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Raymond Carver 1938-1988

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Contemporary American poet, essayist, and short story writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Carver's poetry from 1987 through 1999.

Considered a master of the short story, Carver also was an accomplished poet. He drew inspiration from his troubled youth and afflicted early adulthood to capture in poetry the effects of chance and circumstance on people trying to live with stoic dignity. As in his short fiction, Carver's poems are noted for their plain language, memorable characters, and realistic depiction of hardships in life. Carver was awarded several prestigious fellowships and held teaching appointments at major universities, including Syracuse, Stanford, and several campuses of the University of California. Just prior to his death, Carver married his companion of more than ten years, acclaimed poet Tess Gallagher.

Biographical Information

Hailed as a modern-day Stephen Crane and even as the American version of acclaimed, Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov, Carver wrote of the people with whom he lived in the Pacific Northwest—the poorly educated working-class who scrape together a tenuous living. His poetry often considers the everyday people who continually struggle against ignorance, chance, and the cold circumstances faced by those for whom life is a continual battle to maintain a modicum of comfort and security. It was, after all, such a life into which Carver was born May 25, 1938, in Clatskanie, Oregon.

When Carver was three the family moved to Yakima, Washington, where his father worked in a sawmill. Growing up interested mostly in girls, cars, hunting, and fishing, Carver was a diffident student but recognized early in life his tremendous urge to write. After finishing high school, Carver moved with his father to northern California to work in a sawmill. Less than a year later he returned to Yakima and married Maryann Burk, who was sixteen years old and within the year gave birth to their first child. By the time Carver was 21 years old, he had two children, and was working low-wage jobs with his wife to pay their bills while attending college part time at Chico State. Carver enrolled in a class taught by the novelist John Gardner. Gardner was a patient and attentive mentor to Carver, and probably a model for Carver the teacher, who was revered by the many students he subsequently taught in writing programs across the country. Carver eventually graduated from Humboldt State in 1963, and the following fall he studied as a fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Financial difficulties interrupted his stay, and by 1967 the Carvers filed for bankruptcy.

Despite financial insecurity, Carver continued to edit textbooks and write stories and poems. By 1970, his stories were earning acclaim and awards, but his life started to unravel as he turned to heavy drinking. It was during this time that Carver accepted positions at several campuses of the University of California, at Stanford, and, in 1973, at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. By 1974, Carver was increasingly incapacitated by alcoholism; the Carvers filed for bankruptcy the second time, Maryann began drinking, and their marriage was disintegrating. Finally, in 1977 Carver quit drinking for good. Shortly thereafter he met the poet Tess Gallagher, with whom he would share and develop his poetry for nearly ten years. In 1978 Carver split from Maryann and moved to El Paso, Texas, where Gallagher later joined him. The two poets shared their personal and artistic lives together, eventually marrying in June 1988.

In 1980 Carver was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for fiction, and he and Gallagher began teaching at Syracuse University and spending their summers in her home town of Port Angeles, Washington. Throughout the 1980s, collections of his stories were published by major presses, he was a frequent contributor to Poetry Magazine and the New Yorker, and he received a five-year fellowship from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1987 Carver was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died shortly after marrying Gallagher, on August 2, 1988, in Port Angeles, at age 50.

Major Works

Carver's acclaim comes largely from his fiction, but he published poems in numerous publications and several volumes of collections. Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985), won the Levinson Prize for poetry and a Los Angeles Times book prize. Critics questioned whether these were indeed poems. In the New York Times Book Review the poet Carol Muske praised Carver's “credible voice” but declared that the poems were “rehearsals for poems, anecdotes precedent to poetry.” Writing in Poetry Dave Smith concluding that they were indeed poems, that in fact they are “often very good, very moving, very memorable,” but that Carver the poet is an “acquired taste,” a bit like a “primitive painter” In what Gallagher called “the most astute essay on [Carver's] poetry,” Gregory Kuzma wrote that there was a discovery in the poems collected in Ultramarine (1896): “a sudden burst of emotion, restraint where it is unexpected, self-control masterfully exhibited in the midst of exasperation, juxtaposition to show us the world as a new place, fertile, inexhaustible, and more strange than we ever knew or wanted it to be.” In the Kenyon Review Fred Chappell raised what he called the “Carver Myth” before dismissing A New Path to the Waterfall (1989) because, as he wrote, “the only trouble with Raymond Carver's poems is that he was not a poet.” Gallagher, however, in the introduction to that final collection that Carver worked on until his death wrote that “perhaps the best way to characterize these poems [in A New Path to the Waterfall] is by their dis-ease, the way in which a wildness, a strangeness, can erupt and carry us into realms of unreason with no way to turn back.”

Critical Reception

Carver once wrote that he would be pleased if on his tombstone it was written “‘poet and short-story writer—and occasional essayist’ in that order.” Gallagher has written that “poetry was a spiritual necessity” for Carver, but critics have tended to approach his poetry for the clues it may yield to better understanding his short stories. The novelist Russell Banks, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, compared Carver to Stephen Crane, for “both wrote excellent poetry as well as the fiction for which they are better known.” Banks also pointed to another factor in critically assessing Carver's work when he observed that “not since Chekhov has an author's good nature been so much celebrated after his death.” Banks is ultimately moved by Carver's work because, as a fellow resident of an impoverished rural America, “I instantly recognize and love and am terrified by the empty spaces, the stillness, and the stoicism of Raymond Carver's stories and poems.” A. O. Scott, writing in the New York Review of Books, acknowledged the problem of separating Carver the man from works of Carver, and the stories from the poems. He thought the best poems were those most like Carver's stories, and “the best of Carver's writing now seems, in retrospect, to be suffused with the best of his personality—affable, humble, battered, wise … [but] the adversities and triumphs of Carver's life have obscured his work, that we now read that work through the screen of biography, and that his identity as a writer is, in consequence, blurred.” But Scott eventually concludes that “Carver was an artist of a rare and valuable kind: he told simple stores, and made it look hard.” One of the most unambiguous and uncharacteristically unadorned assessments comes from renowned international author Salman Rushdie: “Read everything Raymond Carver wrote.”

