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Hayden Carruth: an interview by Anthony Robbins.

Hayden Carruth (b. 1921) has reached an advanced stage in his distinguished career as a poet, critic, and editor without having received the critical attention which he deserves and which has been accorded many of his less able contemporaries. Lyrically gifted and philosophically acute, Carruth is one of the finest American poets of this century. Perhaps one reason for neglect has been Carruth's relative lack of self-promotion. He lived in northern Vermont for twenty years, and during that time he neither taught nor gave readings until 1978, when he went to work at Syracuse University, where he taught until he retired in 1991. He has written in such a variety of poetic modes as to be atopic, unclassifiable, in conventional critical and academic categories. He has published twenty-two books of poetry, a novel, and four collections of criticism, as well as editing the influential anthology of twentieth-century American poetry, The Voice That Is Great Within Us. Once editor of Poetry and poetry editor for Harper's and a current and long-standing member of the editorial board of The Hudson Review, he has also received nearly every major award and grant, including an NEA senior achievement award in 1988, the Ruth Lilly Award in 1989, and the 1992 Book Critics' Circle Award for his Collected Shorter Poems (Copper Canyon).

Carruth's poetry is astonishing for both its depth and range. His first book, The Crow and the Heart, is written mostly in the characteristic mode of the late fifties, highly formal, but verbally dense, bedizened with strange words from Carruth's huge vocabulary. In the early sixties, Carruth's books Journey to a Known Place, The Norfolk Poems, North Winter, and Nothing for Tigers, all superlative in their lyric accomplishments, were followed by the first long poem in which Carruth found his full voice, a sequence of thirty fifteen-line sonnets, Contra Mortem.

Carruth is a Yankee who has given us some of our most severely negative criticisms of Thoreau. He is an existentialist who has heard voices speaking to him from out of the air. He is a romantic who has spent a lifetime exploring the destructive consequences of that impulse. He is a pragmatist who has made his living as a poet, a poet who has given us--in his collections of essays and reviews, Working Papers, Effluences from the Sacred Caves, and Sitting In, where he writes extensively about the relationships among jazz, poetry, cultural optimism, and individual freedom--an excellent history of twentieth-century American poetry.

His book on Camus, After The Stranger, is somewhat autobiographical in regard to the genesis of his own existentialism, and the primary importance of his most encompassing poem, The Sleeping Beauty (1982), is its existential discursion on the paradox of the Romantic impulse: that the drive to be good, heroic, noble, to achieve the ideal, and the impulse to love generously and thereby possess freedom, have led to murder and domination; "passion/In romance must be love in action,/Lust for the ideal . . . O, murderous." In his most recent collections, Asphalt Georgics, The Oldest Killed Lake in North America, Lighter Than Aircraft, Sonnets, and Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises at Twilight and Flies Across the Distant River Toward the Nacreous Islands, Carruth continues to make poems of great beauty and force.

I talked with Carruth first in a deli on Wescott Street in Syracuse while we were waiting for a friend to drive into town for dinner, and then the next day at his home in Munnsville, New York. Carruth has always been candid about his literary influences. We began with a discussion of some of his heroes. Anthony Robbins: In an essay on the jazz clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and Yeats, you wrote that Pee Wee Russell's work is as self-contained as that of any artist you can think of in any medium, and for that reason he was not a Modernist. What did you mean by that? Hayden Carruth: I can't recall what I had in mind. I think what i felt in that was that, in terms of style and personality and imaginative attitudes (and gestalt), Russell is remarkably liberated, and it all comes out of himself--almost all comes out of himself. Or course, he had influences, and he influenced other people, and like any musician he had to depend on other musicians for what he was doing at any particular time. That's what I think I meant. I've always been interested in voice, in what people call persona, whatever it is that distinguishes one artist from another. AR: Style? Carruth: It used to be called style, but I don't know if they use that term any more although it used to be used. It's whatever embodies the personality of the artist. As far as Modernism goes, I think it ended when I was young, basically. By the end of the war, a lot of the ideas that went with Modernism in the beginning of the century, obviously, became obsolete and no longer useful.

I think what ended Modernism was the discovery that there really isn't any difference between the life of the imagination and the life of the real world. That's what a lot of the people who preceded us were trying to insist on. They were trying to insist that since life on the ordinary plane of reality was unbearable, the artist creates another plane of reality that is better and bearable. And some people said this explicitly. Others not. But I think it was basic to the Modernist movement, the idea of the masterpiece, the idea of Finnegans Wake, the idea of artistic autonomy, the idea of the artist as somebody different from the rest of the human race, all that sort of thing. There were plenty of people still doing this, and still believing in it after the war. But I think that attitude is gone. I think that writers of my generation began thinking differently than the Modernists had thought. What we didn't do was to find ways in actual writing, in our poetry, to make the distinction between our poetry and the Modernist poetry, I think of my poetry as being informed by an aesthetic impetus probably not much different from that of the Modernists, in spite of the fact that I repudiate many of the things that they thought. I think it has taken the younger poets now to make a real change in the kind of poetry that is written in America. I think that poets like Sharon Olds and Stephen Dobyns and so on are consciously writing poetry that is not Modernist in itself, in the poem. They want accessibility; they want clarity; they want a good lively surface. They don't care much about Symbolism or Objectivism or any of those things we argued about in the earlier period. AR: In an essay on the Resistance fighter Rene Leynaud, Camus wrote that he and Leynaud agreed about "the impatience [he] felt when faced with the short poem, the fleeting notion cultivated by so many moderns." Isn't this strange? Was Camus a Modernist? Carruth: It's hard to make generalizations about him, about what he was or what he wanted to do. He certainly was not a precious writer. He was reacting against the French writers like Valery and Gide of the early part of the century, who had been super-aesthetes. He didn't want that. He claimed that he was a dramatist, that he like to write plays better than anything else, although I think myself that his plays are the least successful of his works. Some of his short works are really remarkably good. There are at least two or three short stories that are really wonderful. He also wrote some very fine short essays, those geographical essays about the Mediterranean.

