Each week, I attempt to introduce you to something new — a song I’ve heard or a band I’ve fallen for, a beer and food pairing that I’ve enjoyed, or a poet or writer that I know about but you may not. In the latter category, it seems, I have been focused mainly on the deceased, and I am sad to report that this week is no exception. However, I am proud to say that, not only do I know the works of this poet intimately, having read just about everything he published, I also knew him personally.
Hayden Carruth, an accomplished, award-winning writer whose genre-hopping career produced two dozen or more books of poetry, a novel, several books of criticism and essays, an autobiography, a memoir, and a popular anthology, died on September 29, at the age of 87, after a series of strokes. To me, he was more than just a fine and famous writer; he was also a teacher, a sometime correspondent, a full-time mentor, and a friend.
Since his death a week ago, much has been written about him already (in print and online, here and here and here and here), discussing the virtues and value of his writing, his awards and accolades, the exegeses of his personal life that contributed to his development, etc. So I won’t attempt to recapitulate or explicate things further here. Instead, I want to share some personal reminiscences and offer a little insight into what it was about him and his books that drew me in, allowing me find what I needed, and kept me coming back, wanting more.
Of course, what I want most now is one more chance to connect with him — to write to him, perhaps, in the hope of getting another newsy letter or even a postcard in return, or spending a few more moments visiting with him. The last time I saw him in person was at an 80th birthday celebration that took place in New York City, just a few short weeks after the tragedy there. The event, held at the Cooper Union, was billed as a reading, but it was clearly much more — a gathering of friends and worshippers, a live Festschrift of poets reminiscing, telling tales, occasionally reading poems, and laughing. The most delightful part of the night occurred when it was Carruth’s turn to take the stage and he admitted that, because he was now so old, he didn’t remember most of the poems his friends had read, and he had forgotten the poems he had brought to read. So he had to wing it, and eventually picked something at random from a book borrowed from Galway Kinnell, who was seated behind him.
At first, it was an awkward moment; everyone, I think, felt badly for him, watching him shuffle back and forth to the podium, fumbling for his reading material, hampered by bad lighting and trailing an oxygen tube earned after nearly a lifetime of stubbornly refusing to stop “smoking like a chimney in Gary, Indiana.” Yet it was a fitting moment, typical of him, really. He immediately cracked a joke or said something self-deprecating, and set everyone at ease. He feared readings and suchlike public events, as has been well chronicled elsewhere. I’d like to think that he thought it was we who were acting foolishly, standing there in the auditorium, clapping for him, and he was going to make us feel more comfortable.
From my experience, and judging by what others have said or written about him, he had a gift for befriending people and making them feel welcome. For instance, he recognized me right away, when I approached him on the stage, sitting there among friends and autograph-seekers after the reading. It was an amazing feat, really, considering the vast number of people he must have known and who claimed to know him — amazing, also, considering it had been at least a half-dozen or more years since the last time I had seen him, after another reading, this time in Washington, D.C. (That reading and subsequent trip home turned out to be the subject of and genesis for his humorous, touching poem, “In Georgetown.”) Of course, neither event allowed for “a proper visit,” as he later said to me in a letter. I would love to have another chance for arranging that.
One visit together that I would love to revisit and alter was one of our first. Carruth was the visiting poet when I was a sophomore at Bucknell University. I was a member of a fraternity that often invited guests over for dinner. So, tired of the usual invitees — econ profs, administrators, coaches, or other college figureheads whose ass the members were trying to kiss — I decided to invite someone interesting, a poet, for instance — someone, in fact, whose ass I was trying to kiss. I guess I should have done my homework first, or certainly should have known better, knowing that I hadn’t done my homework. During the pre-dinner cocktail gathering in the living room, while we were discussing poetry matters, I offered him a beer, which flowed freely from the basement bar taps then. He said to me, in front of a group of friends and several upperclassmen (whose ass I was trying to kiss, as well), “I can’t.” But this is a frat house, I said, of course you can. “No,” he politely reiterated, “I can’t. I’m an alcoholic.” Awkward? (You think?) Certainly not one of my better moves, for sure. But, as always, he was a good sport, kept right on talking, and the moment quickly passed. Fortunately, one of the members caught wind of the situation and made me chug the requisite beer during the dinnertime Q&A ritual that was usually reserved for the lucky guest.
Another moment I would like to recover involved a half-assed term paper I turned into him at the end of that year. Thinking that, because I was a good student in his class and that we had established a rapport, I decided to focus my energy on studying for a history final for a class I was struggling in. I was spared hearing his disappointment in person, because he left the school before the semester had ended, for personal reasons (a series of events leading to a devastating mental breakdown that, as it turned out, later nearly cost him his life). Instead, I read his dispirited appraisal in a very terse letter I received shortly after I got home, along with the paper that he returned unmarked because it was so lousy. I am sure the “C” I got was a gift.
