TOP10-DES9
This Old Poem #10:
Hayden Carruthís On Being Asked To Write A Poem Against The War In Vietnam
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/23/02

  Hayden Carruth is 1 of those poets whose life story is infinitely more interesting than his verse- that is if being a mental patient fascinates you. Of course, in the wake of Confessionalismís myriad horrors loosed upon the poetry world, self-pity of the worst sort is the rage- hopefully dying. HC was basically ignored as a younger poet- yes, he won some minor awards here & there, but he published in mostly obscure presses until the last decade or so when, not unlike A Beautiful Mindís John Nash, the Academy decided to bestow honors upon the old Walt Whitman wannabe as a sort of boon to his ego. The thought is that itís the least they can do for a lunatic whoís been through so much. Since his rediscovery in the late 80s HC has been increasingly awarded- a tell-tale sign that nothing he is currently producing is worth a damn.
  Should awards be denied nutbags? No. But of his generation of nuts HC is a lesser light. Does his oeuvre really compare to that of a Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell- or even a Ramon Guthrie or John Wieners? Decidedly not. A usual HC poem is basically a formless ramble broken up into lines for no apparent reason. Often the poems are political or attempt humor. Sometimes they are just memories. In a sense, itís sad to see Academics further erode this manís slight grip on reality by feinting praise toward him- but who ever said apparatchiks had souls?
  Nonetheless, let us look at a typical poem- political & bad, yet 1 which has garnered praise (a shock, right?) in many quarters over the years. This is also a poem that has been especially emailed about since the 9/11 attacks.

On Being Asked To Write A Poem Against The War In Vietnam

Well I have and in fact
more than one and I'll
tell you this too

I wrote one against
Algeria that nightmare
and another against

Korea and another
against the one
I was in
and I don't remember
how many against
the three

when I was a boy
Abyssinia Spain and
Harlan County

and not one
breath was restored
to one

shattered throat
mans womans or childs
not one not

one
but death went on and on
never looking aside

except now and then
with a furtive half-smile
to make sure I was noticing.  

  Okay, 9 stanzas, 27 lines. Let us reckon the bad- pointless line breaks: 9- at my count, & being generous. Note, too, the pointless lack of punctuation- even no apostrophes (childs- not childís?)- why? & all the redundancies which, lacking any music, are redundancies & not rhetoric. The basic Ďdramaí of the poem? The speaker is old & opposed to war of any kind, death is final, & personified as a monster that winks & nods at the speaker- very heavy-handed symbolism, at the least.
  But, before I get to my rewrite of this tripe- obviously penned with no afterthought, it is worth examining 2 superior poems that this poem has links to. The 1st poem is where this poem takes its title from: W.B. Yeatsís On Being Asked For A War Poem:

I think it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winterís night.

  WBYís poem has concision, music, humor, & satire in 6 fuckiní lines. He also devastates the pomposity of all those poets who feel their work HAS TO BE political. Is it a great poem? No. Itís too 1-dimensional, but it is a nice little poem. Is HCís work even in a league with this? But, you may think me unfair- WBY is 1 of the ĎImmortalsí, how could any poet measure up? Of course, this is bunkum of the worst- but most common- sort. But, letís give in to the carping & compare HCís tripe to that of his contemporary- the bloviant Robert Bly. Here is 1 of Blyís most well-known anti-Vietnam war poems-  Johnson's Cabinet Watched By Ants:

1
It is a clearing deep in a forest: overhanging boughs
Make a low place. Here the citizens we know during the day,
The ministers, the department heads,
Appear changed: the stockholders of large steel companies
In small wooden shoes: here are the generals dressed as gamboling lambs.

 

2
Tonight they burn the rice-supplies; tomorrow
They lecture on Thoreau; tonight they move around the trees,
Tomorrow they pick the twigs from their clothes;
Tonight they throw the fire-bombs, tomorrow
They read the Declaration of Independence; tomorrow they are in church.

 

3
Ants are gathered around an old tree.
In a choir they sing, in harsh and gravelly voices,
Old Etruscan songs on tyranny.
Toads nearby clap their small hands, and join
The fiery songs, their five long toes trembling in the soaked earth.

  This poem is similar in theme, length, & rhetoric. But RBís is far superior. There is not a single poor line break, the music is inconsequential to the poem- but solid, & the imagery- while not totally new, was- in its day- fresh, although now oft-mimicked. You say, wait- are you saying something positive about Robert Bly? Yes. This particular poem in comparison to HCís atrocity. Part 1 sets up the targets of ridicule & especially references an Edenic setting with monsters abiding, & waiting to spring. Part 2 appeals to the rhetorical touch of a ministration & sets the stage for stanza 3ís wide pull back. The rest of us are the smaller beasts, unseen but vital- & we go along for the ride & are complicit. Is this a great poem? No. But it is an effective poem. RB may have tightened things up a bit more, & dropped in a bit more unexpected metaphors & symbols, but overall itís 1 of his 15-20 successful published poems.
  Now, back to the muck of HCís self-indulgence. But 1st the trimmed poem in a side by side:

On Being Asked To Write A Poem Against The War In Vietnam

Well I have and in fact
more than one and I'll
tell you this too
I wrote one against
Algeria that nightmare
and another against

Korea and another
against the one
I was in
 
and I don't remember
how many against
the three

when I was a boy
Abyssinia Spain and
Harlan County
 
and not one
breath was restored
to one

shattered throat
mans womans or childs
not one not
one
but death went on and on
never looking aside

except now and then
with a furtive half-smile
to make sure I was noticing.

On Being Asked To Write A Poem Against The War In Vietnam

 I wrote one 
against Algeria 
that nightmare
 
against Korea 
and another
against the one 
 
I was in
I don't remember
how many 

against the three
when I was a boy
Abyssinia Spain

Harlan County
and not one breath 
restored

to one shattered throat
manís womanís 
or childís
 
not one 
but death went on 
never looking aside

except now and then
with a furtive half-smile
to make sure I was noticing.

 

 Gone are the bad line breaks, & redundancies, & the music has been heightened. Letís go stanza-by-stanza & see what has been lost & gained. Dropping the whole 1st stanza makes the speaker more authoritative & at-the-ready. Instead of being led through by a mumbling idiot, the speaker is active, & in control. The next 3 stanzas are tightened- if youíve read any prior TOPs it would be redundant for me to explain why the manifestly bad enjambments are so bad. The 3rd stanza in the redux gives a sense of the speaker being discombobulated at the time- with its abruptive statements lacking punctuation, BUT because it is so tightly wrought the reader intuits that the speaker has his/her act together now & is at a distance from their discombobulative state. Needless Ďandsí are excised & the lack of punctuation is ok for the actual desire to have the reader plow through the words, but adding the apostrophes for the man, woman, & child, again reflects that the speaker Ďhas controlí & is intentionally loosening things- such as lack of punctuation. Therefore it does not appear as if the poet is merely lazy or sloppy. The poor enjambments in the last 2 stanzas have been replaced by a tighter structure, & 1 that mimics a deliberate thing furtively glancing- not just wandering visually all over its purview.
  That all said, the poem is trite, & still says nothing new that has not been said many times before & since on this particular war & other wars. But, perhaps it gave HC pleasure when he was not straight-jacketed. Whatever, neither poem would last more than a minute in someoneís psyche, but the rewrite will at least be a bit more comfortable on the gray matter.

Final Score: (1-100):

Hayden Carruthís On Being Asked To Write A Poem Against The War In Vietnam: 50
TOPís On Being Asked To Write A Poem Against The War In Vietnam: 68

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