I don't know if anyone ever asked Camus whether he was a Modernist or not. During his lifetime the question hadn't even arisen. He might have considered himself in the same line of development as earlier writers like Malraux and other French novelists. He certainly broke with a lot of Modernist ideas that the people between the wars had expressed. He knew he was doing that. It was reading of him that made me feel the same way. I think of my own writing as being of all kinds. I've always wanted to do everything. I never really did very much fiction and I regret that now. I wish I'd concentrated on it more. But in poetry I've used long forms and short forms and lots of in-between forms and everything I could do I wanted to do. I think partly in me that is an expression of my own sense of insecurity as a person. I wasn't able to develop myself as a public figure in my poems. I used other people's voices, imitated other people a lot. I've kept changing things to break up any kind of exposure that I as a person might get through the writing. But that's just an accident of personality. AR: When Camus says that he doesn't have any patience with shorter poems, one almost has the feeling that it is a moral judgment. Carruth: It is, but on the other hand I think Camus, like any writer, is not consistent. I don't think he meant that to be as harsh as it sounds. I'm sure he liked some of the short poems of Rene Char, for instance. There's no question in my mind but that he liked those poems. I think he was just saying something to be saying something; that's what we all do. You can't trust a poet's theoretical statements because they often vary from what he has done in his poetry. AR: And they are inevitably programmatic. Carruth: That's right. And that applies to me as much as anybody although I have always tried to avoid that because I don't think of myself as being a theorist or a critic as much as an editor and a reviewer who responds to questions in a very practical way. I certainly grew up in the Modernist, the tail-end of the Modernist, period. Metaphor was a big thing. There was a book I was trying to read by Eudora Welty last summer or sometime recently, a book called Losing Battles. And in the first five pages I was becoming sick. Everything was a simile. I had the feeling that I had been lied to; I felt somehow dirty, unclean. And I get that feeling when I read a lot of stuff from that period. AR: Why did you write only one novel, Appendix A? Why did you write one in the first place, and then why did you only write one? Carruth: I did the novel in the first place because that was the only way I could get my first book of poems published. I had put together a manuscript of poetry, and I sent out letters of inquiry to quite a few publishers. Most of them were not interested, or if they were I sent them the manuscript and they turned it down. Emile Capouya at Macmillan liked the book and wanted to publish it, but he said that it would be necessary to have a novel to go along with it. This was pretty common in those days. I had already written a long story, which I didn't know what to do with, about a kid in France during World War II, who had been orphaned and adopted as a sort of a mascot by a German unit. And this was based on something that I knew from real life in my own family. So when Emile said he had to have a novel, I said I'll expand the story into a novel, and basically that's what I did. I added three other sections to the book, making it cover a longer period. When the novel was published, Macmillan gave me an option on a second novel, and they paid me some money. And I wrote a book called Malloway. That's the name of the principal character. He was a black American who had suffered a great deal in the civil rights disturbances in the late sixties and had emigrated to a mythological Pacific island. The story was about his relationship with the local people on this island. It was totally fanciful, whereas my first novel had been largely autobiographical. I wrote the first draft, and I revised about half of the second draft, and then I quit. I was unhappy with it. I didn't feel that it was a good enough piece of work to put any more time and effort into. I still remember, though, the character of Malloway and other people in the book and some of the scenes, and I wonder if I was right to do that. It's too late now to do anything about it, but it was not a bad idea. Plenty of times I've had the feeling that the natural art form for the twentieth century is the novel, prose fiction. And I admire and envy my friends who are novelists and short-story writers. I rather wish I had done more of it. But I didn't, so there's no point in lamenting it now. I'm not unhappy with what I did in poetry, as far as that goes. But I do think that you can reach more people, you have more flexibility in prose fiction than you do in a poem, even a long poem. You can write in little scenes, you don't have to worry so much about compactness and density, things that you are supposed to worry about in poetry. I enjoyed writing the novel that I wrote. It was a very anxious experience for me because I didn't really think I knew anything about writing novels. In fact I didn't. And I was self-conscious, and it shows in the book itself. It shows. It is over-written in places. When I got to the end of the novel, I was so anxious that I wrote the last six chapters in one night. I just had to get the damn thing done. It was a terrible long hard night, but I did it. It is all long ago. I wish I had written more fiction. AR: In an interview in 1951, Camus said, "The era of ideologies is over, and the force of resistance, together with the value of freedom, gives us new reasons for living." That sounds optimistic. Do you think that is impossible now, and if so, does that have something to do with the fate of existentialism? Carruth: Yes, it does. AR: Existentialism has met its fate already? Carruth; I don't think it has in the longer term. I think that it is still active, is still having an influence, and that there will be a new wave of existential writing in the future, but they probably won't use those words, won't use that vocabulary. But Camus was mistaken when he said that the time of ideology was over. We all hoped it would be over, and we thought that the Second World War and the atrocities committed in the name of ideology during those mid-century years would have taught people not to trust ideological ways of thinking and acting. But that clearly is not the case. In the English Department of Syracuse University, for instance, the Marxist ideologists have become quite strong again, and their views of literature are very ideological, very programmatic. They use the term humanism as a pejorative, and they apply it to me, they apply it to Camus and a great many others of that period, almost in the same way we used to use "humanism" to put down the older, the "New Humanists," so called, who were active during the period between the two wars--"new Humanist movement." So things are always changing, and that's all you can say. I think that the strict Marxist, neo-Marxist, Leninist ideologies of literary theorists are kind of a game. They don't seem to be saying anything really important politically. And I'm not sure how much they are changing the ways of thought of the young people. AR: What is it doing to writers? David Ignatow has said that he always resented the Marxists, what the Marxists tried to do in the thirties, because he thought it tended to take away what was individual from a writer, to insist that writers speak for a group of people instead of for themselves. And he resented that and thought it was dangerous. Do you agree? Carruth: It's a danger. There's no doubt about that. I can't say about any place except Syracuse, but in the creative writing program at Syracuse the writers resist a lot of the parts of theory that tend to put the writer's imagination in an equivocal position. They don't like it, and the struggle in the English Department has an effect on the young people. And in some cases they have gone into the classes in theory in order to learn what they can and get what they can out of it. And absorb it. It's a good idea, I think. The theorists are not off the wall, by any means. The things that they say about language and about the sociology of literature are things that need to be said. But I think that the strict neo-Marxist theorists--and there aren't so many of them, there are only two or three of them at Syracuse, and I don't now how many there are elsewhere--they certainly do tend to take literature away from the writer and to suppress the interests of the writer and the literary process, and they don't even consider what we have always considered literature--for them it is some kind of class text that has to be gotten rid of. And they prefer to talk about comic books and science fiction and that kind of thing, which in some ways is O.K. but in other ways is damaging. I don't like it. And I've resisted it myself even though I listen to theorists and argue with them, and accept some of the things they say. I try not to be ideological on either side. There are traditionalists on the faculty who are as ideological as the theorists. And when they get together in a committee meeting it is a battle. I don't think anybody gains anything from it. So I tend not to join in. To me, in my own writing and thinking all my life--I think since I was a high school kid--ideology has been a dirty word. AR: Yeats wrote that rhetoric comes out of a quarrel with the world and poetry comes out of a quarrel with oneself. Carruth: Yeats was very influential on me. And I would agree with him in that. I think you can also get poetry from a quarrel with the world. It's more difficult to get than from the quarrel with yourself because the topic is so massive, but it can be done. The Divine Comedy is a good example of a combined poem that comes from both quarrels, and it is a great affirmation, which is hard for us to do. Sometimes I feel it is impossible. But we can get our poetry from both sources. Yeats was an Irishman, and he liked to make statements and I don't blame him for that at all. I like to make them myself at time. Though I admire Yeats the poet more than anyone else, I think. When I was young I read his stuff over and over and imitated it and copied it. I never had much respect for his intellectual attainments. I don't think very many people do. He was a great offender. He had a wonderful imagination, and that was why he was able to absorb so many cultural strands and points of reference. He loved history. He loved art. He loved different ways of making feeling. He loved the folk history of Irish literature, the legends and myths, and in that sense he was a great poet and a very influential twentieth-century poet, but as to the gyres and the rest of it, and the spirit rapping . . . I read his autobiography once, and I stopped reading about halfway through it I got so sick of it. AR: Speaking about forebears, your father was a socialist. Carruth: Yes, he was. I believe he was a member of the Socialist Party when he was young. I can't say that for sure, about him or my grandfather, but they were socialists. They voted the Socialist ticket. I have always been told that my grandfather was involved in socialist politics. In the period before World War II he worked for Debs's organization doing some kind of writing, speechwriting or something like that. He also ran, partly in a facetious way, he ran on the Socialist ticket to be dog catcher in the town of Tarrytown, New York. I think it was in 1908 or 1912, I can't remember. He wrote letters to the editor of the local paper saying what he would do as a socialist dog catcher. He was a comedian. They've all disappeared, of course. The Socialist Party went to pieces as a result of the war, and during the twenties the Socialists didn't have much to do. Then when the New Deal came along in 1932 many of them switched, and my father did too and became a Democrat. Roosevelt had adopted about ninety percent of the Socialist Party platform for the Democratic platform in that election. So many people who had been Socialists became Democrats, and that's what sustained Roosevelt during the Depression years, basically. The fact that my father and grandfather were socialists had only a minimal association to my political feelings. I don't think I ever talked politics with my father very much--a little bit when I was in high school, perhaps. My relationship with my father was so difficult and strained that, in fact, we did not talk seriously about anything. We never talked seriously about literature. At least I can't remember anything. And my early political feelings came from my own reading, which was kind of haphazard, in the library. I would go and find rather obscure books that were not catalogued in the library. There was a place at the top of the old library in the town where I was living where you could find a lot of old pamphlets and books that had been donated but had never been put into circulation. I used to raid that thing.

