Hayden Carruth: 1921-2008

October 3, 2008  |  8:10am
Hayden Carruth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet known for his portrayals of rural, working-class New England, passed away Monday after a series of strokes. He was 87.

Carruth experimented in every poetic form, especially with improvisational verse (being a lifelong lover and critic of jazz music), but the breadth of his work extended to fiction, essays, even philosophy. His career began in Chicago, where he worked at Poetry magazine and the University of Chicago Press, before a nervous breakdown. He spent 18 months in treatment for alcoholism and depression, then moved to northern Vermont, which became his long-time home and study.

During the Vermont years, Carruth worked as a farmhand, mechanic, freelance writer and editor. He lived a mostly hermetic existence there, drawing inspiration from the simple way of life and coarse vernacular of the people. He emulated these speech patterns in much of his work, including the poems "Regarding Chainsaws" and "Eternity Blues," a piece that approaches the problem of death and obscurity via an old Dodge "clunker."

In the poem, Carruth samples the frame narrative structure of Heart of Darkness, his speaker navigating potholes on a country road ("a long, long ways from home"), eventually passing by a tentative child-hitchhiker. The last stanza confesses the speaker's grief, Carruth-style ("Then I bust out crying."), at the helpless-seeming boy, a foreigner at that, who didn't reach him in time. 

Carruth leaves a legacy of poems that sought to access the struggles of an emotionally and physically hard-fought life, but this body of work went mostly unacknowledged until old age. His career led him to a stint as poetry editor at Harper's Magazine, and a professorship at Syracuse University. He published 30 books during his life, the most famous being Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, for which he won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for Poetry in 1996.

He is survived by his fourth wife, poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin, and son, David Carruth. The family is not planning a public service.

Related links:
Hayden Carruth on PoetryFoundation.org
Academy of American Poets: In Memoriam: Hayden Carruth
The Washington Post: Hayden Carruth, 87; Poems Reflected Struggles of Life

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