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…
Some poets have conducted quite conventional careers during the day to support their poetry habit at night. Insurance executive Wallace Stevens and physician William Carlos Williams are a couple of well known examples.
Dylan Thomas really couldn’t do much else besides write poems, and so he waged a losing war with poverty until he drank himself to death. He probably would have perished much sooner except for the fact he was able to charm wealthy female admirers into becoming patronesses.
About the only thing I have in common with the aforementioned gentlemen is that while I sometimes commit poetry, I also need another means to make a living.
I started my professional life in the 1970s as an ink-stained wretch of a newspaperman. While chasing deadlines was exhilarating when I was still a young man, there were already storm clouds on the horizon for journalism. Afternoon dailies were going extinct, and cities that had formerly had 2, 3 or more newspapers were seeing them merge or go out of business.
Little did I know that in just a few years, the internet would come along and fatally wound the mainstream media organizations, forcing them to trim their newsrooms and close regional bureaus.
I sensed that there was a disturbing uniformity of political opinion in the newsrooms of my youth. My own political worldview was still evolving, but even back then everybody I worked with seemed to be left-leaning and Reagan-loathing. The lockstep groupthink bothered me.
In my naïve idealism, I thought journalists were supposed to be fiercely objective. I never caucused with any party, and I strove to play my own coverage right down the middle. I’d have coffee with both Democrats and Republicans, and always made sure to pay my own check because I didn’t want to owe anybody anything.
When the owner of one paper tried to pressure me to join the local Rotary Club, I refused because I didn’t want membership to influence my coverage of any organization.
If I had still been a journalist this past year I think my head would have exploded. With news organizations colluding with political campaigns, and sharing debate questions in advance with the favored candidate, it became clear that our creaky old news institutions had jumped the shark.
I would have burned my press card in protest.
I wish I could say I was smart enough to foresee the death of journalism and jump ship intentionally, but it was more random than that. I was about to get married and I needed a job in Minneapolis. The cash-strapped metropolitan dailies weren’t hiring right then, and so I took the first job I could get.
Fortunately I had stumbled my way into direct marketing. That later led me into non-profit fundraising. The bulk of my career since has been helping good causes raise money. Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans, defending the persecuted, visiting those in prison, bringing the good news to those in bondage — that sort of thing.
I began to appreciate what I do a whole lot more when I stopped thinking about it as marketing and started thinking about it as “soul stirring.” When I’m doing it right, I touch the heart to stir people up to good works, and inspire them to be generous.
If you ask me, that’s really just a short step away from poetry. It’s all soul stirring.
When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung,
And the white fog lifts leaving trees bright new,
The foliage flashes with a crystal clue
Of how the world looked when light first leaped young.
Before man’s weight and weakness had begun
To break the branch or bruise the sodden slough,
The garden grew unburdened, bathed in dew,
Grew like a canticle, perfectly sung.
NOTES: Many years ago and many miles away, I awoke one Minnesota winter morning to the most astounding display of hoarfrost I had ever seen. The world was completely coated, clothed in white.
This was approximately 35 years ago. Garrison Keillor was just getting traction with his Prairie Home Companion show. He still had a day job on the local public radio station, and that morning, he celebrated the frosty morning by reading a poem.
I regret that I do not remember the name, or author of the poem he read that day. Perhaps it could have been this poem, Hoarfrost and Fog, by Barton Sutter. But I don’t think so.
It might have been his own work. But his efforts inspired the modest 8 lines I’ve posted above.
This fall, I’ve been writing a lot about how the death of summer is a metaphor for the inevitable death we all as humans face. This might be the single most-used image in all of literature.
Hopkins also wrote a 2-part poem, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, that gets at something even more. The first part, The Leaden Echo, sets up the problem of the decline and decay of beauty. It ends with despair.
But, in The Golden Echo, we come back to hope for redemption, for eternal life, and for the love of a Heavenly Father who restores.
“When the thing we forfeit is kept with fonder a care Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it ….”