Poems by Michael Scofield in this issue.
All work by Hayden Carruth reprinted
courtesy of Copper Canyon Press, P.O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368
Michael's book of poetry and prose, Silicon Valley Escapee can be ordered from the publisher: Amador Books
by Michael Scofield
This essay was presented as his M.F.A. graduation lecture from Vermont College, July 2002.
Last fall in his eightieth year I wrote him asking what poems he most hoped to be remembered for. He replied: I would say that among the long poems I'm especially attached to 'Contra Mortem.' Among the short ones I like 'The Cows at Night' and any number of love poems.
So we'll be talking about Contra Mortem; The Cows at Night; his love poem, The Best, The Most, for the poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin, his fourth and current wife—and my favorite, one of his last poems, Old Man Succumbing to Retrospection.
Carruth's life has been full of pain, which he has dealt with in often destructive ways. In his thirties he was hospitalized 15 months for anxiety and alcoholism and in his late sixties a couple of months again for attempted suicide. Insomnia, anxiety, depression, spinal pain, and recurrent bouts with booze have been life companions. So has his smoking, which triggered his heart attack and the emphysema he's dying from. When he was 70 he still smoked two packs of cigarettes, five pipes, and a couple of cigars a day.
In spite of all this he worked an unbelievable 80 to 90 hours a week until he turned sixty. During the day he hired out to cut wood, hay, and work as an auto mechanic, carpenter, electrician, and plumber. During the night he did hackwork, reviewing poetry (by his own count he has read 20,000 books), writing essays, ghostwriting, copy editing, even serving as sole employee of an occult newsletter. He wrote poetry after midnight— twenty-six books worth, winning the National Book and National Book Critics Circle Awards as well as the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize. He also wrote a novel, a couple of books of essays, and a book on jazz. Much of this he accomplished in a cowshed outside his home near Johnson, thirty-five miles north of Montpelier, on eleven acres bought for $5,800 in 1961, when he was forty years old. Before moving to Vermont with his third wife and infant son, he served for a year as editor of Poetry magazine. Later he served an eight-year stint as poetry editor of Harpers.
Stressful and productive as his life has been, he takes sustenance from an aesthetic centered on the image of the wheel. With all its turns of sadness and joy, it represents the gift of being alive in a world of experiences that are both beyond, and encompass, his participation.
Thus his great love for his long poem, Contra Mortem,—Against Death—each of its verse paragraphs written on successive nights in the cowshed.
from Contra MortemNote the music in this 15-line Carruth invention. The basic pentameter iambs are punched by trimeter lines such as line 10 (EACH to EACH a PART) and tetrameter lines such as line 7 (enDURES It SPINS and SPINS WINDing). In each of the 30 verse paragraphs in this poem, the shorter lines are always in the same position.
Characteristic of Carruth throughout his work is repetition-with-slight-variation of phrases, such as line 3's and yet they always fail and must fail and line 6's Hopeless it is hopeless. Also characteristic is his preference for nouns and verbs. Of the 121 words in The Wheel of Being II, only six are adjectives and three are adverbs.
Enlivened by its verbal music and passion, Contra Mortem presents a world view that has changed little for Carruth in 45 years. In the verse paragraph we're examining, note line 2's, because for a moment we brighten in a blaze of rhymes. Poetry makes living temporarily worthwhile for the speaker but he has no ambition for its permanence. Note also these portions of lines 9 through 13, Thus on the wheel we touch each to each a part . . . How much / we give to one another. Perhaps our art / succeeds after all. Through art comes communion with others and the fruit of that contact, compassion.
All his adult life Carruth has declared himself an atheist. For him the wheel of life has been set in motion—never mind how—and we endure its turning. Yet in his book of autobiographical essays he writes, Spirituality is as much a dimension of our pragmatic lives as it is of the exalted lives of the mystics. His sense of spirituality comes from feelings. That's why he calls himself a 'peaceable anarchist.' Anarchist because freedom of thought and action within the social contract is vital to his sense of well-being; peaceable because, as he told an interviewer, killing even a nearly brainless pike or totally brainless broccoli unnerves [me].
Though Carruth loved to play poker with his backwoods friends, he never hunted or fished with them. He writes that during card games, I'd drink enough coffee to wire me tight as an egg-slicer and then walk home. Sometimes I'd keep on walking. I'd go up into the woods and sit under the spruces until I was calm enough to sleep. Or I'd sit by the brook in starlight and let the water-music run in my head until a poem came.
He claims not to be a nature poet. By evolving into a state of self-consciousness, he says we have separated ourselves from other animals and from the very earth itself. So there's a kind of fear and terror involved in living close to nature. Yet that's what he did north of here for 20 years. Why? Because isolating reduced his anxieties and binge drinking. And because in addition to being terrifying, nature also provided solace.