Also, I had some teachers in high school. This might seem rather strange today, but I had a couple of teachers in high school, during the Depression, who were socialists, and we discussed anarchism and we discussed Marxism in our classes. And we discussed them quite objectively. We discussed capitalism and democracy and all the rest of it. I was lucky because there were a number of teachers who were Ph.D.'s--you couldn't get a job in the universities--and were working in the high schools during the Depression to support themselves--in my town we had an excellent high school. I often think that my four years in high school gave me more for my time than any studying I ever did.

It was a very good secondary education. Then when I went to college in Chapel Hill, which used to be called by the ordinary people in North Carolina and by the press "Pink Hill," there were a lot of old socialists around. We even had a communist book store on Franklin Street run by a guy named Ben. He had Marxist pamphlets and tracts and Leninist pamphlets and tracts and all kinds of things like that. AR: Back in the thirties there were a group of Marxists, well, left-leaning faculty in the Sociology Department at Chapel Hill. Fred Hobson talks about them in Tell About the South. Carruth: Yes, the Sociology Department was a radical department. They were welcomed. People with outside views were welcomed at Chapel Hill as they were not at any other Southern university at that time. Partly that was the result of a remarkably fine president, whose name was Frank Graham. He was not a socialist himself, I think, but he was an eighteenth-century democrat who believed in freedom of thought completely and welcomed many different kinds of people to the faculty. A lot of things were happening that were marginal, in the political sense. I was working for a guy whose name I can't remember at the moment, who was a world economist, a world sociologist, and he was one of the first scholars to start thinking about and studying the situation of farmers and agricultural laborers in a sociological and economic context, and I worked in the library and filed stuff for him. He would clip things from the papers and magazines. There were hardly any books on this topic. The library consisted almost entirely of big boxes filled with clippings, and one of my jobs was to paste them on cardboard and file them away. That was a dangerous activity in the 1930's in North Carolina. So I got some of that. I got more political education in high school than I got, literally, in college. An then a better sense of contemporary politics and contemporary world economics at Chapel Hill. In fact, we had a wonderful economics teacher named Zimmermann, who was a refugee from Europe and spoke with a pretty thick accent--so it was difficult to understand him--and he taught me economics in terms of political power blocks and international economics. He was a good teacher, a very enthusiastic teacher, excited about new ideas in economics. I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from the people in the social sciences at Chapel Hill. In literature I had a great person in Shakespeare, a great person in the Divine Comedy, a good course in eighteenth-century poetry, but nothing at all about twentieth-century literature or even much about late nineteenth-century literature. I never heard anything about Yeats or anybody like that while I was at Chapel Hill. AR: You have described your political attitude as non-violent anarchism. Nietzsche suggests that many of the anarchists of his time were simply disappointed optimists, that they were not that different from progressives. I wonder what you think of that statement. Carruth: Well, I would say that it is very difficult to characterize anarchists as anarchists at any particular time because there are so many different shapes and so many different strands that they come from. Probably he was right in the nineteenth century, that most of the socialists' anarchism was Hegelian and positivistic in its affiliations and, consequently, was kind of optimistic in the same way that a great deal of nineteenth-century thought was optimistic. I don't know what he means by "disappointed optimist." I don't know how anybody could be anything in the nineteenth century without being disappointed. It was a time of great frustration and disillusionment. I think that the anarchists were frustrated, wanted to do things that they thought would be historically just and reasonable. They were terribly impractical and terribly idealistic. AR: I think that may be what he is getting at, the idealism. He feels that real--that true-anarchists should abjure organized action; if they are really pessimistic about the current means of trying to achieve anything, they shouldn't be disappointed. Carruth: I believe the best of them weren't. And especially as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth century. When I was young, there was a group of people in New York, and I suppose elsewhere too, who called themselves "Philosophical Anarchists." They believed that, ideally, human beings should exist without constraint, and that different kinds of cooperativism and syndicalism and so on could make an anarchist society. But they also believed that this was never going to come about and was politically an impossibility. So they maintained their position as idealists, but they didn't do the things that the nineteenth-century anarchists had done like resorting to violence, refusing to vote--to participate in the political process as it actually was. AR: Is that kind of optimism characteristic of Americans? Carruth: It may be, but the same attitude has been adopted by others at different times, too. There was a group of anarchists back in the 1850's and '60's, the Manchester Anarchists, who were saying the same thing. You participate in the political process with the ideal of anarchism--the ideal of freedom--in your mind. You try to participate in such a way that this might be advanced. You don't think that this will ever come about, but you can get closer to it. And I think this has been my position most of the time. Certainly, I agree with Camus in his essay about the rebel when he talks about the violence of the nihilists and the anarchists in the late nineteenth century, and their warping and distorting of the basic values of any political process. And I think that nowadays that many anarchists . . . there are still some hardcore anarchists around. There is a magazine published down in Texas that, in every issue, has an editorial against God. They sound as if they are writing in 1870 in Manchester or Liverpool or someplace like that instead of twentieth century in America. But I don't think anyone pays much attention to that. AR: Some years ago you wrote an essay and you asked what it says about Americans that we have taken a book, Walden, written by a crank, a book that excoriates its audience, as the basis of our social contract. Do you see some of Thoreau's narrowness