Hayden Carruth (kar-REWTH) grew up in New England, and the rural areas of northern Vermont and upstate New York have provided the settings for many of his poems. He earned a B.A. degree in 1943 from the University of North Carolina, spent two years in the Army Air Corps in Italy during World War II, and then earned the M.A. in 1947 from the University of Chicago. From 1949 to 1950 he was editor of Poetry magazine, and between 1950 and 1951 he was an associate editor at the University of Chicago Press. In 1953 he suffered a psychological collapse and was hospitalized at Bloomingdale asylum in White Plains, New York, where he underwent electroshock therapy–his experiences at Bloomingdale were the impetus for his powerful and disturbing poem “The Asylum,” which appeared in The Crow and the Heart, and for The Bloomingdale Papers, which were written in the early 1950’s but not published until 1975. Carruth was poetry editor of Harper’s magazine from 1977 to 1983, and he became a consulting editor with The Hudson Review in 1971. His affiliations with various schools included a position as poet-in-residence at Johnson State College in Vermont, 1972-1974, as adjunct professor at the University of Vermont, 1975-1978, and as professor in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University, 1979-1985 and 1986-1991. He also taught at Bucknell University, 1985-1986. He died in central New York in 2008 at the age of 87.
Carruth’s technical skill is displayed in a range of verse forms; he shows an intense concern for questions of form, and for this reason he might be grouped with such poets as Richard Wilbur, Theodore Roethke, and the early Adrienne Rich. However, Carruth’s speakers are often rural and semiliterate, as can be seen in the lines “I mind one time down to the Grange/ Sucking up them venison meatballs/ They put on at their annual supper to raise some change,/ I seen Yewklid Morrison. . . .” Moreover, his topics range from the possibilities of spiritual transcendence, to the experience of operating a chain saw, to the Kansas City blues of Big Joe Turner. Critics have noted echoes of William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens in his lines, but Carruth has never been identified with a particular movement such as Black Mountain, Beat, or confessional.
For You and Brothers, I Loved You All are considered to be among his finest volumes, and they are typical for the tension they develop between a deep love for the natural world and other people, on one hand, and on the other an underlying existential anxiety, a painful sense of separation. Some of Carruth’s poems begin with the kind of introspective loneliness and alienation typical of much late twentieth century American poetry, but more often that introspection is answered by an insistent interest in the world outside the self, that is, in the natural world and in other people. Brothers, I Loved You All and Asphalt Georgics also reflect Carruth’s concern over the violation of the natural world, which includes human beings, by human greed, carelessness, and callousness. Yet that sense of loss, of powerlessness, is balanced by humor–“Hey, hey, daddio,/ Them old jeans is/ Going to go!”–and a persistent delight in the people around him. The Sleeping Beauty, an ambitious long poem, is a meditation on the history and definitions of romance, the inevitable connection between knowledge and sorrow, and the possibilities of transcendence.
Carruth’s hundreds of essays and reviews have appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, The Saturday Review, the New York Times Book Review, Sewanee Review, The Nation, The New Republic, the Village Voice, and The Southern Review, among others. His prose is lean and direct, his tone outspoken and scholarly but simultaneously commonsensical. He has written movingly and engagingly on poetry, on nonfiction, and on jazz and blues.
Beginning in the 1950’s Carruth received numerous awards for his work, including the University of Chicago’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, Bollingen and Guggenheim Fellowships, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize, the Governor’s Medal from the state of Vermont, the National Book Critics Circle Award (for Collected Shorter Poems), and both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995. Carruth was the kind of writer who seems to be admired and read most often by other writers (especially other poets), and he was known for his generosity to younger poets. Carruth put together a substantial body of work in both prose and poetry that forms an important contribution to mid-and late twentieth century American letters.