Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3183
Raymond Carver certainly had his faults, but he also had many strengths that were responsible for making him better loved than most other writers of his generation and ultimately more famous. He was humble, modest, honest, sincere, and dedicated. He was not ashamed to acknowledge his lower-class background or the fact that he had done a considerable amount of work that required him to get his hands dirty. He did not pretend to know all—or even any—of the answers. The reader senses that Carver was someone like himself or herself, struggling to make sense out of a life that actually did not make much sense at all.
Carver’s writing was always personal and autobiographical. He did not seem to know how to write any other way. This quality made him seem primitive and a mere literary curiosity to certain sophisticated critics but also endeared him to ordinary readers, many of whom felt betrayed by the trickery and emotional emptiness of much modern literature. Carver said, “My poems are of course not literally true” but acknowledged that, as in most of his short stories, “there is an autobiographical element.”
Carver never got on a pulpit or a soapbox. He never blamed anyone but himself for his troubles. His writings are remarkably devoid of allusions to religion and politics, the Scylla and Charybdis of most modern writers. This was probably another thing that annoyed his critics: They wanted him to take a position—preferably one aligned with their own. A writer can toil in obscurity forever without a glance from such people, but if he begins receiving recognition, then they immediately want to bring him into their camp. Thus critics have complained that in Carver’s poems there are no resolutions, no epiphanies—as if resolutions and epiphanies were something that came in boxes of twelve at the supermarket. One of Carver’s writing mottos was “No cheap tricks.” He steered by this motto all his life, and it always guided him in the direction of unadorned self-revelation. The photographs that appear on the backs of many of his published volumes show a big, awkward, shy-looking man with questioning eyes that are hard to look at and hard to look away from. He was the sort of plain-spoken American that Americans have always admired, not unlike Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Jimmy Stewart. In an age when every television personality seems to have all the answers to life’s biggest questions, it is refreshing to come upon a writer such as Carver who has no easy answers to offer. Carver will be remembered not for his depth of thought but for his depth of feeling. He saw life as a mystery, but a wonderful and fascinating mystery.
When Carver published Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories in 1983, he said that he had collected in the book everything he had previously written that he considered worth keeping. In addition to two very illuminating essays about his life and his writing values, the book contains fifty of his poems dating back to 1968. Most of the themes that would appear in his later poems are evident in these early works. “Near Klamath,” for example, is one of many expressions of his love for nature and particularly for fishing. Many of Carver’s poems about nature remind the reader of Hemingway’s passionate love for physical action in the outdoors. Hemingway was one of Carver’s early literary models; they have a similar simple, straightforward style of writing and have a similar reticence to express sentimental feelings.
With Carver, one senses that his love of nature was connected with a yearning for escape from the responsibilities that plagued him—the menial jobs, the coin-operated laundries, the crying children, the endless bills, the junk cars, the squatter’s life in cheap apartments and borrowed dwellings—and kept him from his writing, the only thing that gave his life meaning. In one of his better-known poems, “Winter Insomnia,” he writes:
The mind would like to get out of here onto the snow. It would like to run with a pack of shaggy animals, all teeth.
“Drinking While Driving” is one of the many pieces Carver wrote about drinking during his lifetime. “Bankruptcy” tells with wry humor how he became bankrupt for the first time at the age of twenty-eight. A similar story is told in a later poem titled “Miracle,” published in A New Path to the Waterfall; the wry humor is still there (as it remained for the rest of his life), but his wife’s reaction to this second bankruptcy was far more violent. “Deschutes River” is an interesting poem because it brings together his love for the outdoors and his personal guilt and anxiety: The poem ends with the lines “Far away—/ another man is raising my children,/ bedding my wife bedding my wife.”
Some of the poems collected in Fires show the bad habits a naïve beginner can pick up from other writers who substitute stylistic legerdemain, erudition, wit, and exoticism for genuine feeling. “Rhodes,” “The Mosque in Jaffa,” and “Spring, 480 b.c.” are among the poems in which Carver deals with foreign sights and sounds, evidently trying to evoke refined sentiments. Poems with this foreign flavor continue to appear in his subsequent volumes and are among the least appealing of his works. Many of them have a certain artificial or chapbook quality, as if written by a professor on sabbatical. It was inevitable that Carver’s growing fame as well as his exposure to academia would tempt him to seem more cultivated than he actually was; he was most likable and most effective, however, as a simple lad from the Pacific Northwest who had barely managed to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
The poems collected in Ultramarine, published in 1986, represent Carver at his best. These poems are longer, more confident. The words march across the pages almost with the brave assurance of John Milton’s iambic pentameter in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Carver, however, always shunned rhyme and meter. Stylistically, he belongs to that vast modern school of poets who have abandoned all poetic conventions and try to write like someone talking to a close friend. Though his poems have rhythm, rhyme and meter would seem as grossly out of place in a poem by Carver as he himself would look in an Elizabethan costume with lace ruffles.