Principal Works

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Near Klamath 1968

Winter Insomnia 1970

At Night the Salmon Move 1976

Two Poems 1982

Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories, 1966-1982 1983

This Water 1985

Where Water Comes Together with Other Water 1985

Ultramarine 1986

In a Marine Light: Selected Poems 1987

Those Days: Early Writings by Raymond Carver: Eleven Poems 1987

A New Path to the Waterfall 1989

No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings (poetry and essays) 1989

All of Us: The Collected Poems 1996

Put Yourself in My Shoes (short stories) 1974

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (short stories) 1976

Furious Seasons and Other Stories (short stories) 1977

What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (short stories) 1981

The Pheasant (short stories) 1982

Cathedral (short stories) 1984

If It Please You (short stories) 1984

The Stories of Raymond Carver (short stories) 1985

Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1988

Short Cuts: Selected Stories (short stories) 1993

Call if You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose (prose) 2001

Raymond Carver and Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory (interview date 1987)

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SOURCE: McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with Raymond Carver.” In Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980's, edited by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, pp. 66-82. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

[In the following interview, Carver reflects on his childhood, his writing methods, and his literary influences.]

To be inside a Raymond Carver story is a bit like standing in a model kitchen at Sears—you experience a weird feeling of disjuncture that comes from being in a place where things appear to be real and familiar, but where a closer look shows that the turkey is papier-mâché, the broccoli is rubber, and the frilly curtains cover a blank wall. In Carver's fiction things are simply not as they appear. Or, rather, things are more than they appear to be, for often commonplace objects—a broken refrigerator, a car, a cigarette, a bottle of beer or whiskey—become transformed in Carver's hands, from realistic props in realistic stories to powerful, emotionally charged signifiers in and of themselves. Language itself undergoes a similar transformation. Since there is little authorial presence and since Carver's characters are often inarticulate and bewildered about the turns their lives have taken, their seemingly banal conversations are typically endowed with unspoken intensity and meaning. Watching Carver's characters interact, then, is rather like spending an evening with two close friends who you know have had a big fight just before you arrived: even the most ordinary gestures and exchanges have transformed meanings, hidden tensions, emotional depths.

Although Carver published two books of poetry in the late 1960s and early '70s (Near Klamath in 1968 and Winter Insomnia in 1970), it was his book of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, published in 1976 and nominated for the National Book Award, that established his national reputation as a writer with a unique voice and style. Pared down, stark, yet intense, these stories can perhaps best be compared in their achievement to work outside literature, Bruce Springsteen's album Nebraska. Like Springsteen, Carver writes about troubled people on the outs—out of work, out of love, out of touch—whose confusion, turmoils, and poignancy are conveyed through an interplay of surface details. His next collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), takes this elliptical, spare style even further. With just enough description to set the scene, just enough interpretation of motivation to clarify the action, these stories offer the illusion of the authorless story in which “reality” is transcribed and meaning arises without mediation. This move toward greater and greater economy was abandoned by Carver in Cathedral (1983); as the following conversation indicates, changes in his personal life affected his aesthetics. While still written in his distinctive voice, these stories explore more interior territory using less constricted language.

This change (mirrored as well in his most recent collection of poems, Ultramarine [1986]) is apparent not just in style but in the themes found in Cathedral, which contains several stories of hope and spiritual communion. As we drove to Carver's home outside Port Angeles, Washington, we were still formulating questions designed to reveal why Cathedral was less bleak, less constricted. But nothing very devious or complex was required. Sitting in his living room, which offers an amazing vista of the blustery Strait of Juan de Fuca, Carver was obviously a happy man—happy in the homelife he shares with Tess Gallagher, his work, his victory over alcohol, and his new direction. Replying to our questions in a soft, low voice with the same kind of direct honesty evident in his fiction, Carver seemed less like an author of three collections of stories; a book of essays, short stories, and poems (Fires, 1983); and three volumes of poetry than he did a writer starting out, eager to begin work, anxious to see where his life would lead.

[Larry McCaffery]: In an essay in Fires, you say, “To write a novel, a writer should be living in a world that makes sense, a world that the writer can believe in, draw a bead on, and then write about accurately. A world that will, for a time anyway, stay fixed in one place. Along with this there has to be a belief in the essential correctness of that world.” Am I right in assuming that you've arrived at a place, physically and psychologically, where you can believe in the “correctness” of your world enough to sustain a novel-length imaginary world?

[Raymond Carver]: I do feel I've arrived at such a place. My life is very different now than it used to be; it seems much more comprehensible to me. It was previously almost impossible for me to imagine trying to write a novel in the state of incomprehension, despair, really, that I was in. I have hope now, and I didn't have hope then—“hope” in the sense of belief. I believe now that the world will exist for me tomorrow in the same way it exists for me today. That didn't used to be the case. For a long time I found myself living by the seat of my pants, making things terribly difficult for myself and everyone around me by my drinking. In this second life, this post-drinking life, I still retain a certain sense of pessimism, I suppose, but I also have belief in and love for the things of this world. Needless to say, I'm not talking about microwave ovens, jet planes, and expensive cars.

[LM]: Does this mean you have plans to try your hand at a novel?

Yes. Maybe. Maybe after I finish this new manuscript of poems. Maybe then I'll return to fiction and do some longer fiction, a novel or a novella. I feel like I'm reaching the end of the time of writing poetry. In another month or so I'll have written something like 150-180 poems during this period, so I feel like I'm about to run out this string, and then I can go back to fiction. It's important to me, though, to have this new book of poems in manuscript in the cupboard. When Cathedral came out, that cupboard was absolutely bare; I don't want something like that to happen again. Tobias Wolff recently finished a book of stories that he turned in to Houghton Mifflin; he asked me if it was hard for me to start work again after finishing a book, because he was having a hard time getting going again. I told him not to worry about it now, but that he should make sure he's well along on something by the time his book is ready to come out. If you've emptied all your cupboards, the way I had after Cathedral, it can be difficult to catch your stride again.

[Sinda Gregory]: Your newfound “belief in love for the things of this world” is very evident in some of the stories in Cathedral, especially in the title story.

