Review: Hayden Carruth – Collected Longer Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1984)

Carruth is an interesting poet, and his longer poems seem to straddle the same lines that two kinds of modernists poets that were famous during his lifetime: the observational strand of Auden meets with the regional ironies of Frost then deals with the personal demons of Carruth’s contemporaries like Robert Lowell or Wendell Berry. Yet it is easy to regulate a “poet’s poet” like Carruth to a list of names of that he mirrors, so I should not do him the disservice. The flora and fauna of Vermont always appear within the book, but never in a way which alienates those from outside the region nor dropping into a kind of generic pastoral that formal poetry can be given too. Much of this book (three key long poems) is written in the near-sonnet paragraph that Carruth mastered: rhymed, myraid metered, fifteen-line stanzas that form narrative and thematic units. “The Sleeping Beauty” is among them, and this poem alone would be worth the cost of the book. The over forms in the book are various and show the lie to the accusation that Carruth was a stale formalist. Carruth is not without his unevenness, his uncanny use of adjectives is freshing, but all the more problematic with a slightly purple adjective is seen in the page. Still few poets then or now could maintain longer reflective poems like these and illustrate a mastery of a variety of techniques without it seeming forced or obvious or ostentatious. While I was familiar with Carruth’s work, finding this book in a used book shop in Seoul, South Korea was a strange bit of luck as it reminded me of the beauty of much of the late modernist American poetry that we can sometimes lose a perspective on in an age in which the two poles of poetry tend to be more glib or in the vein of light verse or more alienating in its experimental posture. While I enjoy these elements of contemporary poetry and acknowledge the craft in today’s hybrid verse, Carruth reminds us that the formal, regionalist verse can be just as challenging, even “experimental,” without depending on the prestidigitation of language poetry or break-beat of slam poetry or the ironic methodology of flarf, etc.

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