A paean to Vermont's state poet in exile
The New York Times Book Review calls him a "tough-bird author." The New Yorker plays up his "well-tuned orneriness." Even friends warn that Hayden Carruth can be hard to approach. "Depending on his humor," suggests Burlington poet Greg Delanty, "he can be a bit cantankerous."
Words like cranky, cussed and curmudgeonly inevitably come up in discussions about the 81-year-old poet considered to be the natural, f-word-slinging successor to Robert Frost. Two Green Mountain poet laureates -- Ellen Bryant Voigt and Galway Kinnell -- believe he should at least have served a term as Vermont's top bard.
To compensate, the former Vermonter is being honored next week with four readings around the state, one of which comes with a check and a gubernatorial proclamation. Carruth doesn't usually go for these things. He literally pissed on a consolation-prize medal he received for almost winning a National Book Award in 1992 -- he got the gold four years later -- and he once wrote a letter turning down an invitation to read at the Clinton White House. Oh, and he published it, too.
Reluctantly is the appropriate title of his book of autobiographical essays, which offers unflinching insight into his life, including an anxiety-filled childhood, two trips to the "loony bin," homesteading in Vermont, a lifelong addiction to nicotine, attempted suicide, jazz and the numerous women in his life. In the preface Carruth suggests, "A better title might be, O Manitou, God of Our Little Lost Indians Everywhere, What the Fuck is the Meaning of It All?"
His irascible rep is off-putting enough to make this reporter think twice about requesting an interview -- that, and the fact that he and his fourth wife, Joe-Anne McLaughlin, live 250 miles away from Burlington, near Syracuse, New York. When Carruth answers my call, McLaughlin has been in the hospital for a week with stomach problems. He reluctantly agrees to a meeting. "I don't keep a date book," Carruth rasps, sounding like the English Patient. "Is that before Election Day? I don't know. Maybe that will work."
The last thing I expect to find five days later, at the end of the five-and-a-half-hour drive, is a benevolent man in a cardigan sweater brimming with questions for me. It crosses my mind that I have the wrong house in Munnsville, just up the road from Hamilton College. But this is definitely Carruth. No one else looks like a combination of Rip Torn, Rip Van Winkle and God. The old man is positively animated -- even cheerful -- despite the tangle of tubes that connect him to an oxygen tank.
Back from the hospital and, more recently, from the grocery store, 52-year-old McLaughlin flits about the kitchen in a funky black sport coat, skirt and tights. A published poet and former model, she gives her ailing husband alternative doses of shit and love. She is a high-spirited muse with a mission: "We gotta keep this guy alive," Mclaughlin suggests, mussing up her husband's long white hair in a sort of noogie-massage.
Over steaming cups of tea, Carruth recalls his time in Vermont -- and the many writers he's influenced here. Next week dozens of them will be reciting his sonnets, haikus, georgics and persona poems in readings that have been organized by a coalition of local writers, including Voigt, Kinnell, Reeve Lindbergh and David Budbill. The list of participants also includes Delanty, Grace Paley, David Huddle, Julia Alvarez, John Engels, Jody Gladding, Martha Zweig, Ellen Lovell, Leland Kinsey and Madeleine Kunin.
While he is definitely anxious about the trip, and grumbles that "it's 10 years too late to do any good," Carruth does concede, curmudgeon-like, "It's nice." That's high praise from the anti-establishmentarian who for years was so agoraphobic he couldn't face an audience of any size. "Hayden hates crowds. He hates public things. And he is notorious for flinging prizes back in the prize-givers' face," Voigt explains. "But this he recognizes as nothing but pure affection. To have 32 poets in Vermont who love you and want to read your work and celebrate you, that's rare."
Carruth lived for 20 years in Johnson, and vast numbers of his poems are informed by the natural landscape, people and culture of the Green Mountain State. Though he now lives in New York, the biographical blurbs on his books faithfully describe him as a "longtime resident of Vermont." Local literati, too, consider him a Vermont poet in exile. Carruth left the state in 1979 to take a well-paying job at Syracuse University because no academic institution in Vermont would hire him.
"He has written about life in the state more searchingly, more deeply and more faithfully to the spirit of the old-timers than anybody has," Kinnell suggests.
