I went to find Hayden Carruth when I was living in Vermont in the mid-seventies and he was running his small farmstead, patching together a living with literary hackwork, haying, tractor repair, barn-building, and any other money-eking enterprise, on a hill outside Johnson about forty miles from me. When I phoned in advance, his was the quietest telephone voice I'd ever heard; each sentence seemed to fade toward silence as it closed. His best poems are like that, soft-spoken, plain, even when the emotional signature is hacked or burnt into hardwood, and they possess absolute candor about everything. He's the least self-censoring person I know, his honesty embedded in Camus' writings, which were foundational for him. So there we were one summer afternoon sitting on the small porch of the modest house he kept with his then-wife Rose Marie. He's chewing on his pipe stem, looking off into the distance. He gazed—his conversation seemed aimed at some elsewhere. He lived so deeply inside himself that he makes the oily, after-dinner-speaker-type poets we're all familiar with seem like carnie shills. When I pulled out my cigarettes, he cadged one.
—A little whiskey would go well with this.
So there we were, smoking Luckies, sipping Jim Beam or some other corny liquor, when a typical country Vermont oil-burning junker too large to fit in most people's living rooms rattles past.
—Glad I don't have to earn money fixing those things anymore.
He wasn't talking about a summer job. He'd done everything except teach, which would come later. He called himself a hack because he'd done, for money, just about every sort of writing and editing, working in the cowshed we could see from the porch. I asked about the stream that ran near his house.
—You're a Vermonter, you should know it's not a stream, it's a brook.
—I'm not a Vermonter. I'm from South Philadelphia, you know that. We'd call it a creek, a crik.
—Doesn't matter. You should know anyway.
We talked for hours. He loved Dryden's dramatic lyrics and put me on to the poetry of Paul Goodman, whom I knew from the frantic sixties only as a social critic. We smoked up a storm. Smoking has been one of his greatest pleasures. Back then he went through twenty pipes a day easy. In his autobiography, Reluctantly, he describes an uncle smoking: "He would talk and exhale smoke at the same time, so that the smoke came out every whichway, as if it were the ectoplasmic embodiment of his language."
One pick-up job was his stint as editor of Poetry in 1950. He was proud he never kept a poet waiting more than five weeks for an answer. But he riled the board—he was trying to revamp and amp up things with more challenging poems and feistier prose—so within a year he was out. He loved Chicago for its jazz and blues and can still run down the sidemen on many sessions, but was also severely agoraphobic and not cut out for cities. He didn't like having too many people around and suffered disabling panic attacks and other agonizing psychological ailments that afflicted him but lived in the shadow of the major one—suicidal depression.
Early nineties. He visits me in California. We drive over an old stage road to the ocean and along the way, while he blows cigarette smoke out through the window like a teenager, he asks the names of trees, grasses, flowers, stuff he's never seen. He points to a shrub with smoky blue flowers.
—What's that thing?
—Ceanothus. They call it California lilac.
—But it's not lilac. Doesn't look anything like lilac.
That night I cook minestrone and joke about how Italians cook vegetables to kingdom come.
—So did my grandmother. Cooked the hell out of 'em. I do the
same. This is good.
—Get Chianti (the only red Hayden seems to drink).
—I'll have a Prosecco.
—(Bartender) Sorry, sir, we don't have that.
—How can you call yourself an Italian restaurant and not serve
—Right! That's telling him! You have to make yourself heard. Bring this man a glass of Chianti!
At dinner with his vivacious wife Joe-Anne, Hayden looking much older since his last visit, he's telling a story and trying to set it in context.
—That was about six months after I killed myself, right, Joe-Anne?
They both laugh. He's referring to one of his suicide attempts, the time he came closest, in 1988, when he took every pill in his possession—and there were many indeed to take. His first knowledge of the suicidal impulse, involving more smoke, is recorded in Reluctantly. As a twelve-year-old sitting on a riverbank with a flirty girl who challenges him to toss away the pack he's smoking, he throws it into the river. The image of the pack falling and floating away lived powerfully in him ever after: "Why didn't I pitch myself after it and dash out my brains on the rocks below?" It would have been that easy, even then.
As part of his visit, Stanford has arranged a tv interview. The morning of the taping, he tells Joe-Anne he's stepping out for a little air. The event coordinator arrives to pick him up but Hayden's nowhere in sight. The coordinator waits, Joe-Anne waits, the studio waits. After an hour, everyone (except Joe-Anne, who knows her man does whatever his spirit tells him to do) is frantic. Should they put out a missing persons report? Will they need a helicopter? Will the tv affiliate hate Stanford? Fast-forward the crisis. A few hours later, Hayden re-appears at the Faculty Club where he's been housed. The coordinator is a wreck; Joe-Anne frets not at all.
—I just had a nice long walk. It's quite beautiful here. What's wrong?