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Posted by on Oct 13, 2008 in Blogh, other poets, Poetry | 2 comments

Hayden Carruth, 1921-2008

Hayden Carruth, 1921-2008

The Last Poem in the World

Would I write it if I could?
Bet your glitzy ass I would.


Like many poets my age I first encountered Hayden Carruth without realizing it, by reading his anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us, in high school. Here was where we discovered Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, Philip Lamantia, Gregory Corso and all the other post-war poets in the back who gave us tastes of surrealism, absurdism, Dada, homosexuality, camp, radical politics, etc. I name these names because they pop into my head with the weird, awesome clarity they had when we, my friends and I, went looking for some poem to read aloud in our poetry class. The names were mysterious. We, I, had no idea of what the poetry business was about, or that Hayden Carruth had been an editor at Poetry, that he had had a nervous breakdown, that he had fought in World War 2 and was an anarchist, an alcoholic, and an atheist.

Hayden lived for many years in New England but moved to upstate New York. I met him when Bridget Meeds brought him to read here in Ithaca at La Forza, a cafe. We went out with a big crowd to a local Indian Restaurant. I decided I should read some of his poems in advance, which I did. One of the poems made a reference to being in AA. At the restaurant he immediately left the table and went into the bar, which was in a separate, adjoining room, where he drank red wine with one of the poets in attendance, a tedious, tall woman with short blond hair whose only interesting poem was a rather in-depth description of masturbating in a chair. Towards the end he said he thought he wouldn’t read at all. He would just hand the mike over to his wife, Jo Anne. No one was there to see her. I thought, what an asshole.

Well, he went on, reluctantly. He was tall, biblically bearded, with long hair and a scary face. He launched into the reading and the room was transformed by his voice. He could have read for two hours. It was just remarkable. Then Jo Anne went on, and after that there was an open mike. He remained through the whole thing. Jo Anne was quite sociable. Hayden spoke to no one but the blond, and Bridget. His assessment of the open mike was that the poets only wrote about themselves. They were cut off from the world around them. In fact, he didn’t like talking about poetry at all. Jazz and baseball interested him far more.

He was a remarkable man. He belonged to no school, was impatient with stupidity, patriotism, hypocrisy, had no theoretical orientation, detested religion and right wing politics. He was totally radical in outlook and lifestyle. He moved easily between formal and free verse and his basic line is one rooted in ordinary speech. He was no great innovator or experimentalist. He was practical and expedient as a poet, ever mindful of what it was he had to say. And in this he doesn’t waste the reader’s time with trivial matters dressed up in arcane, deliberately obscure writing. His poems over the years tended toward the most unsparing, relentless meditation on reality and the self, of living in a world in which death and beauty are the only certainties. Despite his cynicism and antagonism, he never turned against the aesthetic of experience: sex, whiskey, a snowstorm, work, family, radical politics, jazz and baseball. And of course, poetry.

from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey:

August 1945

Sweating and greasy in the dovecote where one of them lived
four young men drank ‘buzzy’ from canteen cups, the drink
made from warm beer mixed half-and-half with colorless Italian
distilled alcohol. A strange fierce taste like bees in the mouth.
Their faces gleamed in the light of a single candle. They were
getting drunk, deliberately, for this was the only answer. They
sang songs of joy, they sang ‘Lili Marlene,’ they were silent,
they broke into sobbing. they spoke of home, thousands
of miles away, of the years of filth and fear and loneliness,
of war and war’s ending, of the new bomb that had killed
hundreds of thousands at one blow in Japan. There near
Manfredonia on the Adriatic coast, across from Ithaka where
Obysseus the Wise had once come home from war, in the huge
disordered repple-depple where throngs of men had waited,
milling and shuffling, shuffling and milling, for shipment
to the war in Asia, these four were delirious, dumbfounded.
Gratefully they slipped away, falling into the discontinuity
and incoherence of drunkenness. In a tiny room perched high
on a wall over a courtyard, over a dark field where fires burned
and cries resounded, the night so hot, the air so evil-smelling,
candlelight flickered on the slack faces of four young men,
ravaged and stuporous, who knew that time had stopped and started again.

When I was forty-five I lay for hours
beside a pool, the green hazy
springtime water, and watched
the salamanders coupling, how they drifted lazily,
their little hands floating before them,
aimlessly in and out of the shadows, fifteen
or twenty of them, and suddenly two
would dart together and clasp
one another belly to belly
the way we do, tender and vigorous, and then
would let go and drift away
at peace, lazily,
in the green pool that was their world
and for a while was mine.

The Woods

Finally the woods
are stripped down
and the great trees
are gone,

leaving a tangle
of saplings and vines,
used up and ugly,
confused signs

of the simplicities
that once were here,
the high crowns for tanagers,
glades for the deer.

Song: Now That She is Here

for Jo-Anne

An old man now, who’s learned at last
What it means truly to be in love.
Ah, all those years of the past-
I used to think I knew but I didn’t know.

Like a neophyte in the school of lust,
Struggling with my shame and doubt,
I fell and lay low,
Because I thought I knew when I didn’t know.

Old age is failure. Natural
Exhaustion, mind and body letting go,
Words misremembered, ideas frayed like old silk.
But I am in love now,
In it totally all the time.
I have nothing else, I have forgotten my name,
I live on taters, whiskey and goat’s milk
In a little house by the wood
While a cold wind rises and the night fills with snow,
Who used to think I knew. But now I know.

from his long poem, Sleeping Beauty:

Out of nothing.

This morning the world was gone
Only grayness outside, so dense, so close
Against the window that it seemed no season,
No place, and no thought almost,
Except what prays at the edge of thought, unknown;
But it was snow. The flakes, extremely fine
And falling unseen, still made the bough
Of the hemlock whiten. Here and now-
Twig by twig, needle by needle-a plume
reached through the grayness,
Intricate purity that somehow could assume
Its own being in its own space,
Out of nothing…
or out of a cold November
Dawn that anyone could see, this grace
Than no one can ever quite remember.

from Asphault Georgics:


Many paths in the woods have chos-
en me, many a time,
and I wonder often what this
choosing is: a sublime

intimation from far outside
my consciousness (or for
that matter from far inside) or
maybe some train of mor-

tality set in motion at
my birth(if our instru-
ments of observation were fine
and precise enough to

trace it) or maybe only dis-
parate appeal, pure chance,
the distant drumming of a par-
tridge in spring, the advanc-

ing maple-color along a
lane in fall, or only
that the mud was less thick one way
than another was. Free

or determined? again and a-
gain I went the one way
and not the other, who knows why?
I wish I could know. May-

be it would explain the other
things that worry me. But
I have no compulsive need now,
not any longer. What

I know is that whether I walked
freely or trudged exhaust-
ed I chose one way each time and
ended by being lost.

I think I sought it. I think I
could not know myself un-
til I did not know where I was.
Then my self-knowledge con-

tinued for a while while I found
my way again in fear
and reluctance, lst truly at
last. I changed the appear-

ance of myself to myself
continually and
losing and finding were the same,
as now I understand.


  1. Thank you, Jon, for this tribute. He was a wonderful crank and the greatest American poet of his time. Once I was afraid he would hit me with his axe, but I was wrong–he was in fact very tender. He told me to give up poetry and grow turnips.

  2. give up poetry and grow turnips! but turnips are far too difficult to grow. i think i’ll give up poetry and grow swiss chard.

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