Acts of perception
Poetry has been a life's calling for Hayden Carruth, and not an easy one. His devotion to this calling has persisted through many hardships, earning him the respect and affection of other poets but, for many years, little else. Happily, his circle of readers appears to have grown somewhat in recent years. The year 1982 saw the welcome publication of both his latest book of poems, ''The Sleeping Beauty,'' and a volume of his critical essays, ''Working Papers.''
In a sense Carruth's life as a poet has run parallel to that of the ''tough hardminded Yankee'' farmers who appear in his poems from northern Vermont, his adopted home for some years. No wonder he admires them! As a poet, he has also labored to farm a rocky and sometimes unyielding plot of ground in a cultural climate equally harsh. He has wondered aloud whether poets and poetry have any more central a place in the world our world is becoming than those out-of-the-way hill farms he has come to know well.
Carruth was born in 1921 - when Ezra Pound was writing the first of his Cantos and within a year or so of the time T.S. Eliot published ''The Waste Land ,'' Wallace Stevens ''Harmonium,'' and William Carlos Williams ''Spring and All.'' These works represented a revolution in poetry. Carruth has recalled feeling ''chronologically deprived'' as a young poet for having missed the excitement. He and others of his generation have long since outgrown this feeling of deprivation, but they have retained from that period a live sense of the mission of poetry. It isn't, in this perspective, merely a cultural frill, an academic pastime, or even a profession, but rather an activity that ministers to needs crucial to sanity and civilization.
For Carruth, the issue of sanity has been personal as well as social. His book ''The Bloomingdale Papers'' consists of poems written while he was a patient at a psychiatric hospital in the early 1950s. These poems, unedited and undigested, are not the best introduction to Carruth's work for readers unfamiliar with it. Yet the impression they give is valuable for the light it sheds on his more accomplished poetry. This impression is not of madness but of a sensitive intelligence struggling against the chaos and emptiness of mortal existence, taken on its own terms.
This searching finds more disciplined expression in his volumes ''For You,'' published in 1970, and ''From Snow and Rock, from Chaos,'' published in 1973. It is as if the strenuous Vermont winters Carruth was encountering required of him not only a physical toughening but also a toughening of his verse. Winter is in fact a dominant presence in these books - a source of many of their most vivid images, a symbol of the stark vacancy and denial of meaning in life which Carruth resists: Blizzard trampling past has left the birches bent as in humiliation the soft scotch pines laid down as in subjection the beeches snappedat the top as in a reign of terror the balsams scarred but upright as in the dignity of suffering and all the woods in sorrow as if the world meant something. (''North Winter,'' Section 25)
Fragments like this are first of all acts of perception. The poet is observing, noticing, seeing, in a way that few of us do. The details recorded, precise and accurate, provide density, concreteness, a counterweight to abstract terms (''humiliation,'' ''subjection,'' ''dignity of suffering'') that would otherwise simply be trite. The repeated ''as if'' sets these abstractions carefully apart, reminding the reader that the human qualities or conditions to which they refer do not strictly belong to the natural world the poem is describing. The final line brings home Carruth's dilemma: He senses intuitively a meaning in human experience but cannot rationally connect this meaning with the processes of the larger world.
This tension is the spring of Carruth's strongest poems. These are, like ''The Leaves'' reprinted below, rich in both physical detail and verbal texture. Their starting point is in the poet's engagement with his environment, observed with a naturalist's care and knowledge. But Carruth is not essentially a ''nature poet,'' despite the fact that his poems (as he once said) ''have a lot of nature in them.'' His subject is life, not merely rural or natural life. The ''actual world'' in its sheer variety and frequent beauty moves him, as in ''The Leaves,'' but his aim is not merely to ooh and aah at pretty scenes.
''The Leaves'' is part of a sequence entitled ''Contra Mortem'' - against death. The poem is a flood of perceptions, the focus broadening and rising. The strong regular rhythm of the initial line (''If the sky were green instead of blue its green'') establishes the poem's momentum; the language surges in subsequent lines in irregular waves. The scene itself is by no means a still life. The verbs of motion (''closefollowed,'' ''assaults,'' ''lunge,'' ''snap,'' ''splash'') give it the energy and raw vitality of a seascape by John Marin. The poem is not merely descriptive, however. It's true subject is its ''subject'' in the literal sense - the human being who is seeing and responding, naming, drawing distinctions and connections, reaching for a ''far high'' reality that is its own justification and meaning.
The tone of the later ''Too Tenuous'' is more reflective, the pacing more deliberate. The poem is partly a lament at the passing of the natural order represented by the two cranes. But that is a common sentiment and easily trivialized. The poem works because it is more - because its subject is again the human sensibility reaching outside itself.
Not all of Carruth's poetry is as successful as ''The Leaves,'' or ''Too Tenuous,'' in fusing craft with vision. In some of his work from the later '70s the voice becomes wearier, more burdened. The recent long poem ''Sleeping Beauty'' is in some ways the most painful of all his books, even more so than the Bloomingdale manuscripts because more graphic in its pain. Carruth is a man of his time and manifests the contradictions of these times. The light sifts, uneven, through the matrix of ''human brutality of mind.'' Yet there are poems and moments of transparency to which one keeps turning back.
''Oh, something/ is unutterable, the song cannot reach it,'' the poet in one such moment declares. ''Yet we know it, know what we cannot/ hear - out on the night's great circle. . . . '' These lines from his poem ''The Joy and Agony of Improvisation'' (in ''Brothers, I Love You All,'' 1977) make explicit Carruth's understanding of poetry as a ''spiritual happening.'' He has written frankly that he cannot project this concept ''onto any traditional religion. . . . Yet I do use the word spiritual.'' The deprivation of genuine spiritual experience has been the agony of modern culture. Carruth knows this agony, knows also the yearning that is humanity's profound protest against the void. He knows that, whatever one may make of this dimension of experience, neither poetry nor life can go on without it.