Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Hayden Carruth

This curmudgeonly, brilliant poet and essayist has just passed away, aged 87. I always admired his convictions about what was right and true in poetry, and about poetry, and often found myself in agreement. I liked his country-boy, outdoor-living attitudes. I like his voice, when he read poems: clear and uncompromising. I liked his essays about his fellow poets; I've commented here before about his long essay on Paul Goodman. I loved reading his essays about jazz, and I found common ground with him in them, as I rarely could in Philip Larkin's regressive essays about jazz. Carruth was capable of thinking and writing about anything, and his curiosity was boundless. His poems were wide-ranging in style and tone, and he served as a role model for poets who wanted to write sincerely without being confined within any given style, genre or -ism.

I'll be writing a longer appreciation of Hayden Carruth when I have time. Meanwhile, here's a poem of his I've always liked, it sums up so many of his viewpoints in one poem.

Emergency Haying
by Hayden Carruth

Coming home with the last load I ride standing
on the wagon tongue, behind the tractor
in hot exhaust, lank with sweat,

my arms strung
awkwardly along the hayrack, cruciform.
Almost 500 bales we've put up

this afternoon, Marshall and I.
And of course I think of another who hung
like this on another cross. My hands are torn

by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced
by my ulcer, not a lance. The acid in my throat
is only hayseed. Yet exhaustion and the way

my body hangs from twisted shoulders, suspended
on two points of pain in the rising
monoxide, recall that greater suffering.

Well, I change grip and the image
fades. It's been an unlucky summer. Heavy rains
brought on the grass tremendously, a monster crop,

but wet, always wet. Haying was long delayed.
Now is our last chance to bring in
the winter's feed, and Marshall needs help.

We mow, rake, bale, and draw the bales
to the barn, these late, half-green,
improperly cured bales; some weigh 150 pounds

or more, yet must be lugged by the twine
across the field, tossed on the load, and then
at the barn unloaded on the conveyor

and distributed in the loft. I help –
I, the desk-servant, word-worker –
and hold up my end pretty well too; but God,

the close of day, how I fall down then. My hands
are sore, they flinch when I light my pipe.
I think of those who have done slave labor,

less able and less well prepared than I.
Rose Marie in the rye fields of Saxony,
her father in the camps of Moldavia

and the Crimea, all clerks and housekeepers
herded to the gaunt fields of torture. Hands
too bloodied cannot bear

even the touch of air, even
the touch of love. I have a friend
whose grandmother cut cane with a machete

and cut and cut, until one day
she snicked her hand off and took it
and threw it grandly at the sky. Now

in September our New England mountains
under a clear sky for which we're thankful at last
begin to glow, maples, beeches, birches

in their first color. I look
beyond our famous hayfields to our famous hills,
to the notch where the sunset is beginning,

then in the other direction, eastward,
where a full new-risen moon like a pale
medallion hangs in a lavender cloud

beyond the barn. My eyes
sting with sweat and loveliness. And who
is the Christ now, who

if not I? It must be so. My strength
is legion. And I stand up high
on the wagon tongue in my whole bones to say

woe to you, watch out
you sons of bitches who would drive men and women
to the fields where they can only die.

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Blogger Dominic Rivron said...

I had not read any Hayden Carruth before this. Having been drafted in to do this myself - I too "[held] up my end pretty well", I think - I can relate to the sore hands.
Riding back on a load of bales really does have a "there should be a poem in this somewhere" feel to it. Now I know where it is.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


For those who are new to Carruth's writing, I recommend starting with the "Collected Shorter Poems" and the "Selected Essays and Reviews," both published by Copper Canyon Press.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Theresa Williams said...

I just now found out about his death. My favorite poems of his is probably "Ecstasy," although "Prepare" is mighty good, too.

3:58 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Theresa, and welcome. Thanks for mentioning those other poems. Terrific choices!

8:50 AM  

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