His first collection The Crow and the Heart (1959) was written after his release from a 15 month stay in a psychiatric hospital. He has said in interview: "I was so impressed and so full of the experiences I'd had in that hospital, and the observations of other unfortunate people who were there, that I wanted to write about them." He not only felt a need to separate this experience from any writing he'd ever done, but also from any other writing that had gone before, so he invented a new form he calls a 'paragraph'. This is basically a 15 line almost-sonnet, rhymed, and written in iambic pentameters and with a tetrameter couplet in the middle. He explains why he felt this form appropriate: " 'Paragraph' originally meant a graph outside the main graph. In other words it was a mark that manuscript copiers in the Middle Ages used to indicate a break in the text."
Carruth enjoyed invention and compared his poetry to jazz : "Quite consciously in some poems, I tried to imitate the rhythms and tones and textures of jazz music. Jazz, if you analyze it, is like poetry in some respects. It's an improvisatory, impromptu art." He was a keen jazz musician and also wrote of its influence on him in an essay published in a collection of his prose pieces: Effluences from the Sacred Caves (1983.) He writes of the liberation that jazz allows a musician (and indeed poet) who improvises around a frame or structure, saying that in the process he "transcends the objective world . . . and becomes a free, undetermined sensibility in communion with others equally free and undetermined."
Carruth's agoraphobia forced him for many years to live in seclusion in the glades and mountains of northern Vermont. He said in interview that this isolation made him a "somewhat rebellious and stubborn person." and that his poetry and prose styles reflected this. He worked as a freelance journalist and also as a farm laborer. Carruth was attracted to the language and speech patterns of the people around him in the mountains : "the honest country people, the laborers, and people who had real folk habits in their speech. I loved to listen to them, and tried to imitate them in my poems."
Informed by his political radicalism and sense of cultural responsibility, many of Carruth's best-known poems are about the people and places of northern Vermont, as well as rural poverty and hardship. His 1983 collection Brothers I Loved You All, has been described as Carruth at his 'improvisational best.' The central poem of the book - 'Vermont', navigates history, politics, quirky personalities, subtle changes in diction, is part free-verse and part formal poetry.
In 1996, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey. This recognition was welcomed by the Virginia Quarterly Review for 'a poet who has never received the wide acclaim his work deserves and who is certainly one of the most important poets working in this country today. . . . [He is] technically skilled, lively, never less than completely honest, and as profound and deeply moving as one could ask.'
The title poem of the collection is included in this recording, and is testament to Carruth's honesty. This gentle, affecting poem is made more poignant by his slightly wavering delivery.
All poems are from 'Hayden Carruth: A Listener’s Guide.' Copper Canyon Press, 1999.