Hayden Carruth in VQR: The Earth Too Cried Out for Justice
Hayden Carruth published work with the Virginia Quarterly Review for nearly forty years, and he remains the only poet to have won VQR’s Emily Clark Balch Prize more than once. In his long life in letters, he published literary criticism, essays, a novel, and more than thirty books of poetry. But, in the fall of 1948, when his first poem, “Tierce,” appeared in the magazine, Carruth was unknown and almost wholly unpublished. In response to a twelve-dollar check and editor Charlotte Kohler’s request for some biographical information, he wrote, “There is little that I can say . . . there is nothing very exciting about my work at present.” He was twenty-six years old, but the answer is typical of Carruth’s lifetime of ruthless self-examination—a trait that would lead to bouts of depression and a northward move a few years later to escape the literary establishment.
“During the dark time when I was struggling to make a go of it in the north woods of Vermont,” Carruth wrote recently to our offices, “and the literary establishment in New York treated me as something less than the roach on its kitchen counter, the VQR published practically everything I sent. I never met Charlotte Kohler or had any personal connection with her, but I regarded her, naturally, as a very wise, competent editor.” Carruth’s correspondence with Kohler is filled with this same mix of humility and humor. When VQR published Carruth’s long poem “North Winter” in 1964, he wrote, “I feel somewhat embarrassed to be taking up so much of your space with ‘mere poetry.’” The editors disagreed and awarded him the Emily Clark Balch prize of $500 for the poem. When he heard, he told Kohler that there was “rejoicing in this household this morning . . . I don’t know whether or not the prize is justified in literary terms, but in human terms the money could scarcely have gone to anyone who needed it more.”
“North Winter” serves as transitional point in Carruth’s work, a moment when his worked remained formal but was beginning to push into sprawling narrative. The tension works, as Carruth finds amid the austere, negative freeze cause for celebration of mortal beauty. In that bleak landscape, two men are the “twin centers / of compassion . . . / they came back trudging / in love and hardship while the sun / took a month to set cowering lidless on the / extremity." Humanity here is a very lovely and a very small thing; it is an owl in flight, a “white thought of love . . . moving over the pasture to home.” We live, he wrote, in the face of a beautiful world that does not care for us:
Twenty-two degrees below zero
and only the blade of meadow
like a snowpetal or foil of platinum
defends the house from the glistening
mountain and the unwinking
moon. . . .
Since the world won’t care for us, we have to care for each other. “Emergency Haying”—arguably Carruth’s best-known poem, published in our Spring 1969 issue—is similarly an account of man’s physical struggle with nature, but it ends with the realization that the cruelest struggle is with humanity itself. That winter, Carruth wrote to Kohler that it had been “another year of haying, of snow shoveling, of woodcutting,” but he was writing prolifically, despite the obstacles of mental illness, seclusion, and poverty in northern Vermont—on the cold verge of Canada. When he could, he wrote in an abandoned cowshed, which smelled, he said, of cows every time it rained. He was a love poet of hard labor, of a difficult lifestyle that inspired much of his work—but he conceded that it was self-imposed.
Likewise, in “Emergency Haying,” the speaker of the poem rides home on the wagon tongue, sore with sweat and labor, but remembers the poor and slaves—those who suffered and did not choose the field. He remembers one victim, a friend’s grandmother who “cut cane with a machete / and cut and cut, until one day / she snicked her hand off and took it / and threw it grandly at the sky.” Surrounded by New England’s “famous hills” and the tractor’s “rising monoxide,” he straightens his tired body in the final lines to issue an accusation and a prophecy. “Woe to you, watch out / you sons of bitches who would drive men and women / to the fields where they can only die.”
This obsession with the inequalities of the world drove the latter half of Carruth’s career. In Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, he went so far as to say, “Let justice be primary when we sing.” We can’t control the world, but at least in our songs, he wrote, let us have justice. This concern underlies all of Carruth’s newer work—jazz poems, love poems, even nature poems. “I got this bruised belly when the machine / kicked this afternoon in our troubled potato patch / where the earth too cried out for justice, / justice!” Carruth wrote in “The Little Fire in the Woods,” published in VQR’s Spring 1975 issue. He refuses to glorify the easy lives of artists agonizing over their creations, and instead, presents the courage of a common man at work.
As early as 1955 he published the poem “The Making Dream” in VQR, which asked, “Why should a poet see / Better than plumber, / Carpenter, or clerk / Into our ecstasy?” This collective “our” can be felt in all of Carruth’s poems. “North Winter,” though twenty-nine pages long, doesn’t contain a single “I.” In a letter to Kohler, he explained that he wanted a self which was “unspoken” and “as much the reader as the writer.” For four decades, VQR was honored to participate in Carruth’s life and his poems, honored to share in that consciousness.
- Correspondence with VQR editor Charlotte Kohler
- Typescript of “Tierce”
- Typescript of “North Winter”
- Typescript of “Emergency Haying”
Hayden Carruth's published work in VQR:
- “Tierce,” Autumn 1948
- “Rain in August,” Autumn 1955
- “The Making Dream,” Autumn 1955
- “Godhulivela,” Autumn 1962
- “The Dry Heat of Modesty,” review of Notebooks: Volume I by Albert Camus, Autumn 1963
- “North Winter,” Summer 1964
- “Emergency Haying,” Spring 1969
- “From a Summer Notebook,” Spring 1970
- “Attractions and Dangers of Nostalgia,” review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Autumn 1974
- “The Little Fire In the Woods,” Spring 1975
- “Homage to A. MacLeish,” review of New and Collected Poems, 1917–1976 by Archibald MacLeish, Winter 1977
- “The Opposing Concepts of Spontaneity and Expediency in Improvisation,” Spring 1985
- “Ovid, Old Buddy, I Would Discourse With You a While,” Spring 1985