Readers unfamiliar with the poetry of Hayden Carruth will be struck by the honesty and clarity of his new book of autobiographical essays. A solid introduction to his interior world, Reluctantly
also serves well as a supplement to Carruth's 50 years of publishing poetry, criticism, and one fine, underread novel, Appendix A
. Now in his late 70s, Carruth has witnessed from his seclusion in remote New England the rise and fall of myriad intellectual, political, and poetical movements. In his essays, he sets these passages alongside events in his own life as if to find explanations for the absurdity of one in the chaos of the other. As the title suggests, it is with great reluctance that he discusses his suicide attempts, hospitalizations, nervous breakdowns, divorces, and other disappointments. Yet in his memory these events are so intertwined with his successes and joys, indeed with his whole creative enterprise, that he is compelled to give both equal time. At times, the essays' careful manipulation of style and sound approaches the measured reverie of Carruth's poetry, especially when discussing his years in northern Vermont, the setting for many of his more famous poems. He describes in great detail the cowshed he converted into a writing cabin, and in fact the book's main characters besides himself are his neighbors there, Martin and Frances Parkhurst, through whose friendship Carruth relearned the social skills he felt he lost during a series of bad crackups in his 30s.
For whatever reason, Carruth remains elliptical about some of the more significant details of his life. For many years he was the editor of Poetry. Prior to that he was part of the Allied Army force that invaded Italy during World War II. He mentions these experiences only briefly, then, for example, writes three paragraphs about watching a frozen bobcat slowly decompose during a spring thaw. Unlike Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr, his former colleagues at Syracuse University, who only mildly retooled their styles for their memoirs This Boy's Life and The Liars' Club, Carruth employs the autobiographical mode as a footnote to his real work. There are more specific details of his life in his National Book Award-winning collection, Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, than in Reluctantly. What Carruth captures here is more ephemeral yet more vital than a mere autobiography. Given a chance to explain his love of jazz, or his suicide attempt, or his psychoanalysis, Carruth indulges in tangents in ways his strict poetics would never entertain. There is something fitting about the author allowing himself a few autobiographical reflections at this point in his career, and his reluctance only heightens their value. --Edward Skoog