On Hayden Carruth: A Friendship in Poetry
When I was in college and had become certain that Anonymous was not the name of a prolific medieval poet, I began to read the "little magazines" to try to learn about the poetry of my own time. That was in the early fifties. And so I must have known the name Hayden Carruth for a good many years of such scattered reading before it meant much to me.
It began to mean much to me in May of 1964. My family and I had been living as neighbors to Denise Levertov and Mitchell Goodman on Greenwich Street in New York City. Denise and Mitch had bought an old farm in Temple, Maine, where they spent their summers. They invited us to come up for a visit, and in that May we did so. It was a good visit in a good place. The weather was fine, the landscape beautiful, the talk warm-hearted. The voice of that time in my memory is that of the white-throated sparrow, who is mostly silent when he winters with us in Kentucky.
While we were there, Denise handed me a sheaf of poems, a carbon copy on yellow paper. The poems were the sequence titled North Winter, by her friend Hayden Carruth. Denise was an ardent and generous friend to the poetry and the poets she liked, and she just as ardently wanted the poets she liked to like each other's poems. She wanted to know if I wouldn't love those poems by Hayden Carruth as much as she did.
To disagree with Denise on such a matter was not invariably cost-free. And so I took the poems in hand with some anxiety, wanting very much to love them as much as she did and very much afraid I wouldn't. But I did, I think, love those poems as much as Denise did. I could see their mastery and their beauty. I could see how entirely the poet loved the place and the creatures he was writing about. Beyond that, those poems were a revelation to me, one I greatly needed at the time.
I was then finishing up two years I had spent in New York and was about to return to take a job at the University of Kentucky, where, a few years before, I had been a student. Understandably, as I now see, most of my literary friends were upset with me for this choice. They thought I was ruining myself. There I was, with a good job in the great cultural center, getting to know other writers, attending literary events, visiting the museums, in general having a good time—and was I going to turn my back on all that to return to, of all places, Kentucky?
Well, for all I know, they might have been right, for I certainly can't prove them wrong. There are no control plots in one's life. I can't compare the life I've had with the life I might have had. All I can say with certainty, after forty-three years, is that I am glad I chose as I did, I am grateful for the life I have had, and I can see some advantages in living outside the great cultural centers.
But in the spring of 1964 I had not lived the life I was going to live any more than the life I might have lived. I did not, in truth, know what I was doing. I was returning to Kentucky merely because I wanted to; beyond that, I had no reason or argument. And so the admonitions of my friends had affected me strongly.
My first reading of North Winter, then, had this context of uncertainty and uneasiness. I did, after all, want to be a good writer. I wanted my life to be sustained in part by the intelligence of reading and writing. If I had forestalled or deformed that possibility I would have been diminished and, of course, sorry.
I don't think I could have said then why that carbon copy of Hayden's poems meant as much to me as it did. But the poems sank deeply into me, and they consoled me. By now I can say why.
Those poems, in addition to the much else they were, clearly did not come from any great center of culture, not from New York or Boston or even Concord. They came from Johnson, Vermont, a place not central to the culture even of Vermont and yet a place obviously central to the consciousness and imagination of a fine poet. It was a place that, on the scale of grandeur, might have been any place, except that by the use of his senses, his wits, and his art, the poet had given standing to its unique life, first in his own imagination, then in Denise's, then in mine, and eventually in the imaginations of many others. In those poems I was seeing, though I could not then have said so, the virtue that William Carlos Williams attributed to the work of Poe: a "scrupulous originality, not 'originality' in the bastard sense, but in its legitimate sense of solidity which goes back to the ground," a "burst through to expressions of a re-awakened genius of place."
The poems of North Winter are poems of praise, lamentation, humor, and exuberant technical inventiveness. And they are in a curious way didactic. They are poems of survival. They tell how to be fully and eagerly alive all the way through a cold northern winter.
There is, as Blake rightly said, no competition among true poets, and I agree, despite the current trade in prizes, grants, and teaching jobs. North Winter is not necessarily better or worse than a book of poems from New York or Boston or San Francisco, but it is necessarily different from any book from any of those places or from any other place. It belongs uniquely to the place it came from. But in its fullness of imagination and realization, it belongs also to all of us in our own places. This is not something that one dopes out, or can dope out, by a critical method. It is merely something that one knows, or does not know.
To me, North Winter will always speak of the way one poet by his work can help another—or, to put it more truly, of the way a poet by his work can help a fellow human. It told me, at a time when I greatly needed to hear it, that one writer may do life-sustaining work in a place that, to others, would be "nowhere." It told me that somebody rural by predilection, like me, could be a good writer. Soon after I returned to Kentucky, North Winter was beautifully printed by Carroll Coleman at the Prairie Press in Iowa City. I ordered a copy that I still have and still love and that still delights and consoles me every time I read it. And so before I became Hayden's friend, I had become his debtor. And my debt to him has steadily grown. I have been mindful of his work and example, and under his influence, for forty-three years.
