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Last Poems
Hayden Carruth
Copper Canyon Press, June 2012
120 pages
$16.00

Editor’s Note: P. Scott Stanfield holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches literature at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Recently, I challenged him to see how many references to other works and artists he could make in a single 500-word review. He gets one point for each, or two for any he hasn’t used in a previous column. Last month’s score: 22; this month’s score: 31.

“He became his admirers,” Auden said of Yeats in his famous elegy, acknowledging that for all poets, the day comes when the task of making their case to posterity falls to their admirers.

Hayden Carruth became his admirers on September 29, 2008. Among them are Sam Hamill and Copper Canyon Press—publishers of this and many other books by Carruth—as well as Brooks Haxton and Stephen Dobyns, who wrote affectionate and candid prefatory essays for it.  A gracious tribute to a friend and teacher, Last Poems is also, ineluctably, a case presented to posterity.

The volume’s title turns out to be a pun. Last Poems includes not only the twenty-eight poems Carruth finished since Toward the Distant Islands (2006), but also all the poems that stood last in his other collections, from The Crow and the Heart (1959) on. A surprising way to make a case to posterity, perhaps: Last Poems is not Carruth at his very best, although it does include extraordinary poems like “Paragraphs” and “Mother,” and neither is it, as “Selected Poems” in lucky cases are, a distillation of the work’s essence; one would need more and other poems from The Sleeping Beauty, The Bloomingdale Papers, Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, and Doctor Jazz for that.

Despite the arbitrary principle of selection, Last Poems nonetheless sketches a portrait. To a degree, it is a portrait of a generation of poets, born in the 1920s: virtuosos in prosody, more mindful of craft than the generations following; widely and deeply read in the canon; politically shaped by the Depression and World War II in their youth, by Viet Nam and the civil rights movement in their middle years; equally capable of the high literary manner and of soul-baring confession; mystified by the musical tastes of the boomers. Yet Last Poems also hints at what was distinctively Carruthian: a pugnaciousness married to lyricism, a balancing of improvisational bravado with meticulous attention to nuance.

There is no saying whether Carruth will find admirers, even disciples, among our children’s children. Will Donald Justice? Will Stanley Kunitz? Inevitable as it seems to us that she will, will even Adrienne Rich? All we can safely predict of posterity is that it will surprise us. Who would have predicted in the 1970s that the poets born in that decade would almost unanimously honor Jack Spicer, and be no more than mildly interested in Robert Lowell?

We can say, though, that if posterity does pluck the poetry of Hayden Carruth from the drifts of time, it could do worse.