Saturday, October 4, 2008

Yes, I Knew Hayden Carruth

Poet Hayden Carruth died Oct. 1 at age 87. Fact is he almost died during the time I was at Syracuse (1986-88), where he taught for many years; a suicide attempt. My sharpest memories of him were 1) the foul look he gave me when I asked for admission into his "Mystery and Expressiveness" poetry class -- filled to capacity except for the much smarter, very young man who came in right behind me and gushed about how much he loved old jazz records -- and 2) his compliment on my lemon-poppyseed cake and 3) when he praised me after a reading for having written political poems.

But personality doesn't matter. Neither does memory. Only the writing counts. (I'd almost believe that, except that I don't see many cranky 67-year-old female poets, except maybe Adrienne Rich, teaching in creative writing programs.) I note Carruth's passing because I read his book The Sleeping Beauty -- and therein found a shape for the poetry book I wrote a year after I left the Syracuse writing program.

Hayden had a great deal of talent and a hard youth, including being fired after a year (1949-50) as the editor of Poetry. Mood-disordered and alcoholic off and on, at age 67 he looked frail and watery-eyed, but was not too old to pull rank or to affect the smugness of the white jazz aficionado who thinks his LP collection means he's less white. Female writers made him impatient. He preferred women as Muses. How ironic it must have seemed to him to be the last one left standing after his contemporaries -- Lowell, Berryman, et. al -- either killed themselves or died trying.

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