Hayden Carruth

As I was walking home tonight, I thought to myself, I should have a look at the Poetry Foundation website now and then. Otherwise, how will I know when someone like Hayden Carruth dies? So when I got home I turned on the computer, went to the site, and there was the news: Hayden Carruth died Monday at the the age of eighty-seven.

Somehow he seemed even older. He had had a hard lifesome years of poverty, some time in an asylum, many disappointments. He was our John Clare. Even as a young man, he had an old mans respect for disappointment, and many of his most beautiful poems tremble with a lucid bitterness. He noticed injustice, public and private, and he remembered it. There were other poets of his generation as musical as he was (though not many), and there were poets his equal in wit (very few), but no one combined song and wit the way he did.

An Apology for Using the Word "Heart" in Too Many PoemsWhat does it mean? Lord knows; least of all I.Faced with it, schoolboys are shy,And grown-ups speak it at moments of excessWhich later seem more or lessUnfeasible. It is equivocal, sentimental,Debatable, really a sort of lentil-Neither pea nor bean. Sometimes it's a muscle,Sometimes courage or at least hustle,Sometimes a core or center, but mostly it'sA sound that slushily fitsThe meters of popular songwriters withoutMeaning anything. It is stout,Leonine, chicken, great, hot, warm, cold,Broken, whole, tender, bold,Stony, soft, green, blue, red, whiteFaint, true, heavy, light,Open, down, shallow, etc. No wonderOur superiors thunderAgainst it. And yet in spite of a million abusesThe word survives; its usesAre such that it remains virtually indispensableAnd, I think, defensible.The Freudian terminology is awkward or worse,And suggests so many perverseEtiologies that it is useless; but "heart" coversThe whole business, loversTo monks, i.e., the capacity to love in the fullestSense. Not even the dullestReader misapprehends it, although locatingIt is a matter awaitingSomeone more ingenious than I. But givenThis definition, drivenThough it is out of a poet's necessity, isn'tThe word needed at presentAs much as ever, if it is well written and said,With the heart and the head.

Even some ofCarruth's book titles give you a sense of his greatness: Brothers, I Loved You All (1978), Asphalt Georgics (1985), and, my favorite, Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey (1996). May he rest in peace.

Postscript: There is a good obituary in today's New York Times.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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