Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hayden Carruth

Hayden Carruth died yesterday at 87 years old.

The upstate New York poet was a devoutly private and radically intelligent man of the widest reading and cultivation, equally at home with modern jazz and classical Greek. He made a principle of staying alert to trends in speech, art, music and politics which was closely tied to his self-styled anarchism. Carruth's poetry could veer from gentle and appreciative to sizzling with rage, expressing everything from fantasies of escape to deep psychic unease. To my mind, the most characteristic of his many qualities was his unfailing ear for popular speech - the talk of streets, pubs, barnyards, jam sessions, and lunch counters. This unique sensibility was brilliantly displayed in the book that introduced me to him - and still my favorite - "Asphalt Georgics," in which he rhapsodized the malls, bars and road culture of my own homeland around Rochester, Rome and Utica New York.

As he aged, his disillusion with the world around him grew, but he never stopped writing. His last poems were regretful, even sorrowful, but anger was never Carruth's dominant note. Rather his poems, like the people he lovingly chronicled, were gallant improvisers - bent but never broken.

This poem is from Carruth's 1996 book, Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey.


Both of us had been close
to Joel, and at Joel’s death
my friend had gone to the wake
and the memorial service
and more recently he had
visited Joel’s grave, there
at the back of the grassy
cemetery among the trees,
“a quiet, gentle place,” he said,
“befitting Joel.” And I said,
“What’s the point of going
to look at graves?” I went
into one of my celebrated
tirades. “People go to look
at the grave of Keats or Hart
Crane, they go traveling just to
do it, what a waste of time.
What do they find there? Hell,
I wouldn’t go look at the grave of
Shakespeare if it was just
down the street. I wouldn’t
look at—” And I stopped. I
was about to say the grave of God
until I realized I’m looking at it
all the time....

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