Notes on Poverty

Hayden Carruth

‘Notes on Poverty’ by Hayden Carruth is a short poem summarizing the meaning of poverty in one experience.

Hayden Carruth

Nationality: American

Hayden Carruth was an American poet, literary critic, and anthologist.

He won the National Book Award in 1996 for his collection "Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey."

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Poverty is not the best state to live in

Speaker: The poet

Emotions Evoked: Anger, Hopelessness, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Notes on Poverty' by Hayden Carruth is an autobiographical poem detailing a time in the speaker's life when he experiences abject poverty.

‘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. 


‘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.

Literary Devices

  • 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.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-2

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.

Lines 3-8

that I went in the dark

      in torn shoes

and furtiveness

      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.

Lines 9-12

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.

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Poetry+ Review Corner

Notes on Poverty

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Hayden Carruth (poems)

Hayden Carruth

Hayden Carruth wrote 'Notes on Poverty' to recount his early days living in poverty. The poem is autobiographical and remains part of Carruth's collection, "Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey." The poem is a good example of his verse and his interest in engaging with themes of struggle, poverty, and day-to-day life.
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20th Century

This is a poem with simple language and a nuanced experience. Although it shares a universal and relatable experience, it does not contribute to any major poetic or political movements of the 20th century. Therefore, one cannot say it had a major effect in this temporal setting.
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This poem is part of Carruth's collection, 'Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey,' which is popular among the American literary society. It gained widespread acclaim when it was awarded the National Book Award in 1996. Like many poems in this collection, 'Notes on Poverty' is loved by many for Carruth's ability to tell the gory details of human existence from a factual point of view.
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Though told factually, 'Notes on Poverty' echoes disappointment stemming from the speaker's past way of living. The speaker even curses his days of stealing animal food, showing it is not something he is proud of. He's disappointed that he had to live that way.
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This poem captures the speaker's and poet's state of being in a few lines. This, therefore, highlights his wellness as a major focus of the poem. The speaker is portrayed to be living in shabby conditions and struggling to make ends meet or even survive at all.
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Anger is evident in line two of 'Notes on Poverty.' The speaker curses his days in poverty; however, this is the only indication of anger revealed throughout the poem. Since the poem is so short, though, readers will likely be highly impacted by the appearance of this emotion.
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The poem does not give any indication of hope, even towards the end. The speaker is simply speaking about poverty, with no lines showing how he came out of it. As a result, the poem ends, leaving a feeling of hopelessness in the readers.
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The poem stirs sadness in the hearts of readers, mostly for the many who can, or could at one point, relate to the speaker's experience. This makes 'Notes on Poverty' a relatable and relevant poem, even today.
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Hard Times

The speaker/poet recounts hard times in 'Notes on Poverty.' "Damned days" from line 2 is the clearest indication that the poet is reminiscing. He on depressing memories and recalls for the reader what it was like to live as he did, having to steal food to survive.
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Life Struggles

Poverty is one of life's struggles, if not the major one. Throughout the poem, the speaker/poet reflects on his struggle with poverty. He shares with readers the things that lack of resources pushed him to do, for example: stealing and eating fodder.
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Poverty is the main subject of the poem. From the title alone, one can tell that 'Notes on Poverty' is centrally focused on poverty. The poem itself tells of the extent to which living in poverty drove the speaker's actions and defined a period in his life.
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There is no greater indication of suffering in the poem than the speaker stealing fodder. In 'Notes on Poverty,' readers glimpse the extent of the speaker's situation at the beginning of the poem. However, the highlight comes when the speaker mentions "cattle corn," thereby showing the poet/speaker could not even steal a meal fit for humans.
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Free Verse

This poem is written in free verse. It employs all the common features of free verse. These include no fixed meter or rhyme scheme and the continuous use of enjambment. Many of Carruth's poems were written in free verse.
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Anastasia Ifinedo Poetry Expert
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.

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