That story was very much an “opening up” process for me—I mean that in every sense. “Cathedral” was a larger, grander story than anything I had previously written. When I began writing that story I felt that I was breaking out of something I had put myself into, both personally and aesthetically. I simply couldn't go on any farther in the direction I had been going in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Oh, I could have, I suppose, but I didn't want to. Some of the stories were becoming too attenuated. I didn't write anything for five or six months after that book came out. I literally wrote nothing except letters. So it was especially pleasing to me that, when I finally sat down to write again, I wrote that story, “Cathedral.” It felt like I had never written anything that way before. I could let myself go in some way, I didn't have to impose the restrictions on myself that I had in the earlier stories. The last story I wrote for the collection was “Fever,” which was also just about the longest story I've ever written. And it's affirmative, I think, positive in its outlook. Really, the whole collection is different, and the next book is going to be different as well!

[LM]: What does it mean to a writer like you to find yourself, relatively suddenly, in such a different frame of mind? Do you find it difficult today to write about the despair, emotional turmoil, and hopelessness that is so much a part of the vision of your earlier fiction?

No, because when I need to open this door to my imagination—stare out over the window casement, what Keats called his “magic casements”—I can remember exactly the texture of that despair and hopelessness, I can still taste it, feel it. The things that are emotionally meaningful to me are still very much alive and available to me, even though the circumstances of my personal life have changed. Merely because my physical surroundings and my mental state are different today doesn't mean, of course, that I still don't know exactly what I was talking about in the earlier stories. I can bring all that back if I choose to, but I'm finding that I am not driven to write about it exclusively. That's not to say I'm interested in writing about life here, where I live in Four Seasons Ranch, this chichi development. If you look carefully at Cathedral, you'll find that many of those stories have to do with that other life, which is still very much with me. But not all of them do, which is why the book feels different to me.

[LM]: A striking example of the differences you're referring to can be seen when you compare “A Small Good Thing” (in Cathedral) with the earlier version, “The Bath,” which appeared in What We Talk About. The differences between the two versions are clearly fundamental.

Certainly there's a lot more optimism in “A Small Good Thing.” In my own mind I consider them to be really two entirely different stories, not just different versions of the same story; it's hard to even look on them as coming from the same source. I went back to that one, as well as several others, because I felt there was unfinished business that needed attending to. The story hadn't been told originally; it had been messed around with, condensed and compressed in “The Bath” to highlight the qualities of menace that I wanted to emphasize—you see this with the business about the baker, the phone call, with its menacing voice on the other line, the bath, and so on. But I still felt there was unfinished business, so in the midst of writing these other stories for Cathedral I went back to “The Bath” and tried to see what aspects of it needed to be enhanced, redrawn, reimagined. When I was done, I was amazed because it seemed so much better. I've had people tell me that they much prefer “The Bath,” which is fine, but “A Small Good Thing” seems to me to be a better story.

[SG]: Many of your stories either open with the ordinary being slightly disturbed by this sense of menace you've just mentioned, or they develop in that direction. Is this tendency the result of your conviction that the world is menacing for most people? Or does it have more to do with an aesthetic choice—that menace contains more interesting possibilities for storytelling?

The world is a menacing place for many of the people in my stories, yes. The people I've chosen to write about do feel menace, and I think many, if not most, people feel the world is a menacing place. Probably not so many people who will see this interview feel menace in the sense I'm talking about. Most of our friends and acquaintances, yours and mine, don't feel this way. But try living on the other side of the tracks for a while. Menace is there, and it's palpable. As to the second part of your question, that's true, too. Menace does contain, for me at least, more interesting possibilities to explore.

[SG]: When you look back at your stories, do you find “unfinished business” in most of them?

This may have to do with this newfound confidence, but I feel that the stories in Cathedral are finished in a way I rarely felt about my stories previously. I've never even read the book since I saw it in bound galleys. I was happy about those stories, not worried about them; I felt there was simply no need to mess around with them, make new judgments about them. A lot of this surely has to do with this whole complicated business about the new circumstances in my life, my sense of confidence in what I'm doing with my life and my work. For such a long time, when I was an alcoholic, I was very un-confident and had such very low self-esteem, both as a person and as a writer, that I was always questioning my judgments about everything. Every good thing that has happened to me during the last several years has been an incentive to do more and do better. I know I've felt that recently in writing all these poems, and it's affecting my fiction as well. I'm more sure of my voice, more sure of something. I felt a bit tentative when I started writing those poems, maybe partly because I hadn't written any for so long, but I soon found a voice—and that voice gave me confidence. Now when I start writing something, and I mean now in these last few years, I don't have that sense of fooling around, of being tentative, of not knowing what to do, of having to sharpen a lot of pencils. When I go to my desk now and pick up a pen, I really know what I have to do. It's a totally different feeling.

[SG]: What was it that made you return to poetry after all those years of focusing exclusively on fiction?

I came out here to Port Angeles with the intention of bringing to completion a long piece of fiction I had started back at Syracuse. But when I got out here, I sat around for five days or so, just enjoying the peace and quiet (I didn't have a television or radio), a welcome change from all the distractions going on at Syracuse. After those five days I found myself reading a little poetry. Then one night I sat down and wrote a poem. I hadn't written any poetry in two years or more, and somewhere in the back of my mind I was lamenting the fact that I hadn't written any—or really even given any serious thought to poetry writing for a long time. During the period when I was writing the stories that went into Cathedral, for example, I was feeling I couldn't have written a poem if someone had put a gun to my head. I wasn't even reading any poetry, except for Tess's. At any rate, I wrote this first poem that night, and then the next day I got up and wrote another poem. The day after that I wrote another poem. This went on for ten straight weeks; the poems seemed to be coming out of this wonderful rush of energy. At night I'd feel totally empty, absolutely whipped out, and I'd wonder if anything would be left the next morning. But the next day there was something—the well hadn't gone dry. So I'd get up, drink coffee, and go to my desk and write another poem. When it was happening I felt almost as if I were being given a good shaking, and suddenly my keys were falling out of my pockets. I've never had a period in which I've taken such joy in the act of writing as I did in those two months.

[LM]: You've said that it no longer matters where you are living as far as your writing is concerned. Has that feeling changed?

