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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

David Ingle reviews

Doctor Jazz by Hayden Carruth. Copper Canyon, $20.

This piece is 820 words or about two printed pages long.

That Hayden Carruth should have become one of the grand old men of American poetry might have seemed unlikely when he began publishing in the late 1940s, but his perseverance and prodigious output have secured him such a position today. Generally regarded as a Beat-influenced poet, Carruth has managed to attain the longevity, both poetic and bodily, that eluded many of his contemporaries. Not the sort to exhaust himself in one canonical work, he has instead spread his efforts across schools, forms, genres, and styles. As the poet himself asks, ‘Who would have thought that petty / Endurance could achieve so much?’

Carruth’s endurance is far from petty. His emotional and physical travails have been noted elsewhere, often by the poet himself, as in ‘The Afterlife: Psychtropics’:

followed by Nardil, Elavil,
Valium, Pamelor,
Dalmane, and Halcion, Zoloft,
Xanax, Prozac —

think of the poet who made up
all those names!
And my brain, which had been
frazzled from the beginning,

became altogether scrambled.
Now here I am,
a mere husk if that,
scrambled forever.

Scrambled indeed, as in fact Doctor Jazz is scrambled on the whole. The collection is divided into six parts: ‘First Scrapbook,’ ‘Martha,’ ‘The Afterlife,’ ‘Faxes,’ ‘Basho,’ and ‘Second Scrapbook.’ The poems ranged across these six sections vary from the lyrical to the elegiac to the downright silly. What remains consistent throughout the book is Carruth’s intimate, though occasionally gruff tone. He approaches the reader as confidante, even when the poems are not themselves confessional. The amity between Carruth and his readership results in the poet being largely insulated from the barbs which poems like ‘Literary Note’ might provoke. ‘But it seems tossed off, incomplete!’ we might want to complain, and indeed some of the poems do seem to be little more than journal entries or napkin-scrawlings. Yet Carruth manages to keep us with him, even in his weaker moments, for the levity of the ‘Faxes’ and of the poems in Part V (‘Basho’) is always tempered by the gravity of time’s slippage, put into evidence both by Martha’s death and by the poet’s advancing age and declining vitality.

Carruth is often self-deprecating, and whether this gesture is sincere or poetic pose matters little. His humble approach to his own work, as well as his visceral descriptions of his body and its failings, tend to win us over whether we want them to or not. ‘Dearest M — ,’ the sole poem comprising the section entitled ‘Martha,’ is sincere and moving, and Carruth’s recounting of his failings as a father is enough to make one flinch. This section is more effective than the others, partly because of its unity of subject, but also because it preserves another of the classical unities: its action takes place within the span of a single day, a time frame that the poem bookends with its subtitle (‘The First Day of Her Death, As Recorded by Her Father’) and the poem’s penultimate line (‘He has reached the end / of the first day of his daughter’s death’). In ‘Dearest M — ,’ the poem itself is salvific, as the temporal escape found in its composition is an escape from the awful minutes that must tick by in order to traverse this most difficult of days. In the end, of course, such escape is illusory, as the poem inevitably returns to the most basic and dispiriting question: ‘like all elegiac words, these swirl /around the question forever unanswered: ‘What for? What  / is it all for?’ Again and again Carruth returns to imponderables such as these, and to good effect.

Less effective are Carruth’s gimmicky poems, which, while seeming as conversational as the rest of the book, end up being off-putting rather than welcoming. ‘The Fantastic Names of Jazz’ is one of these, despite its admittedly fantastic names; the strident ‘The Physics and Metaphysics of the Partial Plate’ and argumentative ‘Something for the Trade’ are others. Carruth is at his best when he at least seems sincere.

Though Doctor Jazz is a bit scattershot, the nature of Carruth’s enterprise as a whole is to strive with full foreknowledge that one will fail — not most of the time, but always. In one of the best of the shorter poems in the collection, ‘Old Man Succumbing to Retrospection,’ he writes of

How he always failed    How he toiled
as the years came more and more to press
upon his will although he nevertheless never
permitted himself to give up    How he says
to himself now Is this a life    And how it must be
for what else can it be    How he would have liked
even so something more    Or something a little less.

Doctor Jazz could have perhaps been more, but it could also have been much less. Carruth still has it in him to write tough, tender, and enduring poems, as this collection proves.

Jacket 19 — October 2002  Contents page
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