Raymond Carver is one of the twentieth century’s most popular storytellers; fiction anthologies and literature textbooks nearly always feature samples of his work. “Where I’m Calling From” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” have become as familiar to students as William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and often more popular with them. Carver’s stories use compressed, elliptical dialogue to telegraph intense emotions in psychologically persuasive, sympathetic characters. To read Carver’s fiction is to feel powerfully in touch with the surface and depths of twentieth century life.
Carver’s fiction was recognized immediately and received numerous awards during his life; he was nominated for the National Book Award for Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (1976), and for the Pulitzer Prize for the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). In 1988 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Carver died in 1988 of cancer; his fiction has continued to gain recognition since his death. His combination of the casual and the violent, all presented in the precise idiom of the time and place, has won for him a permanent place in literature.
Carver is less well known as a poet, but he was publishing poetry as well as fiction over his writing years. However, his books of poetry were less well known and less widely and favorably reviewed. William L. Stull has collected them into a substantial volume, which in addition to the poems includes a preface; an introduction by his second wife, poet Tess Gallagher; and a number of appendices. The appendices include uncollected poems, Gallagher’s introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall (1989), small-press sources of Carver’s major books, a note on “In a Marine Light,” bibliographical and textual notes, a life chronology, and a list of posthumous publications. These are followed by an index of titles and an index of first lines, providing almost one hundred pages of apparatus. Moreover, several sections are introduced by translations of foreign works, which highlight Carver’s pet preoccupations and themes. The amount of supplementary materials underscores that this is a serious enterprise and perhaps suggests that Carver is as serious a poet as he is a fiction writer. Is this so?
Much of the poetry in All of Us was written relatively late in Carver’s career. Although his first short books were poetry collections, the bulk of his poetry was published from 1985 on, and fewer than one hundred pages into this collection the reader finds himself in the company of a forty-five-year-old poet who has only five years left to live. From the beginning the poems are reminiscent and elegiac. Some of the work appeared posthumously in the collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Carver seems to have given up fiction in favor of poetry toward the end of his life, a choice some of his fans regret. However, his last work provides moving reflections on his coming death from cancer. These impressions could only have been presented as poems; the distancing structure of the short story would not have allowed such personal directness. Some of his earlier poems are on themes similar to Allen Ginsberg’s and capture the essence of the 1960’s. However, Carver never wrote high-energy, celebratory poems, even at his most optimistic. These are snows-of-yesteryear poems, sometimes wrenching, sometimes merely melancholy.
Generally, All of Us is a book that will spark arguments. It provides hundreds of brief narratives that can be seen as inconclusive short stories or as finished poems. Carver’s life was tumultuous, involving divorce, two bankruptcies, alcoholism, and recovery; the peaks and valleys of his life form the basis for his fiction and poetry. In the short stories, the characters’ looks, gestures, and laconic comments speak volumes. The longer speeches that characters may make as a last, desperate effort at communication or their soliloquies that follow their most painful epiphanies often lyrically present some impossible human dilemma without sentimentality.
The best of the poems create miniature stories or vignettes that reveal a bit of character and smile wryly at the ironies of contemporary life. Others attempt to do so, but without the support of a sustained narrative structure they fail to achieve the evocation of emotion Carver’s spare, precise writing almost always accomplishes in fiction. Carver’s poetry does not in general have the compactness of most contemporary poetry or of...