Loner poet wrote of rural people’s struggles

Times Staff Writer

Hayden Carruth, an editor, critic and poet who earned recognition late in his 50-year writing career for powerful work that explored the struggles, loves and desires of people who made their living with their hands -- as he did for two decades -- has died. He was 87.

Carruth, who’d had a series of strokes, died Monday at his home in the small central New York town of Munnsville, according to his publishing house, Copper Canyon Press.

Called a poet’s poet for his technical mastery of forms from the sonnet to free verse, he wrote more than 20 books of poetry and prose, much of which emanated from the hardscrabble Vermont farm where he lived for 20 years.


In 1996 when he was 75 he won the National Book Award for Poetry for his collection “Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey.” It was arguably the most prestigious prize among many that he received since publishing his first volume of poems in 1959. But it was bestowed without the presence of the excessively shy Carruth, who refused to attend the ceremony.

He was an outsider in most respects: a self-proclaimed anarchist, who wrote unflatteringly of his family; an alcoholic who suffered from paralyzing phobias; a poet who lived on a hill farm far removed from the literary mainstream.

“Hayden Carruth is vast; he contains multitudes,” poet David Barber once wrote. “Of the august order of American poets born in the Twenties, he is undoubtedly the most difficult to reconcile to the convenient branches of classification and affiliation, odd man out in any tidy scheme of influence and descent.”

Born on Aug. 3, 1921, in Waterbury, Conn., where his father was a newspaper editor, he studied journalism at the University of North Carolina, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1943. After serving in Italy with the Army during World War II, he used the GI Bill to further his education at the University of Chicago. There he discovered that poetry was his true calling.

After earning a master’s in Chicago in 1948, he went to work for Poetry magazine, which had published some of his poems. He became its editor in 1950 and wrote a controversial defense of Ezra Pound, the modernist poet charged with treason for his pro-Fascist views.

A short time later, he lost his job. Then his first wife left him, taking with her their newborn daughter, Martha (who died of cancer in 1997).

He found a new job, at the University of Chicago Press, and he remarried. But, as he noted 20 years later in “The Bloomingdale Papers” (1974), named after the New York mental hospital where he was treated with electroshock for acute anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia, it was a trying time when

Booze helped immensely.

Work also, but not,

Unfortunately, writing.

Friends and parties and lovers

Lent ease to my unease

Sparingly. The doctors kept

The anxious pot aboil.

So passed the years.

When he was released from Bloomingdale 15 months later, he was so emotionally fragile that he lived in his parents’ attic for five years. When he was well enough, he embarked on the “hack work” that allowed him to eke out a meager living. He wrote for hardware catalogs, typed manuscripts, edited encyclopedias and churned out book reviews. He spent several years compiling the poems for his anthology.

In 1961, he married for the third time and with his new wife, Rose Marie Dorn, had a son, David. Because he still “couldn’t function in a social situation,” they moved to a farm in Johnson, Vt., about 25 miles from the Canadian border, where he worked outdoors every day, chopping wood, digging potatoes and cutting hay.

When he wasn’t toiling on his own farm, he was working for his equally poor neighbors. And way past midnight, when the chores were done, he wrote about them, in poems tightly packed with the details of their daily struggles.

“One of the most striking things about his work is his ability to enter the lives of other people -- ordinary men and women -- and tell their tales,” poet Galway Kinnell wrote in his introduction to Carruth’s “Selected Poetry” (1985). “There is a reciprocity in all this, however. In telling their tales,” Kinnell said, “he finds a means to express his own inner life. He gives them a voice, they give him a language.”

As in “Marshall Washer,” named after the dairy farmer who became Carruth’s close friend:

I see a man who drags a dead calf or watches

a barn roaring with fire and thirteen heifers

inside, I see his helpless eyes. He has stood

helpless often, of course: when his wife died

from congenital heart disease a few months before

open-heart surgery came to Vermont, when his sons

departed, caring little for the farm because

he had educated them . . .

In Vermont, Carruth found his footing. As he told the University of Chicago magazine a few years ago, he managed “a gradual triumph over the internal snarls and screw-ups that had crippled me from childhood on.” And he found freedom writing poetry “about things I really knew something about. . . . about simple things in simple language.”

He described beauty in “The Cows at Night,” inspired by a sighting of the beasts on a moonlit pasture, “turning to me, sad and beautiful/like girls very long ago/who were innocent, and sad.” He wrote wryly in “Regarding Chainsaws” of the body parts they maimed, but “mostly they wan’t dangerous, and the only thing they broke was your back.”

In “Emergency Haying,” he turned reflections on a long day’s labor into a meditation on injustice:

We mow, rake, bale, and draw the bales

to the barn, these late, half-green,

improperly cured bales; some weigh 150 pounds

or more, yet must be lugged by the twine

across the field, tossed on the load, and then

at the barn unloaded on the conveyor

and distributed in the loft. I help --

I, the desk-servant, word-worker --

and hold up my end pretty well too; but God,

the close of day, how I fall down then. My hands

are sore, they flinch when I light my pipe.

I think of those who have done slave labor,

less able and less well prepared than I.

He lamented hard times for farmers in “The Sleeping Beauty,” in which the narrator yearns for the days when

. . . You could prevail

With but fourteen head of cows

Then, if you had the makings.

When he could no longer make ends meet, Carruth reluctantly accepted a job teaching English at Syracuse University in 1979. He taught there for a dozen years, near the end of which -- after a romantic flameout in 1988 -- he tried to kill himself by taking every pill in his possession.

During his recovery, he was cared for by poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin, 30 years his junior, who had met him as a student. After friendship deepened into romance, they were married in 1989.

She survives him, along with his son and three grandchildren.

He wrote and published well into his ninth decade, despite having emphysema, a heart condition and strokes. He remained cantankerous, declining a 1998 invitation to a poetry event at the Clinton White House because he believed it would be “the greatest hypocrisy for an honest American poet to be present on such an occasion.”

“Certainly I have never been a part of any literary group. . . . Where I am,” he wrote in his memoir, “is the cosmic eye. Nothing grand, nothing romantic. A duck blown out to sea and still squawking.”