Luckily, he never wrote me off for that gaff. In fact, he almost immediately wrote a very generous letter of recommendation for me to an elite poetry seminar for which I doubt I was qualified to attend but proved (as I would like to think he knew) invaluable to my growth as a writer. He also generously and diligently wrote me letters, which I have kept and reread often. His letters were full of anecdotes and useful advice (usually in a chiding, avuncular tone), on a wide range of topics. For instance, when I announced to him the birth of my first child and stated how I looked forward to her asking for advice, he corrected me. “You are wrong,” he wrote, “what she will ask you for is money.” On another occasion, despite my pleading, he refused to prescribe a reading list for my post-college education and told me instead to follow my nose and “let one book lead to another.” I did, eventually, and it lead me to books and writers I may not have discovered had I allowed myself to be directed by him or others like him — of course, it occasionally lead me back to him, as well.
I think that is what I will miss most — the camaraderie, affection, and support he offered in his letters. The key attributes of any true correspondence, really, and something that is sorely missing from most e-mail “exchanges” these days. Carruth’s letters were amazing. He wrote openly about his life, for instance sharing his feelings toward and eventual marriage to his fourth wife, Joe-Anne, or reporting on his (seemingly always) failing health, along with the illnesses suffered by his friends and family members. His letters were packed tightly with details, from the vivid descriptions of the changing seasons in Upstate New York, where he lived, to the myriad comings and goings of friends and relations, to the heavy strain on his writing caused by the numerous tasks he faced — books and manuscripts to review, contests to judge, readings to attend, etc. (Even his faithful, voluminous correspondence occasionally suffered: in 1989, I received a form letter addressed “Dear Friends,” explaining that he was so busy he was forced to scale back his superhuman pace of writing “1200 to 1300 letters annually” to “the minimum of essential business for the next few months”; of course, he added a personal, handwritten note at the bottom — he couldn’t help himself — and I got another letter from him less than two months later.) And, without fail, he answered all the (tedious, I’m sure) questions I posed to him, and he unselfishly commented on every poem I included. He was very thorough in his observations: speaking encouragingly when he liked what he had read, and constructive in his criticism of passages or phrasings he did not care for, often citing specific words that weren’t working or suggesting different line lengths, rhythms, or rhymes.
The last time we corresponded was via email, as it turned out; he had finally succumbed to the technology, after having been, as he put it, “inundated with email by assholes” for several years. I sent him a greeting on his 85th birthday, and he responded with surprise and delight that I was the only person to contact him on the actual day — “You’re a peach!” he wrote, and gabbled a bit about the “lovely cake,” visits with friends and his son, and the gifts he had received, particularly a restored 19th century cane-backed rocking chair his wife gave him (“and we all sang ‘Old Rocking Chair’ after Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden,” he wrote). We exchanged pleasantries over the next week or so, about the state of the weather (“too damned hot”), family member whereabouts, workloads, etc. And he admitted, rather too fatalistically I thought at the time, that the new poems in his then-recently published book, Toward the Distant Islands, would be “the last of Carruth.” How prophetic that proved to be.
I don’t know why I didn’t contact him again after that — too many excuses were more convenient, I suppose. I certainly wish I had one more chance to do so. (Isn’t it funny that I need him most now — to console me about him — when it’s impossible for me to reach him?) I am eager to tell him about my new ventures, this silly blog, for one, and the fact that I have set out to earn a living on my own terms, something I think he would have approved of. He wrote repeatedly of the need to recover “the independence of mind, spirit, and … moxie of our great forebears.” So typical of the Yankee commonsense advice he tirelessly offered, something that I think all of us could stand to hear.
So, what remains? If you have never heard of Carruth (and I fear that’s the case for most everyone reading this), a good place to start is Copper Canyon Press, which has been his faithful and magnanimous publisher for more than 15 years. All of the books he wrote for them are still in print, available for purchase here, and perhaps the one that offers the best introduction is Toward the Distant Islands, the “portable Carruth” lovingly compiled by his longtime friend Sam Hamill. And, if you want to experience Carruth at the height of his epistolary prowess, pick up a copy of Letters to Jane (Ausable Press), a collection of intelligent, compassionate, and often hilarious letters he wrote to the poet Jane Kenyon, who was dying of cancer, in an attempt to hand-hold and distract her. It is charming and moving, and you won’t want it to end even though, from the outset, you know how it will.
For an example of the kind of poems Carruth wrote, and the way he would read and discuss them in public, here is a clip of him reading “Ray,” an elegy for his friend, the writer Raymond Carver. It’s a favorite of mine and, considering this reading was likely one of his last, could serve as a fitting tribute to Hayden Carruth, as well. You can also hear him reading on Copper Canyon’s finely tuned collection, “Hayden Carruth: A Listener’s Guide,” available on CD here.
Finally, in going through the letters again in preparation for writing this, I came across something that Carruth had sent me 20 years ago, a hand-printed card containing one of his poems and an illustration. Although he did not “much like what these people did with, to, my little haiku, but it makes a free card,” as he noted, characteristically tempering his criticism with optimism, it seems to sum up my feelings for him:
You from far away,
traveler, why did you come
here? To this place? Here?
Why indeed. Who knows? I certainly don’t. But I am grateful that he did.
Originally posted on October 7, 2008.