|From Sorrow’s Well:
The Poetry of Hayden Carruth
edited by Shaun T. Griffin
|University of Michigan Press, 2015
Reviewed by Derek Anderson
From Sorrow’s Well: The Poetry of Hayden Carruth edited by Shaun T. Griffin offers an interesting and fresh approach to literary criticism. Griffin defines four main personas of Hayden Carruth’s collected work—that is, Carruth as the Realist, the Jazzman, the Survivor, and the Innovator. The book is divided into four sections that are each devoted to one of these characteristics and which all work to expand upon them through a number of different mediums, including interviews with Carruth, critical analyses of his work, reviews of his poetry, and even poems written about and for him. In the introductory interview (conducted by David Weiss), Carruth remarks that “the Great American Novel is never going to be written, or it’s going to be a compendium of a hundred novels written by a hundred different people.” This compendium is precisely what Griffin tries to capture within the collection, offering the reader a number of different voices which all attempt to define the qualities that have made Carruth such a canonical yet overlooked figure in poetry.
In the first section of the book Griffin includes Douglas Unger’s essay “On Hayden Carruth: The Poetics of Social Utility.” In his essay, Unger discusses Carruth’s ideas of “poetry of use” and the reception of this idea among his contemporaries. He writes:
[Carruth] insisted poetry should be of use [sic], that, above all, poetry should make sense [sic], both common and uncommon sense . . . writers should make use of each other and be available to other writers . . . together, we can find strength against a world that in the main is hostile to poets and writers and seeks our destruction.
He then elaborates on this poetic idea, saying that “Carruth struggled to balance this sense of social utility against the distressing cultural vacuity of American culture and its marketplace disenfranchisement of poets and literary writers from playing impactful roles in society.” While Unger’s essay at times borders on being polemical, he nonetheless effectively commemorates Carruth’s sense of political utility and community, going so far as to include personal anecdotes of his time spent with Carruth.
Later, in the section devoted to Carruth as the Jazzman, Griffin expands on Unger’s ideas of Carruth as a poet of utility by including Matt Miller’s essay “A Love Supreme: Jazz and the Poetry of Hayden Carruth.” Miller focuses on Carruth’s understanding of jazz and improvisation, calling his work a “jazz-inspired poetic vision.” His focus in this essay moves past Carruth’s ideology, bringing into account the specific variations of form found throughout his work. For example, Miller analyzes specific sections of collections such as Asphalt Georgics, pointing out how fluidly Carruth’s poems move between strict, formal syllabics and informal colloquialisms that he overheard in the rural settings he spent so much time in. He argues that “Carruth is able to marshal all of the powers he has developed—his mastery of multiple forms, his spontaneity, his precise lyricism—and set them free in service of a poetic vision.” This same formal approach to understanding Carruth’s musical influences is developed in a later interview between Carruth and Sascha Feinstein in which Feinstein asks Carruth about who his jazz idols have been and how they have specifically impacted his writing. And so we see how Griffin structures this collection, showing us a number of different aspects of what went into Carruth’s work and a number of different voices expanding on how those aspects operate within, and interact with, his poetry.
Early in the collection, in a review of Brothers, I Loved You All, Geoffrey Gardner comments that when reading Carruth’s poetry he “sometimes become[s] furious that for years and years and years, longer than [he] can remember, our poetry has been read by virtually no one but poets and college students and their teachers.” Griffin’s assembly of prose and poetics works to push against this idea of Carruth’s placement. Not only do these essays point to Carruth’s many intellectual triumphs as a writer, but also to the way in which his work can be read and interpreted through a number of different lenses, begging us to appreciate and access his style in a wholly new and stimulating way. This collection is not just an examination of Carruth’s poetry, but an examination of how poetry has changed, how critics have responded to rapidly evolving collections, and, above all, how Carruth situated himself within these changing aesthetics and responded to them.