When I knew him, the poet Hayden Carruth was an old man with a tremendous white beard. It spread down past his pectorals, and frothed ahead of him as though he were perpetually stepping out of a bath.
For most of his life, the beard was cropped and average—it was an unserious beard. But by the time I met him in 2003, it was the broad, white beard of a poet in exile, grown out in his desolate corner of America, a nothing-town near Syracuse called Munnsville. “The kids call it Funs-ville,” he told me.
Walking into his rickety red house, I said something like, “What a nice house”—to be polite.
“Hayden tried to commit suicide in this house,” his wife, Joe-Anne, shot out reflexively.
“No, I didn’t,” Hayden said, barely turning his head from the picture window.
“Yes, you did,” Joe-Anne shouted.
She nagged him. They bickered a while. Then he raised his voice, interrupted her and settled it: “The pills were in the house,” Hayden said, “but I did it in the car.”
About the house: Every August, Joe-Anne would write Hayden a birthday message on their bathroom mirror—elaborately, in fire-red lipstick—so that now, after what looked like nine or ten years of this, her love letters erupted and blotted one another out like poorly planned fireworks. Stuck to the refrigerator was a newspaper story about Hayden’s principled refusal to go to a dinner for poets at the Clinton White House. Next to it was a makeshift obituary for a Chihuahua named Mr. José. Mr. José’s favorite artists were listed. They included several modernist painters and the poet Hayden Carruth.
Hayden had just turned eighty. He’d authored more than thirty books of poems and won a National Book Award for a recent one, Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey. (It didn’t exactly thrill him: The rumor was, he left the medal in a urinal during the ceremony.) He and I had been pen pals for about two years.
“Who gives a crooked damn about these pufferies?” he wrote me, in response to poems I’d sent him.
Thankfully, they weren’t poems I’d written. I was working at a literary quarterly called The Hudson Review, drawing contenders from an enormous slush pile of poetry submissions, then mailing them to Hayden, an advisory editor to the magazine, for his input.
Mostly, he didn’t like them. He compared another batch to “aborted embryos.” They were totally predictable, he wrote, and the only surprises came “when they don’t make good sense, as in the first poem, where the narrator leaves his arm sticking out of the car window in spite of the roadside saplings that raise welts on it. I ask you.”
He discounted another group of poems as “something for the family archives.” On others: “Reading them is like looking into a doll’s house where no one is moving.” And others: “Mere glyphs in stone. The labor of carving them means more than the glyphs themselves.” Another group was: “Fantasized triviality, like light verse that isn’t funny.” He laid into one poet by writing: “Anyone who doesn’t know what is the color of a Hereford cow has no business writing poems about cows at all.” And, of another very famous older poet, he wrote: “Poor [woman] is coming apart like a large mushy mushroom in the lee of a Thornberry. Rather sad to see it happening so explicitly on paper.” One time, when he despised everything I’d sent, he simply told me: “American poetry cannot survive on this thin gruel. If there is no passion left out there, let’s fold our tent.”
To say I was drawn to Hayden is an understatement. Although, on the face of it, it made no sense. He was an old man limping toward death. I was a kid, more or less just out of college, who imagined a career in letters spooling out ahead of him—a kid who liked poetry, lucky enough to get one of the handful of paying jobs in America that involved reading poems every day. I felt charmed. But I also felt totally insecure.
This was largely because, before getting the job at the Hudson, I’d been working fifty-hour weeks as a butcher, at a shop called Zayda’s Kosher Meats and Deli in suburban New Jersey. I’d gone from wearing a bloodied white coat, soaking and salting seventy-pound beef necks, to taking dictation at the corner of East 68th and Park—typing up letters for my boss that commenced with lines like, “Thank you for your note of August 1.”