The Cows at NightCopper Canyon, Carruth's major publisher, has put out a CD of him reading this and other poems. He reads in the cadences of a basso continuo and his voice is deep and gravelly. The publisher's wife started crying, the liner notes say, and so do I when I listen. No wonder he wants to be remembered for this poem. So light in touch, so heavy with implication about his life, about our lives. Each three-beat line—short, so we'll notice—adds to the feeling of being there with him, sharing his thoughts of abundance and disappearance, envisioning the turning wheel. The first two lines present the theme: The moon was like a full cup tonight,/ too heavy, and sank in the mist. Images of light and dark pile on one another. Soon in stanzas 4 and 5—which I'm fusing now for concision's sake—we're listening to as well as seeing among farms / so quiet. . . those great breathings close in the dark.
Stanza 6 slips simply into stanza 7. They turned / to me where they lay, sad // and beautiful faces in the dark. These lovely animals make the speaker think of girls—and here, in a turn so adroit we scarcely notice, he links all of us, when young, with nature. Yet the innocence of the girls made them sad. They wanted to grow up, another turn of the wheel, and become full human beings. For the speaker, however, sadness gave them a beauty which growing up would destroy. Self-knowledge turns us into unnatural beings.
The speaker ends stanza 9 by switching off his flashlight. He starts stanza 10 by not wanting to go / not yet, nor knew what to do / if I should stay, for how / in that great darkness could I explain / anything. There's an oddly touching hopelessness at work here. The poem ends in an act of beneficence, a peaceable anarchist's baptism, if you will: And then / very gently it began to rain.
Look at this poem's use of line and stanza transition, itself subject for a lecture. In the last two lines, for instance, see how Carruth blends assonance with drama, breaking And then into a new stanza and the only stanza of one line. Perhaps the most masterful use of line-and-stanza-break transition occurs in stanza 8. The cows, ''sad and beautiful" in the first line, become like girls very long ago in the second, piquing us to move to the third line, where he describes them as innocent, and sad. Note how after innocent, Carruth uses a comma to hold our attention a moment on this emotional state. Then we learn that the figurative girls, like the cows, are sad.
The stanza break, not even close to completing his thought, asks us to absorb the similarity between girls and cows before the first line of Stanza 9 switches our focus wholly to the girls. Unlike girls and the rest of us, cows stay innocent.
Carruth lived in Vermont, as he writes, in a state of tension between love of natural beauty and the fear of natural meaninglessness, from 1960 until 1980. During these years he progressed from $6000 in annual income to $10,000, blaming financial difficulty as part of the reason his third marriage ended. He then moved to the state of New York for a teaching position at Syracuse University, which he held for 11 years.
Loneliness and living in Syracuse proved too much. Early in the morning of February 24, 1988, he writes, I intentionally and massively overdosed myself with every pill I possessed. I'm by nature hypochondriacal and had a fair collection of partly used bottles. I washed the contents down with loathsome port wine that someone had sent me from California.
He calls the miracle that he lived, 'luck'—writing that the most important result of my new luck is that I'm able to perform acts of virtue again. Writing is a way of being in the world, a functioning nub of relatedness. I am [now] a better writer, whatever the artistic quality of my work may be. He also grew much more at ease about money. [Money]'s not everything and for those of us who are serious about virtue it is not even much; we would rather produce a fine poem or painting than a fat bank account. Some of us would even rather produce a good action in the world.
Two years later, in 1990, he married his fourth wife, the poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin, a student at Syracuse University. Both poets have Irish heritage. Her latest book is Jam, (from jam session); Carruth's latest is Dr. Jazz. He writes, y body has given out, and in some measure my mind too. Yet I am happier than I've ever been.
Let's look at the third poem, The Best, The Most, one of his love poems to McLaughlin.
The Best, The MostNotice two new elements in his work. Self-deprecating humor appears in the opening clause of the sentence that passes through lines 7 and 8: She loves me for / myself, or for what little is left—humor that embraces a complaint in lines 11 through 13: this life / is hell, the inferno of every day, every / miserable day, but not the reborn's / pitchfork in the kidneys.
The other new element that appears in Carruth's poetry after his marriage to McLaughlin is joy. In the last stanza of The Best, The Most he tells the reader that this life has its joy / in pain, in sorrow its contentment,/ which is old age given to love. This life of painful pleasure and pleasurable pain is for Carruth, in his last word on the subject, rich.
