Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hayden Carruth's Haiku

Hayden Carruth’s Haiku

Hayden Carruth lived from 1921 to 2008. He was a prolific American poet, writing more than thirty books as well as editing Poetry Magazine, Hudson Review, and serving as poetry editor for Harper’s. He lived most of his life in Vermont and received numerous awards and widespread recognition for the quality of his work during his lifetime.

I am going to focus on a small part of his output; specifically Carruth’s Haiku. I have not read all of Carruth’s work. As far as I can tell his Haiku appear in three books; “The Clay Hill Anthology”, “The Voice That is Great Within Us”, and “Doctor Jazz Poems”. I am going to focus on “The Clay Hill Anthology” as gathered in “Collected Shorter Poems 1946 – 1991” published by Copper Canyon Press.

First, Carruth’s Haiku are syllabic. Like Richard Wright and Mary Joe Salter and many others, Carruth takes the syllabic form of the Haiku, that is to say the 5-7-5 syllable count, as his starting point. Carruth also seems to have been aware of the traditional use of a seasonal reference in Haiku. A good example is the following:

October. Twilight
flutters like cloth of silver
caught in tall dark elms.

In most ways this Haiku is traditional; it follows the syllable count, contains a seasonal element, and depicts a natural scene. In other ways, though, it goes against traditional approaches to Haiku by including an explicit metaphor: “like cloth of silver”. In general the use of explicit metaphor is something that American Haiku poets avoid. In some cases that I have read, it is considered to be a serious flaw. In a few cases that I have read it is stated that Haiku that include metaphor are simply not Haiku.

My take on this is that this Haiku is effective and that the metaphor works. I know exactly what Carruth means by that silvery twilight light fluttering in the leaves of tall elm trees. One of the things I appreciate about Carruth’s Haiku is that Carruth brings to Haiku the full range of poetic techniques and is not afraid to use them. That is one of the advantages of standing outside the official Haiku organizations, which have a tendency to restrict and reject techniques that can enhance Haiku, as this example demonstrates.

Sometimes Carruth will use personification as in the following example:

Trees, naked trees
stopped in their tracks, so peaceful
talking together.

I have sometimes had a similar experience of sensing that trees communicate with each other, particularly in an old grove of trees. The sense of the trees ‘talking’ to each other hovers at the edge of one’s senses and I suspect that one has to be settled and calm, or as Carruth hints, ‘peaceful’, in order to experience that sensation. I really love this particular Haiku because it expresses a type of forest experience that I have not seen in other Haiku, the sense of the forest as genuinely sentient and intelligent.

At times Carruth’s Haiku enter a philosophical dimension:

Emptiness – you know
what I mean? Moonlight howling
in the room like snow.

Again Carruth uses explicit metaphor and I think it is perfect. ‘Moonlight howling like snow’ is a great image, and it is a way of depicting moonlight that, once again, I haven’t seen in other Haiku poets. I also appreciate the question and answer format that Carruth uses in this Haiku and think it is an approach well worth exploring. Before reading Carruth’s Haiku I hadn’t really considered such a format in such a short form, but Carruth here demonstrates its efficacy. Finally, notice Carruth's quiet use of end rhyme in lines 1 and 3, 'know' and 'snow'. This shows again that Carruth approached Haiku with a poet's ear and eye. Carruth is willing to bring all the tools of poetic craft to Haiku. As in metaphor, many Haiku poets in the U.S. eschew rhyme, which I think is a great loss to the form. Here the rhyme which appears feels natural, completely unforced, and for that reason all the more appropriate.

Many of Carruth’s Haiku do not contain a seasonal element and strike me as aphoristic. Here’s an example:

I live where Frost lived.
So? It’s a free country. Don’t
jump to conclusions.

This is funny and I imagine that Carruth was often compared to Frost. Perhaps this short poem was a way for Carruth to express a mild irritation regarding such comparisons. This poem strikes me as more like a Senryu than a Haiku; but that’s OK. Non-seasonal Haiku are a constant source of discussion among Haiku poets and the question of when a non-seasonal Haiku becomes an aphorism rather than a Haiku is an interesting one. Carruth didn’t seem too concerned about it, however.

The lineation of Carruth’s Haiku is worth focusing on for a bit. Carruth often breaks a sentence at unusual, non-grammatical, points. Take the Haiku on emptiness. A grammatical reading would put “Emptiness – you know what I mean?” on a single line or perhaps breaking the line after “Emptiness –“. The break after “know” at first struck me as somewhat arbitrary, as if Carruth was trying to preserve the line count by breaking the line after five syllables without it being meaningful. But on second, or third reading, I see the line break as drawing out a double meaning. “Emptiness – you know” could be read as Carruth saying that you know what emptiness means intuitively, and then moving on to the “what I mean?” shifts the focus. In a way you could read this in two ways: “Emptiness – you know.” And the second reading would be “Emptiness – you know what I mean?” By breaking the line the way Carruth does he draws out multiple meanings that would not emerge otherwise.

I think something similar appears in the Haiku/Senryu about Frost. The second line ends with the word “Don’t” and I sense that Carruth placed it there to emphasize his hope that people wouldn’t mechanically compare him to Robert Frost just because they lived in the same area. Line two is divided in three and is, therefore, semantically dense. A single syllable question, followed by a four syllable sentence, ending in a full stop period, followed by the first word of the next sentence gives line two a jazzy rhythm. It is unusual to find so much punctuation in modern Haiku. But, like Carruth’s use of metaphor, his use of punctuation is part of the poetic tradition. I am thinking particularly of Emily Dickinson’s thick use of punctuation; Carruth’s usage, to my mind, resembles Dickinson’s. There is a tendency in contemporary English Haiku to eschew punctuation, but I think Carruth’s Haiku show the expressive possibilities of punctuation and could, perhaps, mute that tendency.

Sometimes Carruth’s Haiku don’t congeal for me. Here’s an example:

Have you ever seen
someone watching a burning
candle and laughing?

This one doesn’t work for me because I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t just be written as a single sentence, “Have you ever seen someone watching a burning candle and laughing?” Putting this sentence on three lines doesn’t seem to me to enhance the image.

But overall I have enjoyed reading Carruth’s Haiku and have learned a lot from contemplating them. I think they are a fine example of how to apply the poetic craft to Haiku, how to use metaphor, rhyme, and linneation to create an arresting image. In closing, here is a favorite:

Again on dark looms,
Dark shuttles. The wind weaving
a chiffon of snow.

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