At that point, the Hudson had been around for fifty-five years, edited by the same people, and its office still functioned pretty much as it did in 1948—with a kind of formality, the high-culture etiquette of post-war literary Manhattan. People wore ties and still periodically used typewriters or read manuscripts with monocles. The office had just gotten computers, and I’d regularly hear the managing editor in the other room chanting, “Control–S,” as he punched the keys. There were lunches at the Cosmopolitan Club, The Knickerbocker Club, The Colony Club. So many clubs! The people I worked with were fantastically kind, but their world mystified me, and I expended a lot of energy trying not to be myself. In retrospect, I realize I clung to Hayden as to someone who didn’t belong in that world any more than I did—even less than I did in many ways—but who had somehow managed to matter in it.
Hayden was born into a Connecticut family with, as he wrote, “a knowledge that we were common folk and that the common values, including those of common suffering, were worth noticing.” He served as a code-breaker in Italy during World War II, came back, went to school on the GI Bill, but then—cowed by anxiety and depression virtually all of his life—he retreated into an upstairs bedroom of his parents’ house and stayed there for two years in near total isolation.
He was institutionalized. He got shock treatment. Eventually, he felt well enough to move to the Vermont countryside where he did farm work by day and, a lifelong insomniac, whatever literary hackwork he could get assigned at night. (For a time, he was the sole staff member of the newsletter of an occult book club on Long Island.) He worked until dawn in a cowshed turned study, feeding the wood stove. And he wrote poems—many books of poems, and the ones that I tend to think are his best.
By the time I visited Munnsville, Hayden was buckled with emphysema, a cataract, palsy in each hand, and still hadn’t fully recovered from a heart attack two years earlier. He watched basketball a lot and slept in a hospital bed in the den.
Since the heart attack, he told me, he couldn’t write. His doctors had explained to him that often, after such severe trauma, a person’s creativity just gets extinguished, as though imagination were a nerve that could be accidentally damaged or clipped. Over dinner I asked if he missed it.
“I dream about it,” he told me. “The other night, I had a dream I was writing a long, long, narrative poem about fucking. And I wasn’t leaving anything out of it, either. It was like a fucking manual.”
You can imagine how a story like this, about a kid and an old man, is supposed to end. I should have been empowered by Hayden’s example. He was proof, after all, that even the most outsidery outsider, even this anarchist woodsman in Munnsville, can stand staunchly off to the side for a lifetime but still command the respect of the culture he can’t be shoehorned into—if he knows himself, and if his devotion to what he is doing is real. But instead, getting to know Hayden and seeing that devotion up close taught me that I didn’t actually possess that kind of passion. I didn’t hunger for or even enjoy poetry half as much as I thought I did. It didn’t anchor my life, and being unanchored, it wasn’t worth the discomfort or distress of not fitting in. So I quit the magazine. I left New York and went off to find something I could devote myself to. It turned out to be journalism—going out into the world, to places where I didn’t fit in, and writing about the people I met there. And the first thing I did when I figured that out was to sit down and try to wring out a draft of this little memoir about Hayden Carruth.
Hayden, meanwhile, eventually started writing poems again, slowly. And he kept reading the magazine’s slush pile long after I left the Hudson and even as his terrible health got much worse—not out of duty to the magazine, it seemed to me, but out of duty to poetry: what he once called “this grubbing art.”
He died in 2008. We’d lost touch by then. But a former colleague at the Hudson would send me Xeroxes of Hayden’s poetry critiques from time to time. The last one I got closed like this, with both characteristic purposefulness and despair:
“May the saints preserve us; we are up to our necks in poetastry. We all need a drink. I wish I were there.”
Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and writer-at-large at Pop-Up Magazine. He has also contributed to The New Yorker and This American Life. His book Wild Ones (Penguin Press) came out in 2013 to rave reviews. The Portland band Black Prairie created a soundtrack for the book and toured with Mooallem.
George Pratt's work is in private collections around the world and has been exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He won the Eisner Award for Best Painter, and Best Feature Documentary at the New York International Independent Film Festival.