Series/Event Reviews

A Tribute to Hayden Carruth on His Eightieth Birthday (10/17)

Words to Comfort (10/17): The Hugeness of What's Missing
by Richard Pearse
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Event Review

A Tribute to Hayden Carruth on His Eightieth Birthday (10/17)
(and publication of new collection, Doctor Jazz)
The Great Hall, Cooper Union, 7 East 7th St

Conceived by Eve Grubin, the former curator at Makor now Programs Director for the Poetry Society of America, the evening played out quite nearly as much as a tribute to the (mental) state of Vermont as to Carruth, its acknowledged, though untitled poet laureate, whose writing room for years was a tiny cowshed, his companions a woodstove in winter and floorboard mushrooms in summer. That rural red maples colored the listener consciousness amid the obstructive white enormity of the Great Hall's bearing pillars is a credit to the warmth and imagination of long-time friends (and part-time Vermonters) Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, David Budhill, and others, who read from Carruth's vast body of work and correspondence.

After a welcoming address by PSA Executive Director Alice Quinn, Budhill read with fast-paced fluidity. Carruth played clarinet and the two shared a great love for jazz ("The piano softened like butter in his hands"; "poised on the always fulcrum of / the blues"). For thirty years, the older poet would finish a piece and tell his friend, "That was my last poem." Still, they kept coming. Marilyn Hacker applied her exemplary vocal command to excerpts from "The Sleeping Beauty," written in a 15-line form of Carruth's own invention, in which a sleeper dreams all of human history ("Why dost thou tear me? / Have I done thee hurt?" ­ Lilith), and to a new piece, "On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam," in which Carruth lists the many war protests he had written "and not one breath was restored to anyone," but persisted, for the image of "a child's half-smile to make sure I was noticing."

Sam Hamill of Copper Canyon Press, Carruth's publisher and editor for thirteen years, praised him for having the broadest palette of any poet of our time and as a master and inventor of form. When Hamill commented that Carruth's solitude reminded him of a Chinese poet he had translated, Carruth claimed to know little about his work--but soon produced a cycle based upon it. ("Your language has no tenses.") In another linguistic exchange, Carruth objected when Hamill called his brook a "creek." The West had creeks, he corrected. How far West does one need to go to before a brook became a creek? Carruth's ready answer: Ohio.

Galway Kinnell acknowledged the evening as "a bright moment in these sad weeks" [following the World Trade Center attack], and invoked the "long and colorful tradition of democratic debate" in the hall in which we sat. Carruth came late to formal teaching (Syracuse University), but was always teaching, Kinnell said, without knowing it. Also, with his reviews, he had done a lot of the hard work of developing audiences for poetry, had eked out a living writing reviews for pay others would have regarded as pocket change. When the two occasionally met in Vermont and Kinnell would inquire how the writing was going, and Carruth would deny he was working on anything. Soon after, a new volume would inevitably appear. Kinnell chose to read from "The Bloomingdale Papers," composed during one of Carruth's many institutional confinements. "Alcoholics have the easier time of it; / hold themselves aloof from the rest of us / who are crazy." Kinnell noted that for all his volumes, Carruth delighted in discovering an ordinary word that he had never used before, in one case, the verb "to shed."

Joe-Anne McLaughlin, a poet and Carruth's present wife, read a poem in praise of Hayden‹and his other wives. Adrienne Rich described how as young, little known poets, she, Kinnell and Carruth had set up a poetry booth in a Vermont country fair. After several hours of marvelous conversations with the townfolk, but no sales, they had signed one another's books and gone home. She exchanged letters with Carruth for decades, and quoted from one written in his cowshed, in ­8 F temperature. "Men are at best a paradigm . . . row upon row sowing the ashes." Jean Valentine read from several of Carruth's letters to her and to many friends so ill they could not write back, Jane Kenyon for one. About his floorboard mushroom: "A lonely old man in the morning will make friends with almost anything." Once the mushroom had strewn its spores, Carruth's asthma forced him to pitch it. "Bloodlines mean nothing. I was closer to the mushroom."