I'd certainly retract that statement nowadays. Having this place here in Port Angeles has been very important to me, and I'm sure coming out here helped me get started writing poetry. I think it was getting clear away from the outdoors and my contact with nature that made me feel I was losing whatever it was that made me want to write poetry. I had spent the summer of 1982 out here (not in this house, but in a little cabin a few miles from here), and I wrote four stories in a fairly short period of time, although they took place indoors and didn't have anything specifically to do with this locale. But without question my poetry came back to me because of this relocation. It had been increasingly difficult for me to work in Syracuse, which is why I pulled up stakes and came out here. There was just too much going on back in Syracuse, especially after Cathedral came out and there was so much happening in connection with the book. There were people coming in and out of the house, and a lot of other business that never seemed to end. The telephone was ringing all the time, and Tess was teaching, and there were a certain number of social obligations. This might only mean having an occasional dinner with dear friends, whom it was always a pleasure to see, but all this was taking me away from my work. It got to the point where even hearing the cleaning woman, hearing her make the bed or vacuum the rug or wash the dishes, bothered me. So I came out here, and when Tess left to go back to Syracuse on September 1, I stayed on for another four weeks to write and fish. I did a lot of work during those weeks, and when I got back to Syracuse I thought I could keep up that rhythm. I did manage to for a few days, but then I found myself limited to editing the stuff I had written out here. Finally, the last few weeks or so, it was all I could do to make it from day to day. I would consider it a good day if I could take care of my correspondence. That's a hell of a situation for a writer to be in. I wasn't sorry to leave, even though I have some dear friends there.

[SG]: In the Esquire article you wrote about your father, you mention a poem you wrote, “Photograph of My Father in His 22nd Year,” and comment that “the poem was a way of trying to connect up with him.” Does poetry offer you a more direct way of connecting to your past?

I'd say it does. It's a more immediate way, a faster means of connecting. Doing these poems satisfies my desire to write something, and tell a story, every day—sometimes two or three times a day, even four or five times a day. But in regard to connecting up to my past, it must be said of my poems (and my stories, too) that even though they may all have some basis in my experience, they are also imaginative. They're totally made up, most of them.

[LM]: So even in your poetry that persona who is speaking is never precisely “you”?

No. Same as in my stories, those stories told in the first person, for instance. Those “I” narrators aren't me.

[SG]: In your poem “For Semra, with Martial Vigor,” your narrator says to a woman, “All poems are love poems.” Is this true in some sense of your own poetry?

Every poem is an act of love, and faith. There is so little other reward for writing poems, either monetarily or in terms of, you know, fame and glory, that the act of writing a poem has to be an act that justifies itself and really has no other end in sight. To want to do it, you really have to love doing it. In that sense, then, every poem is a “love poem.”

[LM]: Have you found it a problem to move back and forth between genres? Is a different composition process involved?

The juggling has never seemed a problem. I suppose it would have been more unusual in a writer who hadn't worked in both areas to the extent that I have. Actually I've always felt and maintained that the poem is closer in its effect and in the way it is composed to a short story than the short story is to a novel. Stories and poems have more in common in what the writing is aiming for, in the compression of language and emotion, and in the care and control required to achieve their effects. To me, the process of writing a story or a poem has never seemed very different. Everything I write comes from the same spring, or source, whether it's a story or an essay or a poem or a screenplay. When I sit down to write, I literally start with a sentence or a line. I always have to have that first line in my head, whether it's a poem or a story. Later on everything else is subject to change, but that first line rarely changes. Somehow it shoves me on to the second line, and then the process begins to take on momentum and acquire a direction. Nearly everything I write goes through many revisions, and I do a lot of backing up, to-and-froing. I don't mind revising; I actually enjoy it, in fact. Don Hall has taken seven years to write and polish the poems that make up his new book. He's revised some of the poems a hundred and fifty times or so. I'm not that obsessive, but I do a lot of revising, it's true. And I think friends of mine are a bit dubious about how my poems are going to turn out. They just don't think poems can or should be written as fast as I wrote these. I'll just have to show them.

[LM]: One possible source of interaction between your poetry and fiction has to do with the way the impact of your stories often seems to center on a single image: a peacock, a cigarette, a car. These images seem to function like poetic images—that is, they organize the story, draw our responses into a complex set of associations. How conscious are you of developing this kind of controlling image?

I'm not consciously creating a central image in my fiction that would control a story the way images, or an image, often control a work of poetry. I have an image in my head but it seems to emerge out of the story in an organic, natural fashion. For instance, I didn't realize in advance that the peacock image would so dominate “Feathers.” The peacock just seemed like something a family who lived in the country on a small farm might have running around the house. It wasn't something I placed there in an effort to have it perform as a symbol. When I'm writing I don't think in terms of developing symbols or of what an image will do. When I hit on an image that seems to be working and it stands for what it is supposed to stand for (it may stand for several other things as well), that's great. But I don't think of them self-consciously. They seem to evolve, occur. I truly invent them and then certain things seem to form around them as events occur, recollection and imagination begin to color them, and so forth.

[SG]: In an essay in Fires, you make a remark that perfectly describes for me one of the most distinctive things about your fiction: “It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace language and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power.” I realize that every story is different in this regard, but how does one go about investing these ordinary objects with such power and emphasis?

I'm not given to rhetoric or abstraction in my life, my thinking, or my writing, so when I write about people I want them to be placed within a setting that must be made as palpable as possible. This might mean including as part of the setting a television or a table or a felt-tipped pen lying on a desk, but if these things are going to be introduced into the scene at all, they shouldn't be inert. I don't mean that they should take on a life of their own, precisely, but they should make their presence felt in some way. If you are going to describe a spoon or a chair or a TV set, you don't want simply to set these things into the scene and let them go. You want to give them some weight, connecting these things to the lives around them. I see these objects as playing a role in the stories; they're not “characters” in the sense that the people are, but they are there and I want my readers to be aware that they're there, to know that this ashtray is here, that the TV is there (and that it's going or it's not going), that the fireplace has old pop cans in it.

[SG]: What appeals to you about writing stories and poems, rather than longer forms?

