One of my literary-minded friends has introduced me to the America poet Hayden Carruth, who lived from 1921 to 2008.
I’m not sure how I could have gone so long and gotten so old without finding him. (Just another example of the gaping holes in my education, I guess.)
Carruth is growing on me.
Like Robert Frost, he moved to the Vermont countryside and learned to how to farm. Carruth’s poems about some of his country neighbors are vivid, precise character sketches that remind me of the country folk I knew in my youth.
Like Frost, Carruth did a bit of teaching to help pay the bills. He was aware of the looming shadow Frost cast over later Vermont poets, and he played with it a bit in some of his poems.
But he seems to be ornerier than Frost. And more down to earth. He seems to be a common man. But a wicked smart, extremely well-read common man.
He dwells at that intersection between classic poets from an earlier age who paid attention to meter and rhyme, and the moderns of the last century, who reveled in the free innovation for the sake of innovation.
His poem, Late Sonnet, written later in his life, is one of his most interesting, I’ve read yet.
by Hayden Carruth
For that the sonnet no doubt was my own true
singing and suchlike other song, for that
I gave it up half cold-heartedly to set
my lines in a fashion that proclaimed its virtue
original in young arrogant artificers who
had not my geniality nor voice and yet
their fashionableness was persuasive to me,–what
shame and sorrow I pay!
And that I knew
that beautiful hot old man Sidney Bechet
and heard his music often but not what he
was saying, that tone, phrasing, and free play
of feeling mean more than originality,
these being the actual qualities of song.
Nor is it essential to be young.
I read this as the confession of a poet who abandoned the craft he knew in his youth to pursue the fashionable trends of modern style. He contrasts the pretentiousness of modern poets — the “arrogant artificers” — with the pure horn playing of jazzman Sidney Bechet, who — according to Carruth — emphasized feeling over originality.
Carruth developed this idea more fully in an interview published in Contemporary Authors.
“When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry, as we called it then, we still felt beleaguered; modern poetry was still considered outrageous by most of the people in the publishing business and in the reading audience at large.
“We still spoke in terms of the true artists and the philistines. We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature.
“Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it’s a hope; we have no proof.”
Carruth has helped me put my finger on what has bugged me about so much of modern poetry for a long time. I couldn’t quite define it until now. But after reading this, it has come into focus.
In the secular despair of the 20th Century, artists sought to take the place of God, who had been declared dead by the wise men of the age.
As Carruth said, “if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization.”
Cultural restoration through poetry! Moral improvement through exposure to art.
The divine revelation of the Bible had been debunked courtesy of Darwin and Freud and others, faith had been undermined, and the vacuum that was created was seeking to fill itself with the work of artists and poets.
I would submit that this is much too big an assignment for poetry.
Don’t get me wrong. I hold a pretty high view of poetry. It can do a lot. It can inspire, comfort and bless a soul. It can express rich and deep feeling in elevated language. But I think the artistes of the last century reached too far.
My hypothesis is that this poetic overreach was responsible for much mischief — and a lot of unreadable poetry in the 20th Century.
Lest you think I am making this up, Stevens was explicit about his intention to replace God with poetry.
According to Poetry Foundation, Stevens maintained that art was “the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity.”
I find Stevens’ abstraction cold and heartless — and frankly boring.
I disagree with his premise and his conclusion. Just because Stevens didn’t believe in God didn’t mean that God was dead. (Please note: this theory is still under construction.)
If God is not dead, then poetry does not need to strive to be something it is not. It does not need to replace divine revelation. Since God is not dead, poetry can slip comfortably back into its proper role.
The poet can cease stop trying to take the place of God and settle back into the role of a human created in the image of God, creating beauty that reflects the beauty of God and his creation. And also telling the truth about the tragedy of how the creation has fallen.
Feel free to check out the blog for some decidedly un-modern poetry…