I’m eighty-four now. Now I know what I
Should have done. After the war I should
Have stayed in the army. And now I’d be
A retired sergeant or captain with a pension
Much bigger than social security. Instead
All those years of puzzling with a stubby pen-
Cil over a dog-eared tablet of scrawly lines,
Synonyms listed in the margins and arrows flying
This way and that. Years, I say. Thinking
Of words, words, words, nothing but words
Zipping or fluttering above a cotton field
In the dull Louisiana of my consciousness.
And all the recompense was now and then
A moment’s elation or a tipsy smile
From one passing female or another. Now
What have I left to do? Only this penta-
Metric shuffle in the checkout line with my
No Advantage Card clutched in my greasy hand
While Frank Sinatra is eating soup on the Muzak.
Give me a break, man. I’m doing the best I can.
For the light is changed.
For the song of the brook is
Changed. And we too are changed.
So select a pod and pick it.
Press it to make it split
And run your thumb along
The spine to gather the green
Peas and throw them into
Your mouth, and taste—
And taste the green spring!
Tobias Schneebaum, 1922-2005
He was an adventurous guy. Even at Yaddo
In Saratoga, playing charades, he would do things
That provoked the other players to speak in
Whispers and look out the corners of their eyes.
I’m not gay, he would say, I’m a homosexual.
He was also a Jew, an artist, and a gossip, a
Delightful guy. One time he found himself
At a Catholic mission on the edge of the great
Amazonian rainforest, entertaining the
Brothers with caricatures and naughty suggestions,
And someone told him of the Arakamas.
They lived in the jungle and were cannibals
Allegedly. Schneebaum’s name was Theodore,
Which he disliked. He changed it to Tobias
And insisted on the full pronunciation. If
Anyone said Toby, he would frown and make
A gasping noise and throw up the window, waving
The bad air out. Tobias decided to go looking
For the Arakamas. He packed a small knapsack
And walked south along the river for many days
Until around a bend he saw the natives standing
On the farther shore. He stood on a sandbar and took
Off all his clothes. Then he held out his hands in
A friendly, half-supplicating gesture, and walked
Up to them. Months later he was still there,
Covered with paint, sleeping each night with a dozen
Lovers, eating human flesh to keep up his
Strength. Later he said it tasted like roast
Pork. And then he went to Borneo and did the
Same thing. Living in Asmat on the coast of
Irian Jaya, where he established a wonderful
Museum of native Indonesian art and
Culture. He began lecturing on cruise ships and
Back home in New York. He wrote books. He made
Drawings and paintings of native life. He became
Quite popular in our proud nation of armchair
Anthropologists. A documentary film was made,
Which was an ordeal for him. He wrote me letters
From New York and Peru, filled with acrimony
For the filmmakers and their absurd demands.
He was always in pain from his legs, and finally he
Was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He could no
Longer answer my letters. Then a few days ago
He died. I saw his obit in the Times, and I felt
A sort of deflating gasp in my lungs, and I knew
As I had not before how lonely this life has
Become and is becoming. Tobias is gone,
And the hurricanes rage. Please, somebody. Please.
About Hayden Carruth
Hayden Carruth was born in 1921 in Waterbury, Connecticut, and grew up in Woodbury, where his father was a newspaper editor and journalist. He began reading and writing poetry at the age of six and as a child developed a love for jazz.
After serving with the Army Air Forces in World War II, Carruth (pronounced cuh-ROOTH) enrolled in the University of Chicago under the G.I. Bill, earning a master’s degree in 1948. After graduation he edited Poetry magazine for a year and worked at the University of Chicago Press. From 1971 until his death he was an advisory editor for The Hudson Review, and from 1977 to 1983 he was the poetry editor of Harper’s. Over the course of his career, he published more than 30 books of poetry, prose, criticism and essays.
“He had a greater variety of poems than almost anybody,” poet Galway Kinnell said. “He was interested — superinterested — in everything and he could write about anything.”
As his New York Times obituary details, Curruth’s work was informed by his political radicalism and sense of cultural responsibility. Many of his best-known poems are about the people and places of northern Vermont, as well as rural poverty and hardship.
In 2008, Carruth died in his home in Munnsville, New York, at the age of 87 after complications from a series of strokes. He was survived by his fourth wife, the poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin Carruth; a son, David; and three grandchildren.
One of the more striking remembrances of Curruth was written by Tom Cole for NPR:
Carruth’s poetry was shaped by the troubled times of his life. He lived in poverty for most of his early career. In 1953, suffering from alcoholism and a nervous breakdown, he spent 18 months in a mental hospital, where he underwent electroshock treatment. When he got out, he moved to northern Vermont, where he wrote while working as a mechanic and farm laborer.
Rural life and hard work became central to Carruth’s writing, but the poet’s relationship to the natural world was an uneasy one. He told Contemporary Authors: “I’m not simply a nature poet. In fact, I consider myself and I consider the whole human race fundamentally alien. By evolving into a state of self-consciousness, we have separated ourselves from the other animals and the plants and from the very earth itself, from the whole universe.”
In 1988, Carruth attempted suicide; later, he told The University of Chicago Magazine “the difficulties made my poetry better, I’m convinced of that.” Carruth was also a jazz fan. One critic wrote that the poet used his thorough grounding in traditional poetic forms to improvise with words in much the same way jazz musicians improvise on chord structure or a melody.
Carruth was recognized with an award from Poetry magazine in 1954, and his first collection, The Crow and the Heart, was published in 1959. But it wasn’t until 1992 that he reached a wider national audience when Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Four years later, he won a National Book Award for Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995.
Despite the recognition, Carruth seemed unsure that his — or any — writing mattered. He told Contemporary Authors:
When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry… we felt that if we could get enough people to read T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and E.E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. …[but] American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it’s a hope; we have no proof.”
As William Grimes pointed out in The Times’ obituary, the elegiac note became prominent in Mr. Carruth’s poetry in his later years. “Sorrow for human loss, unthinking brutality and ecological catastrophe became his dominant themes.
In 2012 Copper Canyon Press published Last Poems, a tender, fearless collection from which these poems were taken. Last Poems combines the poems Carruth wrote at the end of his life with the concluding poems from twenty-six of his previous books. In these posthumously published poems, Carruth confronts his own failing body and global injustice, while simultaneously celebrating the dignity of others.
“Regret, acknowledged or not, is the inevitable and in some sense necessary context — the bedrock — of all human thought and activity,” Carruth wrote in 2003. “Intellectually speaking, it is the ground we stand on.”
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“For Geof,” “For Wendell,” and “In Memoriam” © Hayden Carruth and Joe-Anne McLaughlin Carruth. These poems appear in Last Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) and were reprinted with permission from Copper Canyon Press. All rights reserved. Sources for Hayden Carruth’s biography: The New York Times and NPR.