in Bakunin's writing? Carruth: I think you can see that in Bakunin. It is hard for me to put the two men together because they were so far apart culturally and in other respects, but I think that was there. The best things that Bakunin wrote, in my mind, were things in which he analyzed a distinct historical process, such as his writing about the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in 1871. I think that he has to say about that is pretty sound AR: Is Bakunin's brand of anarchism a good antidote to the motives of idealism, to the motives of the progressive state? Carruth: I would think so. He was the first to distinguish socialist-anarchism from socialist-communism, and in that distinction I think he was being very intelligent and very idealistic. There's no doubt about it. But I don't see how you can avoid being an idealist sometimes--and especially now--if you know that the state is evil. I don't see how you can be a Bolshevik and say that we're going to take over the state and prove it. AR: Is it possible to teach people in this country that the state has no rights, that what the state has is privilege? Carruth: It's impossible, probably. The only way I can see that you could do it would be to teach history, and teach it right. If you could teach young people where the Constitution came from and what was really in the minds of the framers of the Constitution. And if you could get them to read John Locke and investigate the change from monarchical to parliamentary government in England and all this kind of thing. If you could get them to read Aristotle, then you could get them to see that the power resides in the people and that any power delegated or conferred upon the government is retractable, in theory anyway. It certainly is not in practice. It would be very hard to make the average American understand what is meant by the social contract, in Rousseau's terms and in Locke's essay on Civil Government, in which he explains how different kinds of powers are delegated from the people to the government--to the state--simply for the common good, for the preservation of safety and individual liberty and so on. But we're moving more and more away from that. Obviously, the American government, with its top-heavy apparatus, is becoming more and more oligarchical. We don't use those old-fashioned words any more, but the power is not in the hands of the people. And it is a usurpation and a great danger, I think. Oliver North is as good an example of it as anybody. Obviously, they should put more of them in jail. AR: What is the origin of the fifteen-line verse paragraph you used in "The Asylum" and Contra Mortem and The Sleeping Beauty? Carruth: There is also that section of "Paragraphs" at the end of Brothers, I Loved You All which was supposed to be a much bigger sequence but which got cut down. I had eighty or ninety of those things written at one time. I showed them to my friend George Dennison, and he ripped them apart, ripped them apart, and I discarded an awful lot of those paragraphs. There was a theme in that collection of paragraphs that I was working on: a journey, in some ways similar to the journey in The Sleeping Beauty, as a matter of fact. Maybe it went into The Sleeping Beauty indirectly. I had written a long poem when I was in the hospital, which was later published as the Bloomingdale Papers, with some amendment and some excision. When I got out of the hospital I looked at that, and I didn't think it was any good. I didn't think it was good enough to do any more with it, and I either lost it or I threw it away, I don't remember which. And I invented the fifteen-line paragraph to write the poem "The Asylum" about my experience in the hospital. I'm not sure it was a sound idea. "The Asylum" was a stiff poem, and there is much too much left out about what it was really like, and so on. I haven't read the poem in a long time, but that is my feeling. I wanted a form that would be short and lyrical, like a sonnet, but I didn't want to write sonnets. I figured they were completely out of date, and I was influenced, however, as I told you, by that particular sonnet of Goodman's about Omphale and Hercules ["In Lydia"]. Goodman wrote a sonnet in which he transposed the final couplet to the middle so that it came after the eighth line, and before the concluding quatrain. I had published that in Poetry magazine when I was editor back in 1949 or whatever. And I had like that. I always impressed by that. So I made my fifteen-line poem with a couplet in the middle, a tetrameter couplet rather than a pentameter couplet, and then I was just pig-headed about it because that turned out to be a mistake, really. It is very difficult to write a poem with a couplet in the middle of it that doesn't stop on that couplet. If you want it flow over that couplet, as I mostly did, then you have to invent all kinds of verbal stratagems to reduce that epigrammatic effect of those two tetrameter lines right in the middle. And I should have abandoned it because it was really too difficult. But I didn't. I have a kind of pig-headedness, there's no doubt about that. So I continued to write paragraphs and change them, making them looser, all the way up to The Sleeping Beauty and beyond. I've written a few paragraphs since The Sleeping Beauty and I don't think have ever gotten into my books, but I think they're around somewhere. I might even go back to writing them again. I don't feel the impulse to do it now, but there is a certain fascination with that form for me, probably because I invented it; I made it up. I made it up quite arbitrarily. I can remember doing it. I remember writing down on a piece of paper the metrical scan--the pentameter lines, the tetrameter lines, and trimeter lines and next to it writing the rhyme scheme--ababab and so on and so on and so on. That was before I had written anything. I just made up a stanza, basically a stanza, out of my head. And out of my reading and experiences--prior experiences as a writer. I did invent it out of whole cloth basically, and I continued writing it for a long time. AR: When did you call it a paragraph? Carruth: I don't think I used that word with Contra Mortem. I'm not sure, I'm not sure when I did that. But when I began writing that sequence of paragraphs that got so much reduced, that must have been about 1972, I would say. And I called them paragraphs then, I had that title. The reason I called them paragraphs is partly because they somewhat resemble a paragraph in prose, especially when they are put together in a sequence. But more because the original meaning of the word paragraph is "outside the writing." It was a mark they put out in the margin of medieval manuscripts to indicate a break. They didn't make paragraphs. They just indicated with a little reversed "p" in the margins. So it means outside the writing; it means marginal. And I kind of liked that, for what I was writing, for what I was doing, because I always thought of myself as somebody out on the edge.

