Hayden Carruth, 87; Poems Reflected Struggles of Life

Hayden Carruth began writing when he was 6, but acclaim came late in his career. His poems captured his hard work, mental illness and love of jazz.
Hayden Carruth began writing when he was 6, but acclaim came late in his career. His poems captured his hard work, mental illness and love of jazz. (By Ted Rosenberg)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hayden Carruth, whose forceful observations of nature, hard work and mental illness brought him late acclaim as one of the most important poets of his generation, died Sept. 29 at his home in Munnsville, N.Y., after a series of strokes. He was 87.

Mr. Carruth (pronounced kuh-RUTH) lived for many years in rural Vermont and New York, where manual labor and an unforgiving climate became part of his daily life and, ultimately, his poetic voice.

Through years of isolation and neglect, he doggedly continued to write, gaining belated recognition for his more than 30 books. A 1996 Virginia Quarterly Review article described him as "certainly one of the most important poets working in this country today."

His "Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991" received the 1992 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, and he won the National Book Award for the collection "Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey" in 1996. After decades of living hand to mouth, he won two prestigious awards, the $25,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1990 and the $50,000 Lannan Foundation literary award in 1995.

Mr. Carruth began writing at 6 and became a master of poetic diction, from the grandly formal to the bluntly vernacular. He wrote in a deceptively simple style that often evoked nature as he explored philosophical themes of sorrow, loneliness and human dignity.

"His poems take on a variety of voices: the farmers he lived among in Vermont, the jazzmen whose music he reveres, the ancient Chinese poets who taught him," author Lynne Sharon Schwartz wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 2005. "He has written in the voice of lover, war protester, mental patient, grieving son and father."

In 1953 and '54, Mr. Carruth was treated in a New York mental hospital for 18 months for alcoholism and a nervous breakdown. He received electroshock therapy and emerged, he said, "in worse shape" than when he went in. But his prolonged stay gave him a chance to study existential philosophy, which influenced his later writing.

Seldom overtly political in his writing, Mr. Carruth nonetheless had strong views, which he expressed in an angry letter to the New York Times in 1971, after the newspaper's editorial about the Attica prison riot appeared on the same page as "my stupid poem about the flowers of summer."

"I think it will be a long time before our civilization will have much use for flowers or poems again," he concluded.

Hayden Carruth was born Aug. 3, 1921, in Waterbury, Conn. His father and grandfather were journalists, and he learned to write at his grandfather's knee. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1943 and served in the Army Air Forces in Italy during World War II.

Mr. Carruth received a master's degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1948. He was the editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago and worked for the University of Chicago Press before his nervous collapse.

Seeking solitude after his hospitalization, Mr. Carruth moved to northern Vermont and worked as a farm laborer, mechanic, freelance writer and editor.

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