Hayden Carruth also wrote persistently and eloquently about rural life, but his poems are quite different from Hughes's. What I notice in particular is the way each poet used sound. The music in Carruth's poems are line-based: at least to my ear, the metrical rise and fall of each line are more important that the sounds of individual words. Here are a couple of examples. You might try reading them out loud; then maybe you'll see what I mean.
from The Sociology of Toyotas and Jade ChrysanthemumsListen here, sistren and brethren, I am goddamn tiredof hearing you tell me how them poor folk especiallyblack, have always got a Cadillac parked in the frontyard, along with the flux of faded plastic and tin.from Loneliness: An Outburst of HexasyllablesAt home the fire has died,the stove is cold, I touchthe estranging metal.I pour tea, cold and dark,in a cup. The clock strikes,but I forget, untiltoo late, to count the hours.I sit by the cold stovein a stillness brokenby the clock ticking therein the other room, byclapboards creaking, and Ibegin to shiver, coldat home in my own house.
Hughes, on the other hand, was all about the words themselves, which shine like hard stones. They seem to take over the line, the tale; they become larger, more vivid than the tale. "Ravens," for instance, tells the story of a man and a small child, who walk out into a field to look at the newborn lambs and discover a dead lamb half-eaten by ravens. The poem is detailed and linear; the narrative is easy to understand. Yet what matters, in the end, is the word choice. Almost the images seem to become the words rather than vice versa. Here are a few snatches, first from "Ravens" and then from another poem in the collection, "Rain."
from RavensA raven bundled itself into air from midfieldAnd slid away under hard glistenings, low and guilty.* * *. . . And there is another,Just born, all black, splaying its tripod, inching its new pointsTowards its mother, and testing the noteIt finds in its mouth. But you have eyes nowOnly for the tattered bundle of throwaway lamb."Did it cry?" you keep asking, in a three-year-old field-widePiercing persistence. "Oh yes" I say "it cried.
from RainToads hop across rain-hammered roads. Every mutilated leaf thereLooks like a frog or a rained-out mouse. CattleWait under blackened backs. We drive post-holes.* * *. . . Cows roarThen hang their noses to the mud.Snipe go over, invisible in the dusk,With their squelching cries.
I'm thinking that Hughes's diction and Carruth's music are what make me feel so glum about the Jourdain poem I posted yesterday, with its sickly push-button meter and timid word choice. Milly did do better in other poems, but she was never a great artist. Meanwhile, Carruth and Hughes: yes, both of them were artists, and sometimes I think recklessness is the dividing line between decent work and stunning work. These men jumped off the cliff. They fucked up their lives and everyone else's too. But they also wrote the poems.