All the sequences that I have written have been--even Contra Mortem, although I had plotted it out pretty well ahead of time--the individual sections have written themselves in whatever direction they had to take. And in things like The Sleeping Beauty and the sequence of paragraphs I was much freer. I had no idea how The Sleeping Beauty would end when I started writing it. And in fact, I got bogged down very seriously along about number 80 or 85 because I did not know how it would end. I was at Yaddo and I left Yaddo without an ending. And I thought about if for a couple of years and tried various experiments, but nothing seemed to gel. And I went back to Yaddo and I stayed there for quite a long time, one whole spring. It must have been '77 or '78, I can't remember for sure. I was there from January to May, I think. And during much of that time I wasn't able to do anything. And then all of a sudden I began to get an idea of how I could end and what could happen to this journey that was taking place in the earlier parts of the poem. I wrote the last ten or so sections quite rapidly and the ending seemed O.K., seemed a little fanciful but all right. I kept it; I didn't change it. I remember Galway talking to me one time about that poem he wrote about the bear--you know, the one that's become so famous. It took him six years to write that poem and the reason was because he couldn't figure out how to end it for a long time. He worked on it and kept trying different things until he found something that worked. AR: Did you write Contra Mortem in a month? Carruth: Yes, I did. AR: You were at Yaddo? Carruth: No. I was at home. I was at Crow's Mark. I hadn't ever gone to Yaddo at that point. I was very busy, doing all kinds of hack work, working in the woods and so on. But I suddenly came to a point in my life, it was in November, I think 1964 or '65. I had a month off, a month that I could set aside, without any deadlines. AR: It must have been '64; the poem was published in a special issue of Poetry in 1965. Carruth: I know that my own little edition of it which I published experimentally to see if I could do any better than the other publishers had done for me was in '67. AR: That's dedicated to "Adrienne" and "Denise." Rich and Levertov, I presume? Carruth: Yes. They had both encouraged me in the writing. AR: Your revisions of that are amazing. Carruth: How do you know? AR: It was published in Poetry. Carruth: And I changed it? AR: Yes. Some parts not at all. Some of the paragraphs are changed quite a bit. Carruth: I know I did the revision over a fairly long period. The original draft was written in thirty days, and it consists of thirty sections and I did them one a day in a very methodical way. I didn't get very much satisfaction out of writing that poem.

It was only later, maybe six months later than I began to think the poem had things in it I liked quite a lot, and partly that was because the original draft was read by Denise and Adrienne and they both liked it and they both wrote to me about it. In fact that was how I came to know Adrienne. She had been visiting Denise over in Maine and Denise had shown her the manuscript, and she read it, and when she got back to Vermont she called me up and we got together and talked about it. Now I think of it as being one of my most important poems--to me personally. I don't know about anybody else. I've always thought that there were parts of it that were probably obscure to other people. I wrote it with the idea that I would create poetry out of technical philosophy, which was a somewhat overweening thing for anyone to want to do, I suppose. I was thinking at that time in terms of a lot of the vocabulary of European existentialism and the precise meanings attached to terms like "essence" and "existence" and "nothingness" and so on. I was trying to create poetry that would be technically exact in a philosophical way and at the same time be moving and powerful and emotionally consistent as a poem. AR: You had written philosophical poems before, but Contra Mortem seems to be the first time the technical philosophy and your poetry are working in harmony. Carruth: That may be so. It is something that evolved over a period of time and over numerous experiments. Contra Mortem was an experimental poem. I did things in it technically in poetic terms that I had never done before. I think that's one of the reasons the poem works, if it does work, because I was writing without punctuation. I was writing with a looser meter. I was writing a kind of very loose syntax, at least in many sections. It was new to me. It was also the first time I sat down intentionally to write a long poem. I had done long poems before, but they'd been always sort of accidental. They'd evolved by themselves. But this was predetermined, a poem that had something like an outline, not a real outline but it had ... the first thing I did was to sit down and write down thirty words on a sheet of paper. And those words became the titles of each section in the poem. So I knew, basically, the length of the poem; it was determined by the number of days in the month, thirty days. But then later on I found that epigraph from Lao-tse that fitted to the poem exactly. And I adopted it. That was a lucky break. AR: Despite its existential discursions, then, it still has a Romantic structuring?

Carruth: Oh, yeah. (Laughter.) You can't get away from that. Camus, you know, said that classicism is nothing but Romanticism with the excess removed. I like to think of myself as a classicist in that sense, not as a neo-classicist or a neo-Augustinian or anything like that. I like to believe that I write a certain rigor and a certain strictness of attention to details, good language, good syntax. I'm not, not often, sometimes, I am a rhapsodic writer, but not very often. And I think that that definition is a good one. Classicism is Romanticism with the excess taken out. Certainly my poetry is erotic. It comes from erotic feeling. You can't get away from that.

AR: Speaking of erotic poems, is there one primary function of the "H" allusions in The Sleeping Beauty? Some have suggested that they might be emblematic, a visual device of some sort. Other readers have thought that they indicate how the personal, the accidental, the accidents of personality make history.

