our duty, waiting till that time when fruition comes, and we discharge what we were brought here to do. There are large and small durances. Waiting through them can feel interminable, and that's when turning this movement of the natural human mind towards silence and gratitude becomes the most natural of movements. I don't ask much for myself, usually; I usually ask for the sake of others. And then I move to gratitudes. If I am able to do nothing else, I do a gratitude, even if it's belated and small. Meister Eckhart once said: If the only prayer you ever said was Thank You, that would suffice.
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.
Only someone who has lived in nature, has lived close to nature could have written this. Not some sentimental "nature poet," nor some environmental activist nostalgic for a pre-human edenic land that never was. (The Sierra Club's membership, much as I support them, is full of those.) Someone who has lived and seen nature live and die close to hand; who has seen carcasses in the woods, not merely roadkill at the highway's side; who has seen and smelled coyote-eaten deer from last summer, hide and bones alone remaining. They just go, and do not bother to say goodbye.
The strong influence on Carruth by his close reading of Camus is evident to me here, in this poem, as it is in many. That Carruth is an existentialist poet is debatable, and I won't try to argue for it; instead I'll just point to the contents and tone of so many of his poems, like this one, that demonstrate innate sympathy for the existentialist worldview. There is also a strain similar to Robinson Jeffers' ideas in this poet's clear-minded awareness that human concerns are not the ultimate concerns of all existence: that in fact creation is often indifferent to our desires or interpretations.
Carruth once said in an interview:
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.
It's the meaningless and absurdity that is the link to existential writers such as Camus and Beckett. Carruth the poet is a lyricist, not a sentimental romantic but a hard-voiced lyric poet in the old vein, and this is common ground he shared with those other two writers. There was the suffering of meaninglessness, an existence devoid of meaning, except for those meanings we create for ourselves, and that we invent for the world. Perhaps our function as a self-conscious species, is to be the self-awareness of the world, to be the mind of matter, to be aware as other organs of nature are not. I've overheard Carruth say something like this, in some of his poems, just as I've overheard Pierre Teilhard de Chardin say very similar things in his geophysical theology. (A theology of geology is one I can get into.)
All night his window
shines in the woods
shadowed under the hills
where the gray owl
is hunting. He hears
the woodmouse scream—
so small a sound
in the great darkness
entering his pain.
For he is all and all
of pain, attracting
every new injury
to be taken and borne
as he must take
and bear it. He is
nothing; he is
his admiration. So
they seem almost
to know—the woodmouse
and the evening owl,
the woods and the hills.
All night they move
around the stillness
of the poet's light
This poem is circularly existential. It speaks to me out of darkness, out of country life. Places I have lived, small Wisconsin towns so dark at night the city is only a memory; places I have driven to camp out at night, in rain and dark, twenty miles from electricity, ten miles from any other camp. Those small sounds in the great darkness are existential: your senses heighten because your body is going into survival mode; your hearing and vision sharpen, and you become alert to the skritch of voles across the darkened cabin, looking for table scraps, crawling under the woodburning stove. The viewpoint moves out from the candle into the night. The night is much larger than the poet's light, but it contains things that look back in at us, reminding us we are neither alone nor the pinnacle of creation. We atavistically fear the night, which contains orders of life and death still mysterious to us.
Carruth often riffs on a topic the way a jazz player riffs, allowing the formal strictures of meter and rhyme to be the scaffolding upon which he hangs his improvisations. It's hard to tell in his poems which were spontaneous and which were painstakingly made; he wrote in his dedication page to Collected Shorter Poems:
The poems in my life have spring from contrary occasions and have taken inconsistent forms. Some were written very quickly, some very slowly; some in pain, some in pleasure; some deliberately and others by way of discovery. One hopes this doesn't mean merely a fragmentary personality and that a thread of connection may be found among them. But who knows?
For me, the thread of connection is that his voice remains tactile, clear to the ear, easily heard in the mind even when read silently rather than aloud, so that whatever contradictions there are become subsumed into one.
But in the darkness, and the darkness of meaningless existence, the darkness of the human heart, there are also moments of light. Carruth never turned away from moments of transcendence and ecstasy; rather, he made room for them, and he sought them out. In just a moment's clarity of vision, this poet like so many other poets, has found in the encounter with the world a sublime beauty, a numinous moment of breath, a reason to go on. The last few lines of this poem are very telling. I re-read this poem, thinking of near identical encounters I have had with herons, and with other wildlife, that this poem expresses so perfectly. And these moments indeed are wordless, yet I too have often struggled to get them into words. So I'll end with a photo or two of encounters with great blue herons, and other herons, in northern Minnesota, at Pescadero, a couple of years ago, and a geat white heron in Florida. The images follow this poem:
Let me tell you, my dear, about the heron I saw
by the edge of Dave Haflett's lovely little pond.
A great blue heron, standing perfectly still, where it had been
studying Dave's rainbows and brookies beneath the surface.
And I too stood perfectly still—as perfectly as I could—
not twenty feet away, each of us contemplative and quiet.
Communication occurred. I felt it. Not just simple
wonder and apprehension, but curiosity and concern.
It was evident. The great bird in its heraldic presence,
so beautifully marked, so poised against the dark green water.
I in my raggedness, with my cigarette smoldering, my eyes
squinting, my cap titlted back. Two invisibly beating hearts.
Then the impetus lapsed. The heron nodded and flew away.
I turned back into Dave's workshop and picked up a wrench.
If goodness exists in the world—and it does—then this moment
was the paradigm of it, a recognition, a life in conjunction with a life.
But why am I compelled to tell you about it? It was wordless.
And why, over and over again, must I write this poem?