Note the effect of the line breaks, giving this poem, more than the other two, the feel of a series of improvisational jazz riffs. Lines 4 through 7: What / can this verify except that she, of all / who said they loved me, loves me / most and best? Note, too, his continuing to use phrase variations, as in jazz. The loved me, loves me of line 6 and in stanza 3, every day, every miserable day. And of course the lovely failing and failing, falling near the end.
For all his ailments and what he calls his vast disappointment [in himself], Carruth is blessed with a photographic memory and quick intelligence. In third grade, he writes, [We] were given the Stanford-Binet IQ test. I scored high, well up in the classification of genius, adding, It was a disaster. He is also blessed with perfect pitch.
By the time he was working toward his MA at the University of Chicago, I was a set-up for jazz. I needed jazz desperately. Why? He writes that Nothing is more expressive of the existential predicament of Western civilization than jazz and the blues.
In Chicago a friend lent him a clarinet. Soon he bought his own, which he continued to play up until the last few years, mostly alone to the accompaniment of recordings. After his long first stay in the hospital in his thirties, he returned to his parents' home near White Plains, where he practiced four to five hours a day. He alternated playing pieces by Benny Goodman with those by Mozart, Brahms, Hindemuth, and Milhaud.
But it's the rhythms of and references to jazz that most inhabit his poetry, as in Old Man Succumbing to Retrospection.
Old Man Succumbing to RetrospectionMuch of the power of this sonnet, mostly pentameter without end rhyme, comes from its easily grasped theme. The speaker has spent a lifetime trying in poems to duplicate the textures created by two great jazz saxophonists—declaring that though he has never quit trying, he has failed. Was the effort worthwhile? In earlier poems Carruth says, Yes. In this, written in his mid-seventies, he's not sure but wishes anyhow that life had been different, ending with the paradoxical sentiments most of us share. Lines 13 and 14 state, How he would have liked / even so something more. Or something a little less.
Contrary to his opinion, Carruth has wrought a work of musical beauty here. And done it in fresh ways. Note his use of anaphora, that is, repeating an opening word. The word 'How' knits the poem together and, accumulating energy, drives the poem toward its penultimate line.
He builds its music with internal rhyme (applebloom and room, press and nevertheless); by repetition (strove and strove, more and more, nevertheless and never); and by so often using the liquid sounds of l, m, and n.
As in The Wheel of Being II of Contra Mortem 35 years earlier, the nearly same number of words here includes only six adjectives and three adverbs aside from How. Nor does the poem use a single metaphor or simile. This is a textbook example of what a carefully honed minimalist approach can accomplish, in its way so like a haunting solo of Bechet or Webster. Here Carruth creates an immediate experience the reader can share. He links setting with life stages, contrasting line 3's orchard of youth with line 4's shabby room of old age. He uses verbs whose music we can feel, the growling whispering of line 7. Other verbs connote the painful work of getting through life: the strove of line 2, the cry out of line 5, the toiled of line 8, the press of line 9.
Before ending, I'd like to share Carruth's hopes for American poetry. In an interview he says, If today we have many aspiring poets so involved in their private existences that they cannot get outside them, this is a misfortune. Genuine passion does not come from the constricted ego. Poetry and compassion are inextricably intermixed. This intermixture needs to guide all our actions. Only cooperative and basically loving arrangements, as opposed to competitive and greedy ones, he says, can serve our species well. Where does he think our poetry may be heading? We find ourselves again in a literary milieu needing change, he says. Perhaps it will have something to do with comedy—I don't mean wit and irony but belly laughter. In his book of autobiographical essays he writes, Maybe someone will discover a way to be genuinely, single-mindedly funny in our awful time.
Carruth's fortitude and dedication to honoring the possibilities of our language will, I suspect, more and more inspire those of us for whom writing poetry is the essence of living.
1. Doctor Jazz,2001 (contains Old Man Succumbing to Retrospection)
2. Reluctantly, 1998 (autobiographical essays)
3. Selected Essays & Reviews , 1996
4. Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, 1996 (contains The Best, The Most; won National Book Critics Circle Award)
5. Collected Longer Poems, 1994 (contains Contra Mortem)
6.Collected Shorter Poems, 1992 (contains The Cows at Night; won National Book Award)
In 1999 Copper Canyon issued a CD of Carruth reading poems from Scrambled Eggs& Whiskey (including "The Best, The Most") and from Collected Shorter Poems (including "The Cows at Night"). To order call 877/501-1393 or access www.coppercanyonpress.org
In 1994 the Lannan Foundation issued a video of Carruth reading from Collected Shorter Poems in 1993 and answering questions by Michael Silverblatt. To order call Small Press Distribution 800/869-7553 or access www.spdbooks.org