But Carruth's poems reflect a different era from the one in which Frost was writing. The Bread Loaf bard found the world of the Yankee farmer in northern Vermont "implicit with miracles," as Kinnell puts it. "Hayden is writing about the farmers who have already been defeated in a way... just the ordinary, painful life of cow-shit farmers."
"Frost was ultimately writing a philosophical poem in which Vermont appears," Voigt explains. "Carruth wrote a very different kind of poem about Vermont, and Vermonters. He wrote about the real people up there, and captured their voices... without any condescension or romanticizing. It's very candid. Very open-eyed."
In many ways, Carruth also has proved to have more staying power than Frost. Despite many afflictions over the years, including depression, emphysema and a recent heart attack, Carruth has never stopped writing. "When Hayden was 50, he was saying, 'The old ticker is about to give out. That's my last poem,' recalls Wolcott poet David Budbill. That was 31 years and 45 books ago."
Budbill is only exaggerating a bit. Over the years, Carruth has published 23 collections of poetry, four books of criticism, two anthologies and a book-length imaginary dialogue with Camus, called After The Stranger. One of his best-selling books, Sitting In, is selected writings on jazz, blues and related topics. His 407-page Collected Shorter Poems 1946-1991 accounts for less than one-fifth of all the poems he's penned.
Carruth added to his oeuvre last year with Doctor Jazz, poems built around a moving 16-page elegy for his daughter Martha, who died of cancer four years ago. The subject of aging figures prominently in the volume "along with powerful poems on the hardships of contemporary rural life," writes the New Yorker. "Yet Carruth remains fun to read. He is as at home with the prison riots of Attica as he is with Odysseus or Jelly Roll Morton." The reviewer adds, "Perhaps this is why, at eighty, Carruth, unlike his great master Frost, keeps getting better."
Such displays of optimism are anathema to Carruth. His upbringing in Connecticut -- in a family of writers, editors, journalists and book collectors -- was shaped by a certain "Carruthian secular and neurotic puritanism" that may account for his work ethic and his madness. Years later, Carruth discovered his atheist father also suffered from a certain "nervousness." His mother was a strict Episcopalian.
"Death was taboo in our house. So was sex," Carruth writes in Reluctantly. Perhaps to compensate for the white-washing, Carruth became a budding existentialist: "I had always been aware that the Universe is sad; everything in it, animate or inanimate, the wild creatures, the stones, the stars, was enveloped in the great sadness, pervaded by it. Existence had no use... I knew that the only rest from my anxiety -- for I had been trembling even in infancy -- lay in acknowledging and absorbing this sadness."
Happily, that predilection didn't rule out nursery rhymes. Asked in the past to identify his earliest literary influences, Carruth came up with Mother Goose and Shakespeare. His father taught him to read at 4 -- a linguistic leg up that gave the young Hayden an academic advantage but isolated him socially at school. To fit in, he learned to play dumb. Later, he took up smoking.
"Cigarette smoking was a way to cross the immense barrier between the Carruths and the rest of the world, which I wanted to do more than anything. I wanted to be "out there" with the others, away from solitude and fear. I never made it and never will." Until three years ago, when a heart attack forced him to quit smoking, Carruth typically went through two packs of cigarettes a day, five pipes and one or two cigars. He caused a stir in the hospital in Syracuse by lighting up a butt in intensive care.
Writing, too, was a refuge. Carruth imitated Romantic poets all through high school and penned "what I thought were Shakespearean sonnets." He spent four years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying journalism and social science and working on the college newspaper. He says he was not a good reporter, but always liked the copy desk. His penchant for headline writing shows in poem titles like "'Sure,' Said Benny Goodman," "The Sociology of Toyotas and Jade Chrysanthemums" and "The Oldest Killed Lake in North America."
Outside of "August 1945," Carruth didn't write too many poems about his experience during World War II. After college, he got married and joined the Army, which trained him as a cryptographer and dispatched him to Italy. But "we never had any messages to encrypt," Carruth says, chuckling. He ended up in the Army public relations office, writing human-interest stories about American soldiers.
After the war, Carruth went back to the books. This time, though, he wasn't studying Yeats. At the University of Chicago, Carruth was surrounded by contemporary American poetry. Avid encounters with the words of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings inspired him to get serious about his own poetry. Pretty soon he was submitting to Poetry magazine. Within a year, he was editing it.
