On Jazz, Poetry, and Hayden Carruth: Talking Shop about the Human Condition

by Phillip Witteveen on September 26, 2014


WPFW, 89.3 FM, is a station that gets into the “mix of jazz, Third World music, news and public affairs.” It is the sound alternative programming makes in the metro D.C. area, “challenging the norm, and passionately serving the under-served of our community.” Coming to us in .mp3: a filmy, dulcet jazz bottoms out into the introduction of a very small, very niche radio show, with a very specific mandate: “This, is your station for jazz and justice.”

The show, as it would be revealed, is called “On the Margin.”

“And my name,” says the speaker, “is Giovanni Russonello.”

“Today” (says Giovanni) “we are going to celebrate the life, work, and legacy of Hayden Carruth—the great poet, critic, and unbeknownst to many,” says Giovanni, and then in a sly tone: “…jazz man.”

As it turns out, there’s been a lot written about Hayden Carruth, and some of it is a book called From Sorrow’s Well, edited by Shaun Griffin, who will be joining Giovanni momentarily (after his intro).

“He would have turned 93 on August third,” says Giovanni, “less than a week and a half from today, and so it’s a perfect time to delve in…”

Unstable, isolated, wound up like a clock after years of the debilitating kind of agoraphobia, and long hard-done by substance abuse—Hayden Carruth, wrote poetry as a series of fervent transcendences: ways-out, something-elses that gutty fear and addiction made not so much a career he led, but an existential struggle he fought to stay awake, to get some feeling back into his cold extremities.

His struggle for existence was like all others, especially at their most vibrant: it was evolutionary. His brainchildren were new twists in an American cultural genome: a literary America: wild rice in the hinterland, Indian summers, flights of thrushes that settle on power lines in the backwoods, along old highways.

If a kind of natural selection has been at play, selecting for what is good in art by making it almost vitally necessary for the artist to find it, then it must have been hard on Hayden Carruth; it demanded his utmost, his best work; and so what survived of Carruth is hard-won, carved out of heartwood, tuned and beveled smooth into an instrument like a fiddle or a violin.

But outside of his appreciation for the stint and Psalter that is life in rural Vermont, Carruth was (as Giovanni notes) a jazz man, and a man of his age and people.

It’s at this point that Shaun Griffin joined WPFW’s publicly broadcasted Q & A in things-related-to-jazz. In slow tones the Press author (and sometime poet himself) answered the equally ponderous radio host’s questions. Both men, so self-possessedly brooding, could have been engaged in a ceremony, a rite of mourning. Sonorous, rhythmic, solemn, they could have been dyed in lingonberries and ocher in a cave in the middle of nowhere, with tar burning on sticks and a drumbeat teaching carbon-based life how to dance. Such was the gravitas-level. But Giovanni is actually hosting “On the Margin” in Washington, D.C., where he is on the phone with Shaun Griffin, who’s calling in from Virginia.

“Tell us about who he was…” says Giovanni.

And Griffin replies. “He had so many interests, and he wrote about so much. I had to read everything he wrote and everything written about him for over three years, just to edit the book down to the major themes… [1] He was a realist, he insisted on writing poetry that had some kind of real meaning in the world and real consequences for people. [2] He thought poetry had a social utility. And a jazz man, as you mentioned. [3] A survivor—he went through all kinds of personal trouble, difficulty. A lot of struggles with mental illness. Smoke, and drink. [4] Finally, he was an innovator. He made so many new forms in poetry. Most notably the highly-evolved 15 line sonnet… I kinda tried to span his intellectual and artistic development across six decades within those four themes.”

“What do you argue for when you’re speaking to someone about Hayden Carruth’s work… someone who doesn’t know who he is… what do you tell them about why he matters so much to us?”

“Well I continue to read it because it speaks directly to the greater concerns we have about being on this earth. He was a political poet. He couldn’t resist writing about people that wanted poetry, people that needed poetry. And the people that were suffering because of the injustices on Earth. His longer poems, to the people of Vermont… that air that is now gone, the hardscrabble of a small town farmer, are wonderful meditations on place. His ability to see through some of the phoniness in our world and continuing to say what was real, what mattered, were all things that were so important.”

“But Shaun Griffin… you as a poet yourself—are I’m sure—inspired by him. What does he give to you as a writer yourself, as a poet?”

“He gives me strength of courage and conviction. One time, I was visiting with him, and I had finished reading his book on jazz called Fitting In which is now a standard in the field (and he’s largely self-taught). And I said, Excuse me. How could you find the wherewithal to write a book about jazz, and publish it, when you didn’t have any formal training in jazz? And he said, What were they going to do, stand me up against the wall and shoot me? And I realized then, that what you need to do as an artist is say what matters and not worry about all the rest.”

The full conversation is here, (search “On the Margin”). To get further into Carruth’s work, pick up Griffin’s edited volume From Sorrow’s Well.

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