Hayden's thought, his expectation, starts from and is ever qualified by a careful, deliberate, strictly limited resignation. His work does not arise from a false expectation of ideal causes or effects. He assumes absolutely that life begins and ends on the everyday, the real, the mortal, the "losing" side of the ideal. In the too-quick view, this may seem pessimistic, but it is never that, or never programmatically that:
The point is, there's a losing kind of man who still will save this world if anybody
can save it, who believes . . . oh, many things,
that horses, say, are fundamentally preferable
to tractors, that small is more likeable than big,
and that human beings work better and last longer
when they're free.
There is a certain darkness in Hayden's affirmation of "the loser, the forlorn believer, the passer on," but it is nevertheless an affirmation. It is a darkness readily lighted by announcements of great happiness and great joy.
I think that Hayden's idea of a livable life is a life that has affection in it—a life, to give it the fullest scope of his art, in which the things you love are properly praised and properly mourned. What I most value Hayden for and most thank him for (in this age of deniability, when the merest public honesty is made doctrinally tentative) is his wholehearted, unabashed, unapologetic affection: affection for women and men, for neighbors, friends, other poets, jazz musicians, wild creatures, beloved places, the weather. If you know his work, you know you can find dislike in it and anger too. Even so, he is a poet of affection. If he dislikes, that is because he likes. If he is angry, that is because of damage to what he loves. His affection is capacious and generous; everything worthy is at home in it. As he knows, everything worthy is fragile and under threat, is prey to time and invisible to power, and yet affection keeps the accounting in the black. Worthy things, invested with affection, pass into "the now / which is eternal." I don't know how this can be, and I don't think Hayden knows. And yet I believe that it is so; I believe that Hayden believes that it is so.
I want to consider a poem that summons knowledge and insight into the service of affection. The poem is titled simply "Marshall Washer." It is from Hayden's beautiful book of 1978, Brothers, I Loved You All. This poem is immensely important to me—and, I think, to our time—for reasons I hope will come clear. But I want to write about it now because, in doing so, I may be able to signify my great indebtedness to Hayden and my gratitude.
Marshall Washer was Hayden's neighbor and friend in Johnson, Vermont. They exchanged work and other goods, as rural neighbors once did, and now do less and less. On one of my visits to his place, Hayden took me to meet Marshall, who showed me with pride his milking barn and his cows, and with greater pride, because they were his fellow workers, his team of Belgian horses. He was a man I recognized and honored according to his kind (as Hayden had trusted I would do): an excellent farmer and an excellent man. His own generation included many like him on small farms all over the eastern United States. We talked a long time on Marshall's hilltop that afternoon. Our visit included several moments of fine hilarity, courtesy of Marshall's brother-in-law, Wesley, a gifted teller of scandalous tales about himself.
In my copy of Hayden's Collected Shorter Poems, I have kept a picture of Hayden in the Vermont State House on the day in November of 2002 when he was made that state's poet laureate. Standing immediately behind him, wearing a suit and tie, is Marshall Washer. And with that picture I have kept, from the next year, Hayden's eulogy for Marshall, dead at the age of 88, who "represented, and still does, the finest element of the culture and civilization of northern New England" and who was "the consummate small farmer."
The poem "Marshall Washer" takes up more than six pages in the Collected Shorter Poems. It begins with what may seem a sort of wisecrack—"They are cowshit farmers"—but is actually a trap cunningly set, which is sprung about forty lines later, and the snap of it reverberates to the final lines.
The first of the poem's six parts is a small essay on the lives of New England dairy farmers, who sometimes in self-derogation call themselves "cowshit farmers" and whose lives in fact do revolve around the manure that the cows deposit daily in the milking barns and that must be returned to the fields. By their production of milk, these farmers make a living. By their handling of the manure, they are involved in the fertility cycle, which is the continuity of farming and of the living world. Hayden depends on us to know, as we certainly should, that "manure" means not just excrement but also the handwork and the handcare by which it is returned to the fields, by which the fields are cultivated, by which, and only by which, we will continue to eat:
Notice how many times
I have said "manure"? It is serious business.
It breaks the farmers' backs. It makes their land.
It is the link eternal, binding man and beast
"Cowshit," then, has an eternal value. A "cowshit farmer" is an artist whose art makes of cowshit "the link eternal."
The poem then shifts from this description of the kind of man Marshall is to Marshall himself. It is concerned from then on specifically with him—a depiction, an act of understanding and affection, a tribute—though his story clearly also is that of farmers of his kind in the age of industry and urbanization. Part 2 shows us Marshall at work on his place and in his time:
I see a man notching a cedar post
with a double-blade axe, rolling the post
under his foot in the grass: quick strokes and there
is a ringed groove one inch across, as clean
as if cut with the router blade down at the mill.