As his literary star was rising, though, Carruth was falling ill. He suffered from stage fright so extreme he literally fled from the first public reading of his work. What was later diagnosed as agoraphobia -- which Carruth describes as "generalized fear of people" -- forced him to drop out of publishing circles. His marriage fell apart, and he spent the next decade as an invalid. When he wasn't in the "loony bin," which he also calls "the hatch" and "the asylum," he lived in reclusion with his parents. He wouldn't read his poetry in public again until he was 57.
"Necessity" steered Carruth north, at age 40, with his third wife. Apparently, mental illness didn't lessen his sex appeal. Even with Joe-Anne listening in, Carruth is happy to talk about his love life. "I was always astonished how I got chased by women," he notes mischievously, adding that Thorazine never killed his libido. He has written great erotic poems about many of his lovers, including East German-born Rose Marie, who still lives in Johnson. Carruth acknowledges that women, sex and love have helped him cope with his psychosis.
In Reluctantly, he recalls, "I was well enough to shift from reclusion to seclusion, but I still could not do what literary people normally do with their lives... work in offices or classrooms, live in a city, use public transportation, go to the theaters, literary parties, etc... That's why I found myself in the backcountry of northern Vermont with a young wife."
The couple was living on an impossibly tight budget, but they found a five-room house on 11 acres in Johnson for $5800. Carruth worked all day doing manual farm labor and "editorial hackwork" as a freelance ghostwriter and book critic. He befriended many of the writers who will toast him next week, as well as old-timers who knew nothing of the literary life. He traded farm chores for fresh milk with neighbor Marshall Washer. For years, the farmer came over for dinner every night.
"For long periods I forgot I was a poet," Carruth writes in Reluctantly. But in the middle of the night, he was crafting some of his greatest verse. "A life of hardship was the luckiest thing that could have happened to me in my middle age," he continues. Living in Vermont "was an opportunity to put everything together, the land and seasons, the people, my family, my work, my evolving sense of survival... in one tightly integrated imaginative structure. The results were my poems."
And like the grounded life that gave rise to them, they were wholly organic. Carruth had always been drawn to nature -- he read John Burroughs and Ernest Thompson Seton as a child. Now he was living in it, shoveling it on a daily basis. His poems from the time are full of loons, woodsmoke and "Cows at Night." One entire book of poems is devoted to birds.
Carruth rejects the "nature poet" label, though, because it suggests a too-sunny view of creation. He told an audience in 1993, "Nature is the most beautiful thing we have. I love it, I love to live in it, I love to be a part of it... But at the same time, nature contains... our death. It is not simply a benign presence in our lives." Full of decay, his vision reflects a life-long preoccupation with mortality.
It also embraces human nature. In his poems, Carruth celebrates the hay-bloodied hands of farmers, politics and a whole range of human emotion. "He is able to rant and rave -- to express anger, sorrow and despair," David Huddle observes. "You get a sense of what a human being is all about."
In a long poem named for Washer, Carruth details the Sisyphean toils of his dairy-farming neighbor -- "alone now, his farm the last on Clay Hill, where I myself remember ten." Around this same time he also began using his amazing ear for language to write narrative "persona poems" in the voices of different backcountry characters based on people he knew.
"First off, I have to say I can't talk good" is the first line of "Marvin McCabe," in which the narrator describes the automobile accident that left him speech-impaired. "Have you ever wondered how it would be to have your thought that's clear and shiny inside your head come out like a mouthful of mud?" The man speaks for every disabled person when he says, "I knew the words but couldn't say them -- do you see what that means? No one knew who I was."
A lot of the Vermont poems are funny, too. In "Green Mountain Idyl," Carruth imagines the pick-up lines of a horny yahoo "taken to you like my silky hen my bluetick bitch my sooey sow." "Regarding Chainsaws" is written in a heavy Vermont brogue. But it's not Vermont Life. "Old Stan," who suffered from diabetes, ends up legless "setting in his old chair with a tank of oxygen to sip at whenever he felt himself sinking."
