Most of you know that Hayden Carruth passed away last week, at 87, at his home in Munnsville, NY. I’m late to the party because this is a busy time of the year, but also because I was trying to hunt down the audio of our interview with him, which, as far as I know, is the last interview he ever did. At that point, December 2005, Carruth was pretty much confined to the first floor of his house, tethered to an oxygen tank he had to wheel around with him. Unfortunately, all I have is a microcassette, and no way to transfer it to the computer. (One project in the future is going to be converting all these tapes we have to digital files, so we can put them online.)
For now there’s no audio, so you’ll just have to order a copy of issue #25, or the Rattle Conversations anthology, where it’s also featured. The interview is probably my favorite we’ve ever done — and probably Alan’s favorite, as well. I’m not sure if it’s because he was nearing the end of his life, or if he was just always like this, but Carruth was one of the most open, honest, and direct poets I’ve ever met. He speaks of his successes and his failures in equal measure, refers to himself as a “basket case” and a “name-dropper,” and admits that at the time his greatest problem is loneliness — in fact, the interview stretches beyond the planned length, because he asked us to stay.
Beyond the insights into his own personality, Carruth reveals countless truths about the life of the poet in general — the kind of truths you won’t hear in a creative writing program.
FOX: Well, do you think writing poetry can be taught?
CARRUTH: Essentially not, no. It’s a fraud, it’s a fake, the whole thing. And I used to tell the students that all the academicization of poetry and literature was a mistake. It was bad for poetry, it was bad for people. And I still think that, and I’d advise my students to get out of a university and go get a job on a farm or something like that—honest work. And that their poetry would improve, and I think I was right.
That comment is about more than just Yankee Pragmatism; getting away from the art is an important part of the creative process. For a few summers I worked a as a landscaper, digging gardens, trimming hedges, pitching mulch, and daydreaming. So far those have been the most prolific periods of writing for me — working with your hands somehow makes you want to go home and work with your mind. It was validating to hear Carruth describe the same experience:
CARRUTH: …it used to be when I was working in the woods, I would think of poems, and I’d get strings of imagery running in my mind, and strings of language along with them, and then I could just go home and write them down and I’d have a poem.
Even more confirming was Carruth’s resistance to revision. I think the act of revising is drastically over-emphasized in the universities, for a very simple reason: it’s an easy way to teach. It’s easy to have students bring in a new messy poem every week, and then work through ways to clean it up, and then send them on their way as if they’ve learned something. It’s much more difficult to teach the creative process itself, from inspiration through composition — the spontenaity, the precision, the absorbsion in detail. Elizabeth Bishop’s “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” How do you teach that? And yet that’s where the real art lies.
FOX: Would you say that when you were writing, you wrote pretty quickly and edited quickly?
CARRUTH: Oh, yes, I did. I used to…often I did do exactly what I just said, I would think of a poem when I was out walking or working in the woods or doing something like that. I’d come home, I’d write it down in longhand on a piece of yellow paper as quickly as I could. And I’d type it up and look at it and change a few words, and that was it… I never did a lot of revision. There were other poems, I had projects like writing long poems like “Contra Mortem” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” and I worked on them for a long time. And I know what it means to sit down every day and try to continue a piece of writing that you were doing the day before. It’s pretty difficult sometimes.
There’s much more worth mining from the interview — too much to list here, and anyway, the interview isn’t supposed to be the focus of this post. What I wanted to say was that Carruth was the sort of person I tend to gravitate toward, the sort of person I tend to respect. He was gruff and frank; he always gave it to you as straight as he could. Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but that’s the kind of person I admire.
There’s a letter from Carruth pinned to the bulletin board above my desk, sent shortly after he saw a copy of the issue in which he appeared. The body of the letter is one sentence:
I am struck by how easy it would be to change your name to Prattle.
To this day, I’m not sure how that letter was meant. For a while, I reveled in the insult. You have to admit, it’s a pretty good zinger. From blurbs to cover letters, this business is full of so much flowery pandering that even the most brutal honesty can seem refreshing. I pinned it to my corkboard with pride. When I had to contact him a few months later, and he was as warm and generous as ever, I wondered if maybe it was senility, if he’d simply forgetten what he wrote.
It hadn’t occurred to me until recently that maybe he was only refering to his own interview within the issue. The hypothesis fits my experience of him so well that I’m amazed it too so long to think of it. Maybe Carruth’s “Prattle” comes from the same place as his loneliness, his “name-dropper” and “baseket case.” Maybe it was only his reputation for being difficult that made me assume the worst — a reputation, perhaps, built up through decades of similar misunderstandings.
He was “fired” as editor of Poetry for defending Ezra Pound at a time when most people saw him as a traitor. He famously called Thoreau a fraud. Things like these gave him a reputation as a curmudgeon, but it’s easy to see them as further examples of his openness and honesty. He was a brilliant mind, who couldn’t help but speak the truths he saw. And those are the kind of people I can’t help but respect.