‘Notes on Poverty’ by Hayden Carruth is a short autobiographical poem capturing the speaker’s, and therefore the poet’s, experience of living in poverty. This poem was published in the poetry collection, Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995, which won the National Book Award.
Explore Notes on Poverty
‘Notes on Poverty’ by Hayden Carruth is a short poem summarizing poverty from the speaker’s experience.
‘Notes on Poverty’ starts with a question that extends throughout the poem. Within that question, the speaker, who is also the poet, shares the extent to which living in poverty drove him. He speaks of stealing food, preferably called fodder for cows, and not even having the equipment to cook it. The speaker presents this experience as his question to an unknown audience. Ultimately, he answers this rhetorical question, telling his audience that this experience was once his state of living.
‘Notes on Poverty’ by Hayden Carruth is a simple free verse poem. It comprises 12 lines presented as a single stanza, with even-numbered lines indented. The lines are short and with no fixed meter. Nonetheless, no line exceeds five syllables.
Enjambment runs throughout the poem in the form of the speaker’s question. Carruth also uses punctuation appropriately to indicate the end of the question and the end of its answer.
- Rhetorical Question: The first eleven lines and part of the twelfth line form a single rhetorical question. The remainder of the poem is the speaker answering his question even though the answer is obvious.
- Apostrophe: The speaker addresses an absent audience throughout ‘Notes on Poverty.’ His need to answer his rhetorical question indicates this.
- Alliteration: This appears in lines 2 and 7. The “d” sound repeats in line 2 with “damned days,” and the “k” sound repeats in line 7: “cattle corn.”
- Simile: The speaker compares, rather redundantly, “cattle corn” to “hard maize” in line 10.
- Enjambment: This literary device is evident throughout the poem. The speaker’s rhetorical question runs through 10 of the poem’s 12 lines.
Was I so poor
in those damned days
The opening lines of ‘Notes on Poverty’ indicate the speaker’s reminiscing. The speaker, who is also the poet, considering Hayden Carruth’s autobiographical style, tells of a time in his life when he experienced abject poverty. This correlates with Carruth’s history which confirms he spent a greater part of his career living in poverty. Line 2 reveals an angry tone judging by the language “damned.” As one would expect, the speaker Carruth is not fond of the memories he recalls.
that I went in the dark
in torn shoes
to steal fat ears
of cattle corn
from the good cows
Hayden Carruth was also known for being deeply personal in his poetry. He shared the details of his life as they were without sugarcoating. The overall tone from these lines forward is serious and objective. As per Carruth’s narrative style, he shares his experience factually.
Furthermore, Carruth is specific. In these lines, he does not discuss poverty generally but rather uses his diction to capture the exact state he was in. This state was stealing food, more specifically, fodder. Although the speaker narrates his truth objectively, the imagery of stealing food meant for animals stirs pity in the hearts of readers.
Line 8 alludes to the speaker’s physical appearance beside his “torn shoes.” “Good cows” means healthy cows; the speaker judges the fodder he steals by the cows’ appearance. This gives readers the impression that the speaker only hopes to be as healthy as the “good cows” after stealing their food. The thought makes the poem sad yet relatable to anyone who shares the speaker’s experience.
and pound them
like hard maize
on my worn Aztec
stone? I was.
The last lines of ‘Notes on Poverty’ stir more pity in the hearts of readers. This is because the speaker implies he did not have adequate equipment to cook the stolen fodder. His food has to be ground in a primitive fashion. This, by extension, gives readers insight into our speaker’s health condition. Cattle corn contains much starch and low protein, so our speaker was malnourished at this point.
Moreover, cattle corn is not as succulent as the normal corn humans consume, hence the “hard maize” comparison (line 10). This means the speaker made do with the “food” that was around, even if it was not necessarily sweet. This tells readers a lot about Carruth’s environment as well. If he could only steal cattle corn, it is more than likely that he lived in a poor neighborhood at the time.
Although Carruth shares a simple narrative, he artfully depicts the condition many live in even today. This makes ‘Notes on Poverty‘ not only relevant but also universally relatable.
About Hayden Carruth
Hayden Carruth lived between August 3, 1921, and September 29, 2008, as a poet, literary critic, and editor. He was especially known for adapting simple language and jazz-like rhythms into his poetry which, for much of his life, focused on his experiences. His most famous work today is ‘The Bloomingdale Papers’ (1975), a long poem recounting his experience at White Plain’s asylum in New York.
Carruth wrote this poem during his hospitalization in the ward, where he was treated for electroconvulsive therapy, mental distress, and alcoholism. Both ailments remained even after he left the asylum but served to inspire his writing about human existence, sadness, and mental illness. Much of his work garnered critical acclaim later in his life, including the poetry collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, which received the National Book Award.
If you enjoyed reading ‘Notes on Poverty,’ you should check out similar poetry:
- ‘Poverty’ by Marinela Reka – is a thought-provoking poem elaborating on poverty, majorly using rhetorical questions.
- ‘The Complaints of Poverty‘ by Nicholas James – this 18th-century poem challenges the wealthy to help the poor by portraying, rather graphically, the brutal condition of abject poverty.
- ‘Plague’ by Jackie Kay – this poem captures the effect of the historical plague in London by telling of a woman who comes to the realization that her sons will soon die of this epidemic.