It's safe to say Carruth "found his voice" in Vermont, although he doesn't much like the expression. "At some point, I just said, 'To hell with it, I'll write what I want to write and just see what happens,'" he explains, taking another sip of tea. "I'm not going to be shy. I'm going to be honest and open and absolutely forthright in my poetry and myself. If they want to shoot me, let them shoot me."
Instead, "they" gathered round. Carruth has been a friend and senior literary critic for a whole generation of Vermont poets. For Budbill and Hewitt, he was also a neighbor. Budbill lived 20 miles away in Wolcott, and "I was writing very delicate, haiku-style poetry -- very formal stuff. When Hayden got to know me he said, 'How come you sound so different from your poems?' I gnashed my teeth about that for a few years," says the author of Judevine. "He was not trying to make little Haydens. He encouraged people to be who they are."
Huddle had a similar experience. "In some part, he gave me the courage to be more revealing of myself, to be unafraid of how I presented myself in the work, because he was. I think he is able to be more nakedly human than any poet I know."
Carruth's proteges agree he was a natural teacher, even if he never faced a classroom until his first job in academia, at 60. In fact, they were instrumental in coaxing him out of his writing cabin and back into the public eye. After a breakthrough private reading in Carruth's living room, Budbill arranged a public appearance in Chelsea that helped ease the older poet's agoraphobia. "We had a little community of writers and friends that I had not known before and haven't known since. It was centered around Hayden."
Despite his own wealth of knowledge, which extended from classical literature to the Chinese poets, Carruth was "able to express and communicate that without making you feel inferior," observes Hewitt, who now lives in Calais. The same thing could be said of his poems, which are at once erudite and accessible. Not too many poets would think of writing a sonnet describing the effects of a hypertrophied prostate.
Less time with the wannabes was devoted to the discussion of literature, though, than to putting up woodpiles and comparing chickens. Carruth was already an experienced back-to-the-lander when young bards Budbill and Hewitt joined him in the northern woods. Hewitt bought land in Enosburg six hours after he first met Carruth.
"There were at least two dozen of us in the rough-and-ready crowd who had similar support from Hayden," says Hewitt, praising Carruth's winning combination of encouragment and honesty. Carruth corresponded with scores of aspiring writers, including one on death row. Budbill got three to four missives a week. "He still writes remarkable letters," says Hewitt, "with that incredible spirit and joy and grouchiness all rolled into one."
But Carruth was there in other ways, too -- like the time Hewitt got his tractor stuck in the woods and couldn't start it up again. The senior poet showed up within a half hour and, after fiddling with the engine, drove the rig right out. "That was typical of Hayden," Hewitt says. "He almost reveled in getting away from his own work and giving of his labor to others."
This week, Carruth will have exactly the opposite experience. Others will be giving his own work back to him. As if planning a literary potluck, organizers asked writers what they'd like to read, and they wrote back with their choices. Other than "The Cows at Night" and "Emergency Haying," there was very little duplication. Budbill, who shares a love of jazz with Carruth, is reading three poems about music. Huddle chose two sonnets and a poem about Raymond Carver, who was a colleague of Carruth's at Syracuse. Jody Gladding will recite Carruth's most famous political poem, "On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam."
The lineup is a testament to the head-spinning breadth of his work. But it would take 10 times as many readings to get a sense of its volume. Sitting in his kitchen, Carruth searches his memory for a poem he wrote in the mental hospital involving a recalcitrant patient, Mr. Barnes, who refused to go to the bathroom on command. When I supply him with a copy of his Collected Shorter Poems, he seems cheered to learn that I paid money for the book. (Carruth was virtually out of print when nonprofit Copper Canyon Press started publishing him 12 years ago.)
But the poet strikes out scanning the seven-page table of contents for Mr. Barnes. McLaughlin is no help, either. She's known Carruth since 1979 -- long enough to supply missing names and dates when his memory fails. Not this time, though. Although he's visibly distracted by the lapse, Carruth is also willing to let it go. "I frequently lose a poem," he says, resigned.
No doubt it will come back to him when Galway Kinnell reads the missing verse -- from "The Bloomingdale Papers" -- on Tuesday at the State House in Montpelier. Carruth has always said that poverty is the only thing that prevents him from moving back to Vermont. But if the cash prize comes up short, perhaps hearing Kinnell, as Mr. Barnes, intoning "I shant shit" in the hallowed chamber will be reward enough.