The question arises, why then did he continue to arrange his words in lines to look like poems? Why did he not abandon this last vestige of conventional poetry and write his thoughts as plain prose? There are several possible answers. Probably the most important one is that the appearance of a poem gives the author more freedom. Prose poems such as those written by Charles Baudelaire have never gained wide popularity. A reader faced with a prose paragraph expects a reasoned utterance, a logical progression of ideas from the first to the last sentence. The poetic format allows Carver the freedom to use exclamations, interjections, incomplete sentences, neologisms, allusions, abrupt changes of subject, or whatever else he wishes. Here are the first four lines of “In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo”:
The girl in the lobby reading a leather-bound book. The man in the lobby using a broom. The boy in the lobby watering plants. The desk clerk looking at his nails.
These fragments would seem surrealistic in a straight prose paragraph; such prose might remind one of the experimental writing of Gertrude Stein. An arrangement in lines like those of a traditional poem, however, prepares the reader to approach the words in a different way.
One of the most interesting poems in Ultramarine consists entirely of short fragments describing an oldcar that Carver once owned—or that once owned Carver.
The car with a cracked windshield. The car that threw a rod. The car without brakes. The car with a faulty U-joint. The car with a hole in its radiator. The car I picked peaches for.
The poem continues in this vein for forty-four more lines and ends with the words “My car.” By the time the reader finishes the poem, he or she has formed a remarkably complete picture not only of the car, but also of Carver’s life and state of mind over the long period during which he was chained to this horrible automobile. It is characteristic of Carver to take his imagery from the external world rather than search for it in his own memory. There seems to be a Japanese influence here, perhaps by way of his favorite poet, William Carlos Williams. Like many of the poems in Ultramarine, “The Car” deals with themes of alcoholism, debt, meaningless work, domestic unhappiness, and the longing for escape. As always, there is also a note of unconquerable humor even in this Job-like litany of despair.
There is, however, a slightly different note, a slightly different perspective. In most of these poems, Carver is now talking about the past. Life has improved for him. He has achieved recognition. He is earning some money and not having to do it with a mop or a broom. He has quit drinking. Perhaps most significantly, Ultramarine is dedicated to Gallagher, a fellow writer and evidently a real soul mate, someone who would be with him for the rest of his life.
“NyQuil” is one of the poems in which Carver remembers his nightmare with alcohol. NyQuil is a well-known cold medicine, but Carver was doggedly drinking it as a substitute for liquor. An acquaintance, he says, was similarly trying to break his addiction to Scotch whiskey by drinking mouthwash by the case. This externalization or projection of feelings is a common characteristic of Carver’s writing—both in his poems and in his short stories. The image of a man drinking NyQuil by the tumblerful gives the reader a vivid conception of the depth of Carver’s addiction to alcohol.
“Jean’s TV” is another poem in which an external object serves as an extended metaphor. A former girlfriend and drinking companion named Jean calls to ask when he plans to return the black-and-white television set she had left with him when she moved out. He hems and haws until the reader finally understands: He must have sold it a long time ago to buy liquor. Carver has confessed in interviews that he was capable of doing almost anything in his drinking days; he was also apparently unusually susceptible to feelings of remorse.
In “The Possible,” he talks about another former drinking companion, this one a fellow college teacher, and makes the following interesting statement about his many years of teaching: “I was a stranger,/ and an impostor, even to myself.” “Where They’d Lived” is among the poems that deal with his unhappy marriage. Like most of the poems collected in this volume, these two pieces seem to be looking back at a receding past.
One new theme appears quite prominently among the poems collected in Ultramarine, the book that established Carver’s reputation as a poet. It is the theme of unexpected death. “Egress” tells of a man who “fell dead/ one night after dinner, after talking over some business deal.” “Powder-Monkey” is the story of a coworker who is killed in a head-on collision with a logging truck. In “An Account,” a friend dies of a heart attack while watching the television serial Hill Street Blues (1981-1987). In each of these poems, Carver seems stunned. “What does this mean?” he seems to be asking the reader. “How can this happen?”
Somehow the black shadow of death makes Carver’s message to the world suddenly stand out bright and clear. Life itself is beautiful in any aspect. The human tragedy and the human comedy are two sides of the same coin. Drinking, toiling, fighting, and lying to the landlords and the bill collectors are all a part of life, and consequently they all contain their own weird beauty. Clearly, Carver was experiencing strong premonitions of his own approaching death.
