Doctor Jazz
Hayden Carruth
Copper Canyon Press
$18.00 Paperback

On a bleak day in 1972, in Denver, Colorado, two young men hauled an old printing press up three flights of tenement stairs. One of them, Sam Hamill, had had a dream which “had returned me to childhood memories of watching the huge open-pit mine in Bingham, on the southwest corner of the Great Salt Lake Valley, slowly devour an entire mountain.” This made Hamill think of  “copper canyon,” where the Northern Utes dug for the low-grade copper from which they made medicine bracelets.

Ten years before, while serving in the Marine Corps, stationed in Okinawa, Hamill had become a Zen Buddhist, dedicating his life “to spiritual practice, social activism, and poetry.” Thus, by naming the nascent poetry press Copper Canyon, which interrogates “ecological and spiritual values,” he could fulfill all three of his vows.
Working days at paying jobs, Hamill, and friend Jim Gautney, soon to be joined by Bill O’Daly and book designer Tree Swenson, taught themselves typesetting and editing, then began publishing chapbooks of poetry in editions of 500 and under. In 1974, Centrum, a nonprofit arts organization in Port Townsend, Washington, invited Copper Canyon to be their “literary press in-residence,” offering it a permanent home.

Copper Canyon Press was built on a tradition of small to medium-size literary presses that reached one apex during the 1950s, when New Directions Publishing, in New York, introduced some of the most innovative writers in the world to an American audience, and City Lights Books, in San Francisco, published many of the underground poets who came to be known as the Beat Generation. Both these presses, however, thrived in large urban environments, while Copper Canyon set up shop on the Olympic Peninsula, where Hamill and Swenson moved into a trailer without electricity or running water. While Swenson handled the day-to-day administration, as well as designing and printing the books, Hamill, besides reading and editing the manuscripts, became a journeyman artists-in-education teacher around the Northwest and Alaska, in what he calls his “transitory life-by-begging-bowl.” 

During the first decade, the Press published elegant limited edition books by distinguished poets, such as Kenneth Rexroth and Denise Levertov.  When this became too expensive a venture, the operation shifted into photo-offset trade editions, which allowed for the publication of new poets, such as Primus St. John and Gladys Cardiff, along with translations of Ancient Chinese poets dear to Hamill. Although still surviving on grants, Copper Canyon Press, sequestered in the rural Northwest, was gaining a national reputation.

When Hayden Carruth inquired as to whether Copper Canyon would be interested in reissuing his book, “The Sleeping Beauty,” a long and fruitful relationship began, producing volumes such as “Collected Shorter Poems,” which won the National Book Critic's Circle Award, and “Scrambled Eggs & Whisky,” winner of the 1996 National Book Award.

Carruth was born on August 3, 1921, in Waterbury, Connecticut,. After spending many years living in rural Vermont, he moved to upstate New York to teach at Syracuse University. Without compromising his political beliefs—he proudly calls himself an “anarchist” -- , Carruth has carved out a career as poet, critic, and professor of poetics and literary history.
Early in his career, Carruth  already carried the seeds of what the German writer Hermann Broch called “the style of old age,” in which the artist, “not content with the conventional vocabulary provided him by his epoch…must find a point beyond it.” Which brings me to Carruth’s love and respect for Jazz, the hard lives and, in some cases, genius, of its musicians. Most importantly, the poet has learned from the central position Jazz gives to playful improvisation.

“Doctor Jazz,” Hayden Carruth’s 45th book, displays the seemingly effortless skills of a mature artist, coupled with wisdom and a crusty sense of humor. It is a volume devoted to the poet addressing his past, along with the people and relationships that enriched those seven decades. Included is the long tender poem, “Dearest M-,” written on the day his daughter, Martha, died, “as she had lived for many years, / far away,” and a laconic letter to Sam Hamill: “By the way / the Buddha has his place across town on / Elysian Drive. We call him Bud. He’s lost weight / and got new dentures, and he looks a hell of a / lot better than he used to.”

“The ‘style of old age’ is not always a product of the years,” Broch wrote, but is often found “blossoming before its season under the foreshadow of death.” In, “The Sound,” Carruth looks back to a day when he was a boy listening to the buzz of unseen bees from his “sweet/grave in the grass.” Gazing the sky, the would-be poet and lover of music said to himself—

                                                 This is how the sound
                                                 of invisible stars singing would be

if only I could hear them. 

Copper Canyon Press published “Doctor Jazz” in conjunction with a celebration of Hayden Carruth’s 80th birthday by the Poetry Society of America.

© The Oregonian 2001