I see a man who drags a dead calf or watches
a barn roaring with fire and thirteen heifers
inside, I see his helpless eyes. He has stood
helpless often, of course: when his wife died
from congenital heart disease a few months before
open-heart surgery came to Vermont, when his sons
departed, caring little for the farm because
he had educated them . . .
My quotations by now should have given an idea of the kind of artifact this poem is. Hayden is a poet of extraordinary technical resourcefulness. He is capable of an exacting and refined lyrical beauty. But this poem is built by the gathering in of knowledge. Somewhere not too far in its background are the catalogues of Whitman and their long, accumulating rhythms. But this poem is as far from Whitman's rhetoric as it is from Hayden's own precise lyricism. Its knowledge is more particular, more characterizing, and more exactly compassionate too than most of Whitman's. The lines of "Marshall Washer" have a certain rough energy that makes them prehensile for the drawing of specifically personal knowledge into the reach of comprehension and affection. The knowledge is clarified and ordered by the same means that order the verse: a strictly maintained integrity and clarity of line, a rhythm precisely inflected and perfectly continuous, a sustained impetus of remembrance and reflection that is never overburdened. The lines are not meant to be lyrical, but they are often as prosodically astute as anybody could wish. Look again at that line about manure: "It breaks the farmers' backs. It makes their land."
Because the poem, its language and its prosody, is so nearly at one with its knowledge, it has a quietness that permits accuracy. The poem's story is so fully imagined, is so clearly seen as belonging to its time and place and character, that it can be set down almost casually— "his sons / departed, caring little for the farm because / he had educated them" —though it carries to the heart a mostly unregarded modern tragedy, necessarily personal but also national and international. That force is not fully released or felt until it is elaborated with the same quietness of accuracy at the end of the poem:
Marshall's sorrow is the same as human
sorrow generally, but there is this
difference. To live in a doomed city, a doomed
nation, a doomed world is desolating, and we all,
all are desolated. But to live on a doomed farm
is worse. It must be worse. There the exact
point of connection, gate of conversion, is—
mind and life. The hilltop farms are going.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . the link
of the manure, that had seemed eternal, is broken.
As you read this poem, a terrible beauty leaps from it into your consciousness—if your consciousness has been at all prepared to receive it. The terribleness is in the story of the breaking of "the link / of the manure" —the work and the care, the fertility cycle in agriculture—which "seemed eternal" perhaps because it was and because it was, and is, necessary if survival is to be a part of our intention. The beauty is in the verse, which is to say in the poet's enactment in verse making of his intelligent love and regard for Marshall Washer.
Marshall's farming, by which he maintained "the link eternal" of the manure, we must see as an enactment of reverence. And here it is necessary to distinguish the reverence that is enacted from that which is merely felt. Our survival, our culture, and our civilization, if they are to be even worthy of survival, depend on our ability to supply to the feeling of reverence the arts necessary for its enactment. Poetry and farming have to be counted equally as two of the necessary arts, and we must understand at last that Hayden's poem is an appreciation of one fine artist by another: reverent men, both of them.
I am a reverent man myself, a farmer and a poet, and I am therefore party to this poem of Hayden's about his friend Marshall Washer, as I was one afternoon, by Hayden's hospitality, party to their friendship and conversation. I am party, moreover, to their fate as rural people. When I read North Winter for the first time, I was on my way back to my own rural place and life. But I was also going back, as I half knew even then, as I know more completely now, to take up the fate of country people in my time. I was going back to help bury a lot of good men and women who had replaced their predecessors well enough but who themselves would not be succeeded or replaced. I was going back to witness many times the breaking of the old link and the old reverence of the manuring of the fields.
Near the end of his essay "Ezra Pound and the Great Style," Hayden wrote
How shall our children live in a world from which first
the spirit, then history, and finally nature have fled,
leaving only the mindless mechanics of process and chance:
Will any place exist for a humane art in a society from which
the last trace of reverence—any reverence—has been
rubbed out? As a matter of fact I think a place will exist,
will be made . . .
Hayden wrote those sentences more than forty years ago, and yet when I read them now, in spite of the troubles and discouragements of those years, I still feel spoken for. It is the right thought, the right faith, whatever happens.
Can modern Americans conceive of a reverence for "the eternal link" of manure? Well, Hayden can, and I can. And I could quickly fill this page with the names of people I didn't know forty years ago, people in America and in other countries, who can conceive of such reverence, who in various ways practice it, and who could fill pages of their own with the names of others who do—a cowshit sodality making places for reverence, still faithful to the old linkage, its knowledge and its work.