A New Path to the Waterfall
Carver finished A New Path to the Waterfall shortly before he died of lung cancer. The title of the book is taken from one of the poems in the volume, “Looking for Work.” The speaker dreams that he is out fishing: “Suddenly, I find a new path/ to the waterfall.” His wife wakes him up, however, and tells him that he must go out and find a job. The themes of unhappy marriage, responsibilities, shortage of cash, and a desire to escape to nature are still here, even though Carver’s troubles were at this point only ghosts of the past. One of the most harrowing poems in the book is “Miracle,” in which he matter-of-factly and in excruciating detail describes the aftermath of his second bankruptcy proceeding. On the way home on the airplane, his wife turns in her seat and begins hitting him in the face with clenched fists.
All the while his head is pummeled, buffeted back and forth, her fists falling against his ear, his lips, his jaw, he protects his whiskey.
The shadow of death is the subject that dominates this last collection of Carver’s poetry. What he sensed intuitively in Ultramarine has become an unblinking reality. Early in his career, he had chosen to write short stories and short poems because his struggle to support a family left him no time to contemplate larger projects; ironically, now that he had leisure and a certain amount of financial security, death was pressing him even harder than the bosses and bill collectors of old. In September, 1987, Carver, a heavy cigarette smoker for many years, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Two-thirds of his left lung was removed, but the cancer recurred as a brain tumor in March of the following year. He underwent seven weeks of full-brain radiation; however, by early June, the doctors found tumors in his lungs again. He knew he had only a short time left to live.
Some of Carver’s last poems are not only his most moving but also his most successful in terms of realizing his artistic aims. “Poems” reveals how he understood his creative process. His poems “came to him,” and he wrote them down as if he had heard them whispered in his ear. Frequently they came to him in the form of dreams, as was the case with “Looking for Work.” He was never satisfied with the original versions of his poems, however, and he polished them painstakingly for a long time before letting them out of his hands. At their best, these poems seem to have no need for rhyme or meter or any of the other paraphernalia of conventional poetry. His method might be described as functionalism: The thought finds its own form, so that thought and form seem molded to each other. “Through the Boughs” comes close to perfection in this style of poetic composition.
Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged- looking birds gather at the feeder. . . . The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and won’t stop blowing. . . . Give me your hand for a time. Hold on to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was, those ragged birds cry.
These last poems by Carver are almost the royal road to understanding what many modern poets have been trying to do. They have abandoned rhyme and meter. They have abandoned what used to be called poetic diction. They write in a conversational style. They attempt to allow the poetic message to dictate the poem’s own unique form. No one has expressed the essential notion behind modern poetry better than the great American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said in his essay “The Poet” that “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”
Ironically, the circumstances that originally kept Carver from writing became the principal material of much of his poetry and fiction. His recognition of this fact may partially explain the wry humor found in many of his most doleful poems. Drinking bouts, hangovers, guilt, divorce, and debt were recurring themes of his stories and poems. He recognized that even his own terminal illness was a powerful subject for his poetry. With characteristic naïveté and improvidence, Carver had chosen precisely the two literary forms that are hardest to sell and pay the least money when they do sell—poetry and short stories. These choices automatically condemned him to long years of poverty, with all the problems that accompanied it. (Gardner had not warned Carver and his classmates of this reality when he advised them to forget about the “slicks” and concentrate on the “little” magazines, “where the best fiction in the country was being published, and all of the poetry.”) Even had he lived longer, Carver would have had a hard time making a living as a writer: He was dependent on the various disguised forms of charity that are the creative writer’s lot in the age of television.
“Proposal,” “Cherish,” “Gravy,” “No Need,” and “After-Glow” all confront the imminence of death. “What the Doctor Said,” in which Carver relates how a doctor informed him that he had at least thirty-two malignant nodules on one lung and was doomed, still is tinged with that ineradicable Carver humor, his most endearing quality. Though he has no resolutions or epiphanies to offer the reader, his invincible spirit, his truthfulness and dedication, and his admirable humanity are resolution and epiphany in themselves.
Carver had started as a country yokel in a rocky region whose literary roots did not run deep; he had made the painful climb from ignorance to enlightenment, from inarticulate frustration to masterful eloquence, from anonymity to fame. Many of his poems and stories are confessions of his sins, but readers have forgiven him because they recognize in him their own faults as well as some of their virtues. He had more than mere talent with words: He had the extra quality of soul that only great writers possess. He saw literature not as a stylish game but as the most important job a person can do. When he died on the morning of August 2, 1988, his works were being read in twenty different languages, and he has a better chance of being remembered for the next few centuries than do most of his contemporaries. His career was a striking illustration of what Emerson meant when he said in “The Poet,” “Thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a long season. This is the screen and sheath in which Pan has protected his well-beloved flower. . . . and though thou shouldst walk the world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble.”
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