For one thing, whenever I pick up a literary magazine, the first thing I look at is the poetry, and then I'll read the stories. I hardly ever read anything else, the essays, reviews, what have you. So I suppose I was drawn to the form, and I mean the brevity, of both poetry and short fiction from the beginning. Also, poetry and short fiction seemed to be things I could get done in a reasonable period of time. When I started out as a writer, I was moving around a lot, and there were daily distractions, weird jobs, family responsibilities. My life seemed very fragile, so I wanted to be able to start something that I felt I had a reasonable chance of seeing through to a finish—which meant I needed to finish things in a hurry, a short period of time. As I just mentioned, poetry and fiction seemed so close to one another in form and intent, so close to what I was interested in doing, that early on I didn't have any trouble moving back and forth between them.

[LM]: Who were the poets you were reading and admiring, perhaps being influenced by, when you were developing your notions of the craft of poetry? Your outdoor settings may suggest James Dickey, but a more likely influence seems to me to be William Carlos Williams.

Williams was indeed a big influence; he was my greatest hero. When I started out writing poetry I was reading his poems. Once I even had the temerity to write him and ask for a poem for a little magazine I was starting at Chico State University called Selection. I think we put out three issues; I edited the first issue. But William Carlos Williams actually sent me a poem. I was thrilled and surprised to see his signature under the poem. That's an understatement. Dickey's poetry did not mean so much, even though he was just coming into his full powers at about the time when I was starting out in the early '60s. I liked Creeley's poetry, and later Robert Bly, Don Hall, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Dick Hugo, Gary Snyder, Archie Ammons, Merwin, Ted Hughes. I really didn't know anything when I was starting out, I just sort of read what people gave me, but I've never been drawn to highly intellectualized poetry—the metaphysical poets or whatever.

[LM]: Is abstraction or intellectualism something that usually turns you off in a work?

I don't think it's an anti-intellectual bias, if that's what you mean. There are just some works that I can respond to and others operating at levels I don't connect with. I suppose I'm not interested in what you might call the “well-made poem,” for example. When I see one I'm tempted to react by saying, “Oh, that's just poetry.” I'm looking for something else, something that's not just a good poem. Practically any good graduate student in a creative writing program can write a good poem. I'm looking for something beyond that. Maybe something rougher.

[SG]: A reader is immediately struck with the “pared down” quality of your work, especially your work before Cathedral. Was this style something that evolved, or had it been with you from the beginning?

From the very beginning I loved the rewriting process as much as the initial execution. I've always loved taking sentences and playing with them, rewriting them, paring them down to where they seem solid somehow. This may have resulted from being John Gardner's student, because he told me something I immediately responded to: If you can say it in fifteen words rather then twenty or thirty words, then say it in fifteen words. That struck me with the force of revelation. There I was, groping to find my own way, and here someone was telling me something that somehow conjoined with what I already wanted to do. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to go back and refine what was happening on the page and eliminate the padding. The last few days I've been reading Flaubert's letters, and he says some things that seem relevant to my own aesthetic. At one point when Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary, he would knock off at midnight or one in the morning and write letters to his mistress, Louise Colet, about the construction of the book and his general notion of aesthetics. One passage he wrote her that really struck me was when he said, “The artist in his work must be like God in his creation—invisible and all powerful; he must be everywhere felt but nowhere seen.” I like the last part of that especially. There's another interesting remark when Flaubert is writing to his editors at the magazine that published the book in installments. They were just getting ready to serialize Madame Bovary and were going to make a lot of cuts in the text because they were afraid they were going to be closed down by the government if they published it just as Flaubert wrote it, so Flaubert tells them that if they make the cuts they can't publish the book, but they'll still be friends. The last line of this letter is: “I know how to distinguish between literature and literary business”—another insight I respond to. Even in these letters his prose is astonishing: “Prose must stand upright from one end to the other, like a wall whose ornamentation continues down to its very base.” “Prose is architecture.” “Everything must be done coldly, with poise.” “Last week I spent five days writing one page.” One of the interesting things about the Flaubert book is the way it demonstrates how self-consciously he was setting out to do something very special and different with prose. He consciously tried to make prose an art form. If you look at what else was being published in Europe in 1855, when Madame Bovary was published, you realize what an achievement the book really is.

[LM]: In addition to John Gardner, were there other writers who affected your fictional sensibility early on? Hemingway comes immediately to mind.

Hemingway was certainly an influence. I didn't read him until I was in college and then I read the wrong book (Across the River and into the Trees) and didn't like him very much. But a little later I read In Our Time in a class and I found that he was marvelous. I remember thinking, This is it; if you can write prose like this, you've done something.

[LM]: In your essays you've spoken out against literary tricks or gimmicks—yet I would argue that your own works are really experimental in the same sense that Hemingway's fiction was. What's the difference between literary experimentalism that seems legitimate to you and the kind that isn't?

I'm against tricks that call attention to themselves in an effort to be clever or merely devious. I read a review this morning in Publishers Weekly of a novel that is coming out next spring; the book sounded so disjointed and filled with things that have nothing to do with life, or literature as I know it, that I felt certain I wouldn't read it except under pain of death. A writer mustn't lose sight of the story. I'm not interested in works that are all texture and no flesh and blood. I guess I'm old fashioned enough to feel that the reader must somehow be involved at the human level. And that there is still, or ought to be, a compact between writer and reader. Writing, or any form of artistic endeavor, is not just expression, it's communication. When a writer stops being truly interested in communicating something and is only aiming at expressing something, and that not very well—well, they can express themselves by going out to the streetcorner and hollering. A short story or a novel or a poem should deliver a certain number of emotional punches. You can judge that work by how strong these punches are and how many are thrown. If it's all just a bunch of head trips or games, I'm not interested. Work like that is just chaff: it'll blow away with the first good wind.

[LM]: Are there out-and-out experimentalists whom you do admire? I was wondering about your reaction to Donald Barthelme's work, for example.

