Sep 25, 2009 ellen leahy Uncategorized
Former SU creative writing professor Hayden Carruth is honored “over his dead body”
Hayden Carruth had quite the imagination. That, mixed with his astute observations and ideas, his genius and his principles, made him a great poet. It’s just that simple.
On Sept. 12, his friends, family and admirers came to celebrate Carruth’s life and poetry high up on the hill at Setnor Auditorium in Syracuse University’s Crouse College of Music. The handsome wood paneled floor to ceiling room with its colorful glass windows and dramatic chandeliers complete with its American-made Walter Holtkamp Organ was the perfect setting to honor this former SU Creative Writing professor.
Hayden Carruth was born Aug. 3, 1921 and died on Sept. 29, 2008. He would have especially enjoyed the irony of this gathering, not literally over his dead body; as his lovely and vivacious wife Joe-Anne McLaughlin Carruth stated right off that Hayden hadn’t wanted a memorial service.
She added that the poet Brooks Haxton heroically ignored his friend and colleague’s wish. After all, the afternoon could have been considered a poetry reading of sorts.
Consider that several great writers read from the great poet’s work with pauses to listen to the American “old timey” music Carruth and Joe-Anne had particularly enjoyed. The music selections, which included “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?” “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I Am Gone,” “Bottom Blues,” “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” and “St. James Infirmary,” were smart, sad, funny, exciting, simple and eccentric – sound familiar?
“Hayden Carruth was a gentle, gifted man (though with a marvellously ornery side) who suffered such inner mental torment that he wiped himself off the American poetic map for many years.
“It was only in relatively old age that he enjoyed the acclaim and rewards his talent deserved, though by then he had developed what a profile writer described as an enduring ‘respect for disappointment.’ His mental suffering was comparable to that of his more famous contemporaries (John Berryman and Robert Lowell in particular), but there was never any career benefit in it for Carruth, and his final flourishing occurred despite his psychological troubles, not because of them,” wrote Andrew Rosendheim in October of 2008 in his remembrance piece for The Independent, “Hayden Carruth: Poet who produced work of ‘unapologetic affection’ despite lifelong struggles with mental illness.”
Each reader had to climb a challenging set of steps to get to the podium. His wife wore a formal, dark Asian outfit set off by shiny red patent leather platform shoes. For the occasion she had her toenails painted red to match. Writer Steve Huff gallantly assisted poet Beatrice O’Brien, 89, up to the stage. And, Stephen Dobyns had to manage nursing a bad knee assisted by an industrial cane. Carruth would have particularly appreciated all this drama.
Dobyns initiated the Masters in Creative Writing Program at SU, but it wasn’t until Carruth’s suicide and subsequent survival that they became fast friends. He said he had to adopt Hayden, so he could come out of the hatch (read Carruth’s essay on the subject at haydencarruth.netfirms.com/suicides.htm).
“He read a poem he wrote about his friendship with Hayden that was set in the hospital during the days before we brought him home to die in Munnsville,” Joe-Anne said. “The second poem was a new verse by H. (Hayden), titled ‘No. X.'”
Beatrice O’Brien told the audience that she met Carruth 25 years ago at the University of Rochester, when she was aspiring to be a poet.
“Hayden convinced me that week that I was a poet,” she said. “It made a huge impression … I am grateful to him and Joe-Anne for continuing the friendship.”
She read from Carruth’s book For You, the poem titled, “Trees.”
Brooks Haxton, a former SU grad student of Carruth’s, is on the MFA faculty at SU. He read the final three sections of “Paragraphs,” from Brothers I Loved You All, a series of poems leading up to the song, “Bottom Blues.” Clearly Jazz and its players spoke to Carruth, as he often wrote back to them in his work.
Another former student, Anita Stoner, read “Ray,” Carruth’s nod to Raymond Carver, from Scrambled & Whiskey, which won the National Book Award in 1996.
Dan Moriarity, also a former student who taught high school English for more than 20 years and who is now in the MFA program at SU, read “Underground the Darkness is the Light,” from If You Call this Cry A Song. The poem was a very detailed account of creating a pond that after a number of years of evolving, just dried up and moved to somewhere inside the earth, flora, fauna, et al.
“Hayden was the greatest teacher I ever had,” Moriarity said.
The naturalist Mary Harper, said Hayden was primarily responsible for her being a naturalist, as he introduced her by that title years ago. She’s an old friend of Joe-Anne’s who worked as a clinical therapist in a psychiatric hospital in Arizona, while also operating a sanctuary for a pack of Northern Timber Wolves. When Hayden visited Bisbee, AZ, to read his poetry, one wolf in particular, Schaka, adopted him. He was so protective of Hayden that when the poet took the stage, the wolf joined him, placing his paw on top of Carruth’s foot during the entire reading. When Carruth left, he signed a copy of one of his poetry books to that wolf.
“I know he loved nature, and nature loved him back,” Harper said.
She read “Essay (on the death of animals),” from Brothers, I Loved You All.
Stephen Huff confided to the gathering that one time upon visiting a men’s restroom Hayden told him not to wash his hands. Huff thought to himself, “You are exactly the guy my mother warned me about!” Carruth was an atheist and anarchist, too. But also, he loved a joke – especially one that thumbed its nose at conventional wisdom.
Huff teaches at RIT and is working on Carruth’s biography. He read “The Cows at Night,” from Hayden’s Toward the Distant Islands: New & Selected Poems (2006).
Joe-Anne Carruth, author of three poetry collections who now teaches in The Writing Program at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said she met her dear friend Hayden in 1979, but they didn’t become sweethearts until 1988, marrying in 1989.
“He made me laugh everyday,” she said. “I lost not only a spouse, but a comedy partner.”
She read “Dedication in These Days,” also From Snow and Rock, From Chaos.
She also noted that Hayden was a “world-class gloomster, yet one always came away from him and from his poetry invigorated with a fuller forgiveness for life’s miserloost (Hayden’s word for serial miseries) and a deeper, particular understanding of this world’s pleasures. He made sadness dazzle. Just like the jazzers and blues singers he so admired, he made sorrow dance and woe sing. A hardworking man, he was ultimately all about ‘joy giving.'”
And perhaps the happiest she had ever seen him was after his first stroke, when he was experiencing great expansions of the human spirit.
Shortly before he died from a subsequent stroke, he looked at Joe-Anne and said, “I seem to have accomplished quite a lot, already.” Then added, “Whoo, I’m exhausted.”
The crowd at Setnor Auditorium played Carruth out with a little Chicago Jazz, Condon’s band performing a rowdy version of “St. James’ Infirmary Blues” that ended with an amusing little gong and the musicians joking and laughing with one another in the background.
In beginning somberly and closing with an upbeat strut, the tribute recalled a New Orleans street funeral. The mood of the mourners at the reception that followed was merry. Though Carruth despised memorials, he was always ready for a good time. One could imagine him joining in.
For more about the late Hayden Carruth and his work go to the official site: haydencarruth.netfirms.com/poetry.htm. Joe-Anne and Hayden made their home in Munnsville, NY – where Joe-Anne is planning to open The Hayden Carruth Museum Library and Retreat in Summer 2010. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.