Hayden Carruth (1921-2008) never grew out of two passions he developed at a very young age: poetry and jazz music. Influenced by his father, a journalist and newspaper editor, Carruth began writing poetry at the tender age of six. Equally amazing, he developed an affinity for jazz around the same time. He never stopped writing and jazz’s influence can be seen across his body of work. Over the course of his career, he penned more than 30 published books of poetry, prose, criticism and essays. Throughout them all, as in the best jazz compositions, creative improvisation springs and pops off a foundation of discipline and mastered craft.
“He had a greater variety of poems than almost anybody,” said the poet Galway Kinnell. “He was interested – super interested – in everything and he could write about anything.”
Carruth earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. His writing appeared in many prestigious publications including The New Yorker and Partisan Review. He received fellowships from the Bollingen Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and was presented with the Carl Sandburg Award, the Lenore Marshall Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Vermont Governor’s Medal, and the Whiting Award among many others. The collection of poems Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey won the National Book Award for poetry in 1996.
“My poems, I think, exist in a state of tension between the love of natural beauty and the fear of natural meaninglessness or absurdity,” wrote Carruth, in a statement indicative of a troubled and difficult personal life that ran parallel to his artistic achievements and awards.
A struggle with mental health and alcoholism led to a nervous breakdown and saw Carruth admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Bloomingdale, where he underwent electroshock therapy. Agoraphobia plagued him after his release, and he spent years rarely leaving the attic of his parents’ house. He moved on to a cottage in Norfolk, CT, and eventually settled in Vermont. In the poet’s own words, he only managed a “shift from reclusion to seclusion.” In 1988 he attempted suicide.
Referencing his hardships, Carruth told The University of Chicago Magazine that “the difficulties made my poetry better, I’m convinced of that.” True to his statement, he never stopped writing throughout the tumult. His psychiatric admission led to The Bloomingdale Papers (1975). The suicide attempt, along with his depression and phobias, influenced the creation of Reluctantly (1998).
Fellow poet and novelist, James Dickey, observed: “[He] is one of the poets … who write their best, pushing past limit after limit, only in the grip of recalling some overpowering experience.” American Poetry Review critic Geoffrey Gardner similarly attributes the quality of Carruth’s work to his struggle “to restore equilibrium to the soul [and] clarity to vision” which gives his poetry “a Lear-like words-against-the-storm quality.”
The poems presented here on POBA aim to give readers some shelter from this storm – Carruth’s words, his way of healing his soul, offer the rest of us a jazz-like melody to soothe our own.