I like his work. I didn't care much for it when I first started reading it. It seemed so strange that I stopped reading him for a while. Also, he was, or so it seemed to me, the generation right ahead of mine, and it wouldn't do at the time to like it all that much! But then I read Sixty Stories a couple of years ago. He's terrific! I found that the more I read his stories, the more regard I began to have for them. Barthelme has done a world of work, he's a true innovator who's not being devious or stupid or mean spirited or experimenting for experimenting's sake. He's uneven, but then who isn't? Certainly his effect on creative writing classes has been tremendous (as they say, he's often imitated but never duplicated). He's like Allen Ginsberg in that he opened a gate, and afterward a great flood of work by other people poured through, some of it good and a lot of it awful. I'm not worried that all that bad stuff which has followed after Barthelme or Ginsberg will push the good stuff off the shelves. It will just disappear on its own.

[SG]: One of the nontraditional aspects of your own fiction is that your stories don't tend to have the “shape” of the classically rendered story: the introduction/conflict/development/resolution structure of so much fiction. Instead there is often a static or ambiguous, open-ended quality to your stories. I assume you feel that the experiences you are describing simply don't lend themselves to being rendered within the familiar framework.

It would be inappropriate, and to a degree impossible, to resolve things neatly for these people and situations I'm writing about. It's probably typical for writers to admire other writers who are their opposites in terms of intentions and effects, and I'll admit that I greatly admire stories that unfold in that classic mode, with conflict, resolution, and denouement. But even though I can respect those stories, and sometimes even be a little envious, I can't write them. The writer's job, if he or she has a job, is not to provide conclusions or answers. If the story answers itself, its problems and conflicts, and meets its own requirements, then that's enough. On the other hand, I want to make certain my readers aren't left feeling cheated in one way or another when they've finished my stories. It's important for writers to provide enough to satisfy readers, even if they don't provide “the” answers, or clear resolutions.

[LM]: Another distinctive feature of your work is that you usually present characters that most writers don't deal with—that is, people who are basically inarticulate, who can't verbalize their plights, who often don't seem to really grasp what is happening to them.

I don't think of this as being especially “distinctive” or nontraditional because I feel perfectly comfortable with these people while I'm working. I've known people like this all my life. Essentially, I am one of those confused, befuddled people, I come from people like that, those are the people I've worked with and earned my living beside for years. That's why I've never had any interest whatsoever in writing a story or a poem that has anything to do with the academic life, with teachers or students and so forth. I'm just not that interested. The things that have made an indelible impression on me are the things I saw in lives I witnessed being lived around me, and in the life I myself lived. These were lives where people really were scared when someone knocked on their door, day or night, or when the telephone rang; they didn't know how they were going to pay the rent or what they could do if their refrigerator went out. Anatole Broyard tries to criticize my story “Preservation” by saying, “So the refrigerator breaks—why don't they just call a repairman and get it fixed?” That kind of remark is dumb. You bring a repairman out to fix your refrigerator and it's sixty bucks to fix it; and who knows how much if the thing is completely broken? Well, Broyard may not be aware of it, but some people can't afford to bring in a repairman if it's going to cost them sixty bucks, just like they don't get to a doctor if they don't have insurance, and their teeth go bad because they can't afford to go to a dentist when they need one. That kind of situation doesn't seem unrealistic or artificial to me. It also doesn't seem that, in focusing on this group of people, I have really been doing anything all that different from other writers. Chekhov was writing about a submerged population a hundred years ago. Short story writers have always been doing that. Not all of Chekhov's stories are about people who are down and out, but a significant number of them deal with that submerged population I'm talking about. He wrote about doctors and businessmen and teachers sometimes, but he also gave voice to people who were not so articulate. He found a means of letting those people have their say as well. So in writing about people who aren't so articulate and who are confused and scared, I'm not doing anything radically different.

[LM]: Aren't there formal problems in writing about this group of people? I mean, you can't have them sit around in drawing rooms endlessly analyzing their situations, the way James does, or, in a different sense, the way Bellow does. I suppose setting the scene, composing it, must be especially important from a technical standpoint.

If you mean literally just setting the scene, that's the least of my worries. The scene is easy to set: I just open the door and see what's inside. I pay a lot of attention to trying to make the people talk the right way. By this I don't mean just what they say, but how they say it, and why. I guess tone is what I'm talking about, partly. There's never any chit-chat in my stories. Everything said is for a reason and adds, I want to think, to the overall impression of the story.

[SG]: People usually emphasize the realistic aspects of your work, but I feel there's a quality about your fiction that is not basically realistic. It's as if something is happening almost off the page, a dreamy sense of irrationality, almost like Kafka's fiction.

Presumably my fiction is in the realistic tradition (as opposed to the really far-out side), but just telling it like it is bores me. It really does. People couldn't possibly read pages of description about the way people really talk, about what really happens in their lives. They'd just snore away, of course. If you look carefully at my stories, I don't think you'll find people talking the way people do in real life. People always say that Hemingway had a great ear for dialogue, and he did. But no one ever talked in real life like they do in Hemingway's fiction. At least not until after they've read Hemingway.

[LM]: In “Fires,” you say that it is not true for you, as it was with Flannery O'Connor or Gabriel García Márquez, that most of the stuff that has gone into your fiction had already happened to you before you were twenty. You go on to say, “Most of what now strikes me as story ‘material’ presented itself to me after I was twenty. I really don't remember much about my life before I became a parent. I really don't feel that anything happened in my life until I was twenty and married and had kids.” Would you still agree with that statement? I say this because we were both struck, after we read the piece about your father in Esquire, with how much your description of your childhood and relationship with your father seemed relevant to your fictional world in various ways.

That statement certainly felt true when I wrote it—it simply didn't seem that much had truly happened to me until I became a father, at least the sorts of things I could (or wanted to) transform in my stories. But I was also just gaining some perspective on various aspects of my life when I wrote “Fires,” and by the time I wrote the piece on my father for Esquire I had even more perspective on things. But I see what you're saying. I had touched on something in a very close way in regard to my father when I wrote that essay, which I wrote very quickly and which seemed to come to me very directly. I still feel, though, that the piece on my father is an exception. In that instance I could go back and touch some “source material” from my early life, but that life exists for me as through a scrim of rain.

[SG]: What kind of a kid were you in that earlier life?

