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October 06, 2008

Hayden Carruth, 1921-2008

Haydencarruth Robert Frost would never have written poems with titles such as “Mr. Septic Tanck” or “The Oldest Killed Lake in North America.” Hayden Carruth, who died last week at 87, was nonetheless considered Frost’s successor. Carruth had an eye — and an ear — for rural New England life, but his poems were grittier and more honest than those of Vermont’s most oft-quoted bard.

His life was, too. Although he did eventually win a National Book Award, Carruth was plagued by agoraphobia, stage fright, addiction and madness. Where Frost read at Kennedy’s inauguration, Carruth famously wrote a letter turning down an invitation to read at the Clinton White House. Then he published it.

Carruth was healthiest and most productive when he lived in Vermont. In the back woods of Johnson, he lived and worked his material, inspiring poets such as David Budbill, David Huddle and Geof Hewitt. Two former Vermont poet laureates lament that Carruth never got his turn at the top; he ended up moving to New York state — near Syracuse — because he couldn’t land an academic job in Vermont. Six years ago, his Vermont peers decided to honor Carruth by bringing him back for a series of readings around the state.

Carruth didn’t keep a date book. Or so he told me when I called him to arrange an interview in advance of his Vermont appearance. But it was his reputation for unpredictable behavior that had me worried as I drove five and a half hours to his home in Munnsville, New York. Would he even remember our date? Along the way, I listened to recordings of Carruth reading his own elegant but organic poetry. There was no better way to prepare for the encounter.

This profile from that visit tells Carruth’s story, and, I hope, captures his inimitable voice.

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