Carruth: I think the second is perhaps closer to it than the first. Sometimes you do things without really knowing why you do them. I can't remember when I wrote the last line of The Sleeping Beauty but I know it was very early, and it may have been actually the first line that I wrote--of the whole poem. I wanted to disperse the voices in the poem, and I wanted the poem to exist without any explicit persona, explicit narrator or speaker, and I knew that I was going to end the poem with this little statement that I myself was the one who wrote it. And I think I used all the H's partly because my own name begins with H, and I wanted to break it all up. I wanted to lead up to that last line with all of these other characters, both good and bad, who have been historical figures Beyond that I don't know if I can say very much about why I did it. It became a challenge at some point to think up more people whose names began with H who could be used in the poem to some good effect. Actually I think I wrote quite a few more H sections than appear in the final poem. I discarded them because they didn't seem to have enough connection with the rest of the poem. AR: Is The Sleeping Beauty an experimental poem? Carruth: It depends on how you define "experiment." AR: Given the way that you have defined it. In Working Papers there is an essay called "Two Notes on Experiment," where you talk about two different centers, the prosaic center and the poetic center, and of experiments as tending out to the opposite center. Carruth: I suppose that you could say that, in that sense, that it is somewhat experimental although it varies so much from section to section. There are a lot of prose devices used in The Sleeping Beauty. AR: Yes, you mentioned one time that the only contemporary fiction writer that you have learned anything from was Doctorow, and I was wondering if there was something in The Sleeping Beauty that was like Ragtime. Carruth: I think there is. I think there is in The Sleeping Beauty an attempt to make the same king of documentary use of historical materials that he did with the people like Emma Goldman and Alexander Burkman and so on in Ragtime. But it's very different. But the "H" sections in The Sleeping Beauty, they're all historical figures, too, who are introduced in their history. That's what they're there for, and they don't have any direct connection with Sleeping Beauty or anything else in the poem. They are exemplary; they are, to a certain extent, whatever moods and tones and textures are generated through them. I remember saying that about Doctorow, but I think it was true about a lot of contemporary fiction. It is moving more and more in that direction and doing that sort of thing. I hadn't read Coover, for instance, when I was writing The Sleeping Beauty, but now I recall his book The Public Burning, in which he uses the whole Nixon-Rosenberg thing back in the fifties and fantasizes on it. He uses those historical characters much more implicitly and in-dwellingly in his fiction than Doctorow did in Ragtime, and a lot of other people are doing the same thing. Maybe it is an attempt of prose writers--of fiction writers--to get back some of the popularity that they lost, and I think poets are doing the same thing. You read a poem by Stephen Dobyns, and it has a journalistic texture to it. And he was a newspaper man. He writes about peculiar objects or events in contemporary reality as if he were reporting on them to an audience of some kind, who want to know about them. I've never considered myself an experimental writer in that I was adding anything to the basic techniques of writing, the way that some of the great experimentalists have. On the other hand, I think that if you're bearing down on a poem, bearing down on a sector of experience and substance, then everything is experimental, everything is new--whatever you do. And every good poem is an experiment, even if it is in a very traditional form. You still are trying to find the right words and colors and tones and so on. So you are never not experimenting. AR: Do you think "improvisation" is a better word than "experimenting"? Carruth: I do. That's what I came to in my thinking, later on, in the last ten years or so. I think of good writing and good art in general in the twentieth century as being improvisatory as long as you know what improvisation really is. It doesn't mean that everything is impromptu, on the spur of the moment, but from poem to poem there is a pushing ahead, a kind of expansion of what you have done before, the same thing a musician does when he plays a solo in the same piece over a number of different times. That is improvisation, I think. AR: North Winter is fragmented; it is written in pieces, but it is not open-ended because of the Afterword. Was the Afterword written much later than the poem, or was it written at the same time as the rest--to complement or to supplement or to close the poem? Carruth: It was written after all of the rest of the things. I don't know how long after. I don't think very long after. The first winter I spent up in Northern Vermont I went walking every day, and I wrote down little fragments of things I had seen when I came back. And it was during that period that I was writing After The Stranger, the book about Camus. And at the end of the winter I had quite a lot of pieces, several hundred, and I looked through them and discarded the ones that didn't seem to be working, and I put the rest together in a kind of a sequence. That's not the whole thing about North Winter. The other thing was that I was tired of writing the way I had been for the past ten years or so, and so I set myself the technical problem of writing without any pronouns. I don't think most people would notice that about the poem, but it doesn't have any pronouns in it. AR: Contra Mortem doesn't have any "I" 's in it either. Carruth: Yeah, that's true. North Winter is a random sequence, and it could have been left without an ending. I felt that it needed something to make it more interesting, or more intelligible . . . whatever. So I wrote the Afterword about the exploration to the Pole. But when I think of North Winter I don't think of the Afterword. I don't consider that very important. I like some of the sections of the poem itself. I like some of them quite a lot. I'm not sure that the Afterword was necessary. I haven't even looked at it for twenty years. AR: Are those coupled words in North Winter and in Contra Mortem an attempt at speed in any way, like the typography in the "Aer" section of Journey is also an attempt at speed? In one of your reviews of Paterson, you wrote that Williams said to you that that kind of typography was an attempt to speed up, in effect, a long poem. Carruth: I know that I was trying with Contra Mortem to loosen up the paragraph form that I had used before. I was trying to make it flow better and flow over the rhyme patterns more easily, more musically. And I left out a lot of punctuation and I used the coupled words . . . for speed . . . but just to be different. (Laughter). You know, sometimes that's what you have to do.

I think the coupling goes along with the punctuation. What I wanted to do in the poem was make a lot of kind of propulsive flow, so I ran sentences, I ran phrases together, I used the space and the capital letter for the beginning of a new unit of syntax that would be really a break in substance from the previous units of syntax. But I ran a lot of the stuff together, and I ran the words together, in the same way that I ran the units of syntax together, the phrases and clauses. AR: To what degree have you been able to control the content of your books? You've switched publishers a lot. I ask because, for example, From Snow and Rock, From Chaos, which was published in 1973, and Brothers I Loved You All, which was published in 1978, and If You Call This Cry a Song, published in 1983, all contain poems from roughly the same period. Did you intend those poems to be issued in separate books? I know, as you say in the introductory note to If You Call This Cry a Song, that those were poems that didn't go into other books. And there were also poems in there that were issued by themselves. But there are also poems in that book that seem to go with poems in Brothers. Carruth: "Regarding Chainsaws" (If You Call This Cry) was written after the three other poems in Brothers in Vermont language, but "Marvin McCabe" was written at the same time as the Vermont poems in Brothers. I had control over what went in the books to the extent that I could choose what I wanted to fill up the space with. But the publishers always insisted--almost always insisted--on a certain number of pages. And I always had more poems that I would like to publish than I could fit into the numbers of pages. So I had to pick and choose--arbitrarily in some cases. After If You Call This Cry a Song was published I regretted that little note I put in the front of the book, because a lot of people took it to mean that I didn't think the poems in that book were as good as the poems I published before in other books, but that's not true at all. I didn't feel that way about them. They were poems that had to be left out of other books because the publisher hadn't given me enough pages to print them. So I saved them and put them into the book that Countryman Press published. I never dated my poems, and I somewhat regret that, too. Some of my friends, like Adrienne Rich and Carolyn Kizer, date their poems, and I think it's probably a good idea.

Asphalt Georgics and The Oldest Killed Lake in North America, were originally one book, a pretty big book. New Directions was willing to publish the Asphalt Georgics part but not the other part. So they did. And I scouted around for someone to publish the other part, and I gave it a name, and I think I added a few poems, too. And I don't know how I came into contact with Marilyn Kitchell down there in [Grenada] Mississippi, but I did, and she liked the poems and wanted to publish them and did a good job of it. And I was glad to have the poems in print. But nobody pays much attention to that book and I guess it never really got distributed much. Some of my books that contain very good stuff have been totally overlooked, totally ignored. I think the worst case is the Clay Hill Anthology. I know some people don't like haiku very much, but I thought there were some good ones in there. I don't think it sold more than fifty copies. It was never mentioned or reviewed anywhere.