A dreamy kid. I wanted to be a writer and I mostly followed my nose as far as reading was concerned. I'd go to the library and check out books on the Spanish conquistadors, or historical novels, whatever struck my fancy, books on shipbuilding, anything that caught my eye. I didn't have any instruction in that regard at all; I'd just go down to the library once a week and browse. All in all, I'd say my childhood was fairly conventional in many respects. We were a poor family, didn't have a car for the longest while, but I didn't miss not having a car. My parents worked and struggled and finally became what I guess you'd call lower middle class. But for the longest while we didn't have much of anything in the way of material goods, or spiritual goods or values either. But I didn't have to go out and work in the fields when I was ten years old or anything of that sort. Mainly I just wanted to fish and hunt and ride around in cars with other guys. Date girls. Things like that. I sponged off my folks as long as I could. The pickings were slim at times, but they bought me things. They even bought me my cigarettes the first year or two I was smoking; I didn't have a job and I guess they knew I would have gone out and stolen them if they didn't buy them for me. But I did want to write, which might have been the only thing that set me apart from my friends. There was one other kid in high school who was my friend and who wanted to write, so we would talk about books. But that was about it. An undistinguished childhood.

[SG]: Was your father much of a storyteller?

He read to me a little when I was a kid. Mainly Zane Grey stories that he'd read when I'd ask him to (he had a few of those books in the house). But he also told me stories.

[LM]: You've referred to the bad times you went through with your drinking in the '60s and '70s. In retrospect, was there anything positive at all that came out of those experiences?

Obviously my drinking experiences helped me write several stories that have to do with alcoholism. But the fact that I went through that and was able to write those stories was nothing short of a miracle. No, I don't see anything coming out of my drinking experiences except waste and pain and misery. And it was that way for everybody involved in my life. No good came out of it except in the way that someone might spend ten years in the penitentiary and then come out of that and write about the experience. Despite that comical remark Richard Nixon made about writing and prison at the time when he was about to be impeached, you have to take it on faith that prison life is not the best for a writer.

[LM]: So you never used any of those confessional stories that one hears at AA meetings as the starting point for one of your stories?

No, I never have. I've heard a lot of stories in AA but most of them I forgot immediately. Oh, I recall a few, but none of them ever struck me as material I wanted to use for a story. Certainly I never went to those meetings thinking of them as possible source materials for my work. To the extent that my stories have to do with drinking, they all pretty much have some starting point in my own experience rather than in the funny, crazy, sad stories I heard at AA. Right now I feel there are enough drinking stories in my work, so I'm not interested in writing them anymore. Not that I have a quota in the back of my mind for any particular type of story, but I'm ready to move on to something else.

[SG]: I wonder if you're ready to move on to writing more about the outdoors or nature once again. Those elements seem to be missing from your recent work.

I began writing by wanting to write about those things like hunting and fishing that played a real part in my emotional life. And I did write about nature quite a lot in my early poems and stories: you can find it in many of the stories in Furious Seasons and in some of the ones in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please and in a lot of the poems. Then I seemed to lose that contact with nature, so I haven't set many of my recent stories in the outdoors—although I suspect I will in the time to come, since a lot of the poems I've recently been writing are set outside. The water has been coming into these poems, and the moon, and the mountains and the sky. I'm sure this will make a lot of people in Manhattan laugh! Talk of tides and the trees, whether the fish are biting or not biting. These things are going to work their way back into my fiction. I feel directly in touch with my surroundings now in a way I haven't felt in years. It just so happened that this was channeled into what I was writing at the time, which was poetry. If I had started a novel or some stories, this contact I've reestablished would have emerged there as well.

[SG]: Who are the contemporary writers you admire or feel some affinity with?

There are many. I just finished Edna O'Brien's selected stories, A Fanatic Heart. She's wonderful. And Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Richard Ford, Ellen Gilchrist, Bill Kittredge, Alice Munro, Frederick Barthelme. Barry Hannah's short stories. Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. So many others. It's a fine time to be alive, and writing.

Greg Kuzma (review date spring 1988)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3355

SOURCE: Kuzma, Greg. “Ultramarine: Poems That Almost Stop the Heart.” Michigan Quarterly Review 27, no. 2 (spring 1988): 355-63.

[In the following review, Kuzma praises the poems in Ultramarine for being “like traffic accidents, or miraculous escapes. We come away gasping, shaken, and in awe.”]

Now and then a writer comes along whose work is so transparent it is seemingly formless, without design or designs, whose words are not some play or game with rules to violate or honor but experience delivered smoldering like new-born calves, a writer who though he has antecedents, literary kith and kin, yet seems genetically singular, unique, a one-of-a-kind blending of instinct and dilemma, possessing the urgency of a life as shabby as our own, and yet the courage of that life, a courage sufficient to it, and an eloquence out of its drear and dazzle. Raymond Carver is such a writer, speaking in these poems, or stories, whatever they are, in a voice unassuming and yet so empowered that one comes to look at it, to listen in it, for how close it can come to the truth without shaking or breaking. It does come close, indeed very, so that almost the heart is stopped, the hair stood on end. Again and again in Ultramarine Carver produces poems both heavy with consequence, things taken head-on at full-force, and yet fragile, light, gentle in their modesty, their refusal to pretend or puff up or become self-important. It is as if he can be knowing and innocent at once—to have lived as he has with honors and prizes and leisure, and yet not to have shrunk down to the size they impose, but to remain wayward, perplexed, perpetually vulnerable.

To sing his praises is ironic work. There seems no language that does not betray his gift, does not exceed it toward cheapening it, just as Carver himself and his many alter-voices struggle in poem after poem to find precisely the right words, beyond paraphrase. It helps, I suppose, that Carver's essential voice is understated and flat, and that his “pain” therefore becomes authenticated in the very bareness of the details and the sketching in. Coffee, cigarettes, insomnia, liquor, the typical traps and trappings, Hemingway's bare-bulb interiors and psychic leanness, a Proustian memory flooding profusion in the midst of emotional drought, the inexplicable yoked by force of fact or accident together with the happy contours of the known. Carver is authentic because he dares to or cannot help but be a type, to honor the old adages, to fight the same demons, to write, even, the bare-faced clichés of everyman: “losing her mind,” thoughts that “began to wander,” “the stuff he lives with,” “to grow up,” having one's breath taken away, a cry of relief, “an even keel,” “the last thing on earth,” and so on, sequenced to things never before given tongue—“The dying body is a clumsy partner”; “an infinite eight to nine hours of work”; “The lightning speed of the past.” Carver's shopworn language is itself compelling. In Ashbery clichés seem part of some vast catalog and rescue operation, where language is examined, referred to, marvelled at, toyed with, forgiven in its faded glory, the heat now all but gone out of the once-lively phrases. But Carver speaks them as if they were still to be made to serve, filling them with his breath, old horses breathing in winter alive yet suspect, whose very limits are loved, the way we imagine our solicitous caring for the aged and dying, or ourselves so treated.