Now very frail, the one-time subzero-winter reviewer and correspondent‹with the Rip Van Winkle beard--was helped to the microphone amid a standing ovation. Forgetful now he said, he had forgotten writing most of the poems Rich read. He had forgotten to bring his book too, and so borrowed one from Kinnell. He decided spontaneously on which piece to read. "I don't like those poems with repeated words. What do you call those?" ("Sestinas," came the response.) "Yeah, they're like garbage can lids, with a leak. This is a terza rima."

With that, he read a keen reminder of man's adventures in demagoguery. "Let young people read to him / name after name / of those he's shot." Adolf Eichman.

Grace Paley and Ellen Bryant Voigt were unable to appear. The chief sponsor was The Lannan Foundation, along with the PSA (, Poets House, NYU, The Academy of American Poets, YMCA National Writer's Voice, and Copper Canyon Press.

-- MH

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Event Review

Words to Comfort (10/17)

Benefit Reading for the World Trade Center Relief Fund
Tishman Auditorium, The New School (12th St/5 Av)

The Hugeness of What Is Missing
by Richard Pearse

How can poetic words measure up to the fall of 110 stories times two? Or compete with the flood of instant images and commentary from the media? Well, they can try, and the individual reaction can sometimes tell more than the mass reflex. This reading, which raised over $2000, was well attended; Tishman Auditorium was well over half-filled by an audience constantly shifting and intermittent, attentive and overloaded. Dozens of readers, almost four hours, and how much can the ear hold? Here are a few random and arbitrary impressions.

Many earlier poets were read, to help time bridge the spatial gap: Shakespeare, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Whitman, Frost, Dylan (recited, unsung). Lou Reed read from a play about Poe that sampled that perfervid fascination with death. Most readers, however, chose their own words as first and last friends. David Lehman told conversationally of a conversion: how the Towers went from ugly to comely once they were attacked in '93. Hal Sirowitz wryly answered our mayor's urgings to keep doing what we're doing by vowing to stay home and keep writing about his mother, or his own circular bleeding--yes, routine has its rewards.

Bob Mack, a broker who worked nearby, testified to the experience of survival. Dana Bryant, an actress, torched her way through Murphy's "Write Me a Poem," and dared us all to make a connection between the erotic and political word. Willie Perdomo linked the Tower victims with Mexican sharecroppers. Suheir Hammad roared a capacious litany of thank-you's for missing death, and kept celebrating its alternatives. Alix Olson rapped on outlaws as survivors as outlaws. Bill Kushner found himself walking with Whitman after the disaster and found both of them containing multitudes. Michael T. Young found the twin gaps to be "an eruption that rises endlessly." Jackie Sheeler lamented the phone's failure to reach a friend feared missing with other disconnections. Samuel Menashe went back to his experiences in the Second World War and the feeling of being defenseless on the night before an offensive, and let us do the updating. Regie Cabico managed a manifold lament, wry and wistful: "We are all addicted to collisions." John Del Peschio quietly noted the fragility of heirlooms: his mother's pottery, his hometown's profile.

One real peacemaker was there: Giandomenico Picco, Personal Representative of the Secretary-General of the U.N. for the 2001 Year-Long Dialogue Among Civilizations. He helped negotiate the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and helped bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war. He read a moving meditation on reconciliation. Students from PS 321 and MS 51 read monologues that were both immediate and scrupulous.

This is by no means a comprehensive or even a fair summary of what occurred. The words were, of necessity, often rough and provisional, like the tattered city they celebrated, and like the planet for which it stands. A good cause, a good sum raised, and proof that, without needing anyone's urging, we're still here, doing what we're doing.

A second benefit reading took place the same evening in San Francisco. Ram Devineni, publisher of Rattapallax, was the primary organizer of both events.

(Richard Pearse's collection, Private Drives: Selected Poems, 1969-2001, has recently appeared from Rattapallax Press. )