It was the last book that Carol Coleman did for me, and he was already ill by that time, and his wife was also ill and he was having a hard time. And it might have been partly because he didn't make any effort to publicize the book at all. My books have always sold very badly and it has always been a worry and a pain to me that that was the case. There has never been a book of my own writing that made money. AR: How did you publish a book with George Hitchcock, at Kayak? Carruth: That is another case where a book was made of poems excised from a manuscript that had to be shortened for publication. The poems in Dark World, which George published, were poems that were left out of From Snow and Rock, From Chaos, because there weren't enough pages. AR: Did New Directions give you a page limit, and then you took those poems out? They would have given a different feel to the other book had they been left. Carruth: Yes, it would have been more complete, more rounded. I can't remember how I made the selection. I just can't remember at all. And it may be that some of the material in Dark World was actually written after the manuscript of From Snow and Rock had been accepted and put into the presses. I don't know. But I always liked the way George dug up these graphic things from old catalogs and magazines and all kinds of places. He became very good at matching them up with the text he was printing, both in the magazine and in books. A guy like Hitchcock is really just admirable in every way, selfless, and devoted to other people's writing. He published a magazine for years. It was a good magazine and was opened to a lot of things that the more academic quarterlies wouldn't print. He worked very hard, and his own writing was interesting and some of it very good, I think, but he didn't push it--in that respect he's like James Laughlin. He was indestructible. But today there don't seem to be people like that, not so many of them anyway. The same thing basically happened with my Selected Poems. In the first place, the publisher would just not give us more than 156 pages. So there had to be exclusions. So I decided to exclude everything I wrote after I left Vermont and came to Syracuse, in other words everything I wrote after about 1980. AR: Your books have sold better since you came out of the woods. Carruth: They have, but they don't sell very well. My royalty statements are disgraceful. I've always had a hope that the next book will do better, and maybe it will. But I doubt it. I don't think I'm in any different situation from most poets, as far as that goes. Everybody knows that it doesn't sell well. But a lot of the people of my generation or younger who have been able to read and participate in conferences, over a long period of time, have been able to do much better than I have, not doing that sort of thing. I vacillate a lot between the idea that one should be responsible for one's writing and do the best that one can to promote it and get it published properly and all that sort of thing, and the contrary idea that it isn't worth anything and that I have too many other things to do. I've just handled my own writing in a very rough-shod, slipshod way. And a lot of that attitude has become more a part of my thinking. Recently, I've published my stuff in magazines where people had asked me to send something, but until recently I hadn't submitted things to better magazines. And I haven't bothered to collect them in a while. A lot of the things I had published I didn't bother to save. The manuscripts that I have produced I get bored with. I get irritated with them in some way. Maybe because it doesn't do very well on the market, so I tend to shove it aside, put it away. When I publish something, it has often been to get it away from me. It's sort of how I do my filing system. I put everything in my filing cabinet just to get rid of it. Masses and masses of useless material in the files so that I don't have to decide, I don't have to make a decision to burn it. I just stick it in the files and forget it. I can't defend anything like that very well, but that's what I do. And for quite a long time I've had to do the same thing with books that come in. I can't read them, but if I leave them on the table here or on my desk, then they worry me. So after a little while, when I haven't read them, I stick them on the bookshelf, without reading them. And that's where they are, and I'll never read them.

I read a hell of a lot of student manuscripts. I read a hell of a lot of manuscripts from my friends. And I--well, I don't read, any more--manuscripts that come from strangers, although in the past I often did. Just don't have the time or energy to do it any more. AR: Energy? You've published a lot of books. Carruth: Well, sometimes it surprises me, especially considering that I didn't publish my first book until I was almost forty years old. It's been a haphazard and kind of frantic effort a lot of the time. Poems have been written when everything else was done, late at night, written in a great hurry. There are lots of unfinished pieces that are in my files somewhere, pieces when I would get a sudden inspiration and start writing and write a page of blank verse or something and never finish it. I guess everybody does that. A lot of fragments. AR: How did you get the job as anthologist? Carruth: Well, I got it, I suppose, because I had written stuff, both poetry and reviews, that the people at Bantam liked. I was on the road at that time. Rose Marie and the Bo and I were taking our big trip all around the country, and it was in 1966. I got word from the people at Bantam when I was staying with a friend in Elko, Nevada. I can't remember exactly how they tracked me down, but they did. They asked me if I would do it. And they offered me a contract with an advance and I talked to them on the telephone. There was a fellow there named Gregory Armstrong who was my principal editor at Bantam, and we worked very well together. Bantam was very helpful and supportive in the work itself. They took over the whole deadly business of getting permissions and paying permission fees for all of the poems that were in the anthology. They were generous in terms of space. I got in touch with them at one point, I know, and told them that although I had originally agreed to hold it to 600 pages I wasn't going to be able to do that and they said, that's fine. So in that sense it was a satisfying job to do. It was also hair-raising because I told myself that in the first place I would not look at any other anthologies while I was working on mine, although I had a very vague model in mind and that was Conrad Aiken's anthology of earlier modern American poetry. And I also would not accept any prejudgments, even my own, which meant that I reread the work of every poet in the first half of the century who had any status at all. Many of them I ended by leaving out, but I had to read them. And I had a card file that had hundreds and hundreds of cards in it, for each poet, and what I had read and what I thought about it, and, if I had made choices to include, I put them on these note cards too. And that's how I did it. But I didn't know anybody at Bantam at that time except Ted Solataroff, and I didn't know him personally. I had written some pieces for his American Review. He was on the staff of Bantam while I was doing my anthology, but he was not the person who got in touch with me, and he's not the person who I dealt with while I was working on the anthology; it was always Gregory Armstrong. He left Bantam too. He wrote a couple of books, radical political texts, and then I don't know what became of him. A very decent guy. I was a job, like an assignment I have had writing captions, writing jacket copy, writing catalogue copy, editing all kinds of manuscripts, and so on. It was a job I wanted to do well, and I put in a lot of effort and time on it, and I tried to be as comprehensive in my view of what had happened in the first seventy years of the twentieth century in American poetry as I could. And I'm pretty well satisfied with it. I made some mistakes. I don't think anybody could make an anthology without leaving out somebody who ought to be in or without putting in too much of somebody else, but I basically am pretty happy with that. It seemed for a long time as if it would be a kind of personal disaster because I worked on it for almost four years and got very little money out of it. Then there were some snafus when it was first published, which prevented it from selling as it should have. I really didn't get any income from it for quite a long time. And then for many years after that when I was getting an annual royalty check, I still hadn't begun to pay for the amount of time and effort that I'd put into it. But then in recent years, in the last ten years say, I've been ahead. It's reached the point now where I've reasonably well paid for my efforts. Its the only book I've ever had anything to do with that sold any appreciable number of copies at all.