Carver's pilgrimage is necessarily toward truth by way of fact, circling in memory, remembering “humiliation” as he says in a poem about where his stories come from, haunted continually by death, the child that fears to smell the dirt of the fresh-turned fields; Frank's death that no CPR can bring life back to, “her lips / on Frank's icy lips. A dead man's lips. Black lips”; John Dugan, the carpenter (“Powder Monkey”) run smack into a truck; the father, “My dad / … Reduced to a cup of ashes, / and some tiny bones” (“The Meadow”); the wife who “died in misery,” the husband in “misery” who “took to his porch, where he watched / the sun set and the moon rise” (“The Lightning Speed of the Past”). And what Carver shores against these ruins: “It's good to live near the water”; “Delight, and a cry”; “the Bukowski line that flew / through his mind from time to time”; “all the milk I drank, cradled in her arms”; “the sound of meat / as it connects with hot grease in the pan”; or, recalling a more-deadly self:

For my part, I taught her to drink.
And how to fall asleep
with her clothes on.
How to wake up
weeping in the middle of the night.

(“Jean's TV”)

Misery is real. Desolation palpable. Relief comes in brief moments of clarity. One thinks to “walk / to the graveyard for some comfort.” One fishes, “experiencing exceptional loss and then / exceptional joy when I brought a silver salmon / to the boat.” One reads, alone, for distraction Two Towns in Provence by M. F. K. Fisher, and writes this homage and gratitude—a poem in which Carver may be most himself, generous, casual, yet crude:

I went out for a minute and
left your book on the table.
Something came up. Next morning,
at a quarter to six,
dawn began. Men had already
gone into the fields to work.
Windrows of leaves lay
alongside the track.
Reminding me of fall.
I turned to the first page
and began to read.
I spent the entire morning
in your company, in Aix,
in the South of France.
When I looked up,
it was twelve o'clock.
And they all said I'd never find a place
for myself in this life!
Said I'd never be happy,
not in this world, or the next.
That's how much they knew.
Those dopes.

(“After Reading Two Towns in Provence”)

The source of the famous “humiliation” resides in the chance accident, “a chance in a million,” the snowball thrown through the thin three-inch gap in the window of the car, the “stupendous” pain, the “dumb luck,” all of it remembered having tea, the young man now grown up, Raymond Carver, bearer of his father's name:

My dad is at the stove in front of a pan with brains
and eggs. But who has any appetite
this morning? I feel flimsy as
balsa wood. Something has just been said.
My mom said it. What was it? Something,
I'll bet, that bears on money …

(“Balsa Wood”)

A persistent theme. To buy himself free. To pay his way through. To buy off the past. The father dead, the mother on the phone again, writing the letters:

And there's the letter from my mother
who is sick and losing her mind.
She tells me she won't be here
much longer. Won't I help her make
this one last move? Can't I pay
for her to have a home of her own?

(“The Mail”)

                    … The ones who already expect a little
something in the mail first of each month.
Every time they write they tell him
they're coming up short …


                                                                                                    … Or the son in Italy
who threatens to end his life there
unless I keep paying the bills. My mother wants
to talk to me too. Wants to remind me again how it was
back then. All the milk I drank, cradled in her arms …

(“What I Can Do”)

Perhaps the most unnerving of the many mother poems is “Where the Groceries Went.” Here's how it ends:

“Kitty,” his mother said. “Here, Kitty.
Kitty, Kitty. She won't answer me, honey.
I don't know this for sure, but I think
she jumped into the washing machine
when I was about to do a load. And before I forget,
that machine's making
a banging noise. I think there's something
the matter with it. Kitty! She won't
answer me. Honey, I'm afraid.
I'm afraid of everything. Help me, please.
Then you can go back to whatever it was
you were doing. Whatever
it was that was so important
I had to take the trouble
to bring you into this world.”

Against the immense irrational logic of this Carver shapes his tales of woe and redemption.

Hemingway presides from the first, blessing the first poem in the book. It has snowed. Thoughts of duty, “tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat / with my former wife … / The stuff I live with every day.”

I've tramped on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back I didn't know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.

There is artistry in fly fishing. There are the pleasant distractions of travel, the coming upon unforgettable scenes in exotic settings. There is the raw mystery and power of nature, the wind of “Wind,” the arctic migration of animals through which Carver imagines and metaphors the dying of his dying friend (“Migration”). Bukowski is an influence, for how his casual asides to the reader on behalf of some invoked universal experience invite our complicity. Brautigan's inexplicable juxtapositions give soul to some of the poems, the outrageous and unlikely told in a flat tone, and Brautigan's gentleness. And all the while behind them ultimately Kafka's nightmare stories, utterly placid, utterly reasonable, utterly insufferable.

Carver does not excerpt well. “Migration,” for example, ends in the imagined restless march to the Arctic, and his friend's final acceptance of his death, but begins like this:

A late summer's day, and my friend on the court
with his friend. Between games, the other remarks
how my friend's step seems not to have any spring
to it. His serve isn't so hot, either.
“You feeling okay?” he asks. “You had a checkup
lately?” Summer, and the living is easy.
But my friend went to see a doctor friend of his.
Who took his arm and gave him three months, no longer.

The migration idea comes from the nature show Carver and the devastated friend watch together the next day, “a program on animal migration.” But the unforgettable pull and gravity of the poem comes through the inevitable march of events, through time, moment to moment, remark by innocent remark, where time now for the reader too is very much a pressing and precious element. Here as often in the book something early in a poem is found again, toward the end, to form it and shape it and resolve it. Nearly always this element is totally unpredictable. In “