One thing about the anthology that no one had done before was to leave out some pretty important poets, people who had been regarded as important. A lot of people in the twenties and thirties like Benet and people like that. I reread their work. I studied it carefully, and ultimately I decided that their reputations were inflated and I didn't need them in my book. It took a lot of work to do that. And maybe I was mistaken. Who knows? But I was trying to be as independent in making the anthology as I hoped to be in everything else that I've produced in writing. That's part of what compelled me to do it. I also put people into the anthology whom I didn't like, because I felt that they were so important that they had to be in there. I put in one or two poems by Marianne Moore, whose work I don't like at all, and I put in one or two poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose work I don't really like very much either. Things like that. The anthology was not intended to be simply a personal document, a record of my personal taste, not at all. AR: It looks like you have kind of a shelf of honor up on the bookshelf--full of Camus and Goodman. Did you arrange that? Carruth: When I was arranging books in the kitchen, I put all their books together, and instead of putting them in with the rest, I put them here. In part because they fit here. There are too many of them. AR: What did you like about Goodman? Carruth: I liked . . . in his poetry . . . I liked especially the way he combined a very spontaneous colloquial, modern language with a kind of archaic language, both in diction and in syntax. And he did this in a much more spontaneous and natural way than most poets who have tried to do the same thing, like Berryman, for instance, in his poems. He often used a kind of forced archaism. Goodman seems to do it naturally and get away with it. He can stick a word like "Lo" or "Behold" in a poem, and it comes out as being part of his personality, which is acceptable. It's a little bit funny, it's a little bit sad. It's a little bit . . . it's often very moving. He had that quality, which I would attribute to the twentieth century, basically. He was able to improvise with a lot of different materials, putting them together in different combinations. He did the same thing that Charlie Chaplin did in movies, and I have always felt that that was something very admirable and moving. He wrote a lot of bad poems, and I think anybody who writes that kind of poetry--who writes poetry in that way--is bound to write a lot of bad poems. Goodman's problem was that he couldn't always tell when he wrote a bad poem. In fact, most of the time he couldn't tell because he was such an egomaniac that he thought everything was great. But that's all right. That's the way he was. The fact that he wrote a lot of good poems, first-rate poems, is more important than the fact that he wrote some that weren't so good. I also like his politics, of course. He was part of the generation just before mine that seemed to be able to combine politics with philosophy and art and literature in an intellectual structure that was very comprehensive, very meaningful, very applicable. In reading Goodman's poems you never get the idea that his work is trivial or marginalized in any way, which is so common today. All of us that write poetry today are laboring with that idea, that what we are doing is socially marginal. AR: Goodman went to school in Chicago? Carruth: Yes, he went to school in Chicago. But he was a member of that generation, along with Philip Rahv and Delmore Schwartz. And he could have been published in Partisan Review if he hadn't attacked all those people so much. He just couldn't stand to be a part of that group. So he didn't get published, and his work goes unknown. He published some of it himself. He used to sell it through the mail. AR: Oh, yeah? [Carruth takes a book from the shelf.] Carruth: This is "The Dead of Spring" part of The Empire City, which he couldn't get published, and he had it published by some printer out in New Jersey who basically was doing cookbooks and some other things. The paper is falling apart. But he sold these through the mail. I'd forgotten it was inscribed to me.

I did not know Goodman well, personally . . . Of course, we were friends, and we met both in Chicago and in New York quite a few times. I don't know how many. But then I went into the hospital and disappeared from circulation almost entirely, and didn't have very much connection with him during the latter part of his life. One time, when I was just first beginning to get out and around a little bit, I went to a literary party in New York, and Goodman was there. That was the last time I saw him. It must have been in 1957 or '58, '59 maybe. He was a wonderful, spontaneous improviser on any topic. He was what Dr. Johnson was said to have been, a largely self-taught, widely knowledgeable person. He had more in his head than anybody I have ever known. He was a real renaissance man, as they say. Fantastic, fantastic mind. And a lot of people who knew him better and spent more time with him that I did would get pissed off at him because he would monopolize things so much. He wouldn't pay any attention to anything that anybody else said. But when I was with him, I was always very willing to listen, just show up and not say much at all. He was fascinating. We used to meet sometimes in New York in that hotel that was straight down at the northern end of Washington Square on Fifth Avenue. At that time it had tables out on the sidewalk in the summer time. I can't remember its name anymore. But we would sit there and have a beer. And he would talk, talk a blue streak. The only time he stopped talking was when he was lighting his pipe, and he never kept the pipe going for more than five seconds at a time. He was an ugly man. He spat, and spittle was always flying out of his mouth when he was talking. He wore absolutely anything that happened to come to him, mostly strange-colored t-shirts and scrawny old pants. He was anything but a romantic figure. He writes all these poems about cruising around looking for people to have sex with, and I can't picture anyone who would want to have sex with Paul. But he was just fascinating. He was a wonderful, wonderful mind. And a wonderful voice, I think, in hi poems. He did things in his poems that are so logical, if you think about the history of poetry, if you think about refrains and ballads and repetition as a poetic device--all these things. He used these things in modern poetry, in a modern idiom, and made them work. And very few people have had the courage or the sense to do that. If you read a poem like "The Lordly Hudson," which I think is a really great poem in its best version, anyway, it doesn't say anything. It uses the same lines over and over again, with changes in just a little bit. A lot of his poems are constructed that way. He just had a lyric imagination that embraced not only language but thought, and he knew the lyricism of ideas, the lyricism of intellectual activity, intellectual endeavor, better than anyone else I have known in my lifetime. And that's why I admire him so much, I think. And he was a great prose writer, too. That's rare. Many poets pretend not to be able to write good prose because it isn't fashionable, but Paul wrote wonderful prose, I think. His essays, and some of his books, like that book Little Prayers and Finite Experiences, just a beautiful, beautiful piece of work. You couldn't change a period or a comma anywhere. Some of his short stories the same way. You know, they are very unconventional short stories. They're more like essays, some of them like stories. But they are very well done. I think The Empire City is a great novel. I try to get my students to read it, most of them don't. AR: What was Goodman's relationship to New York? Carruth: He had a lot of affection for the city. You can see that especially in The Empire City and a lot of his earlier writing. And I guess he always liked to be there some of the time. In the latter part of his life he spent more and more time up in New Hampshire at the farm, and like other New Yorkers, discovered New England. He took to it and developed a real fondness for the land and the flowers and plants, I think. AR: Can a writer who wants to do what Goodman wanted to do do it away from the publishing--in Fargo or in Baton Rouge or in Normal? Carruth: I think it's possible, sure. It's certainly more possible than it was. I think the dispersion of writers through the workshop system has maybe been the best thing that came out of this academic activity. We have writers located all around the country now, instead of just in Greenwhich Village. And it is possible for a writer to live anywhere and still get attention, if he or she has something to say.

Anthony Robbins is the recipient of a 1992-3 NEA Writing Fellowship. His poems have appeared recently in The Parish Review, Agni, Exquisite Corpse, and several other journals. This interview is a part of his book-length study of Hayden Carruth's poetry and criticism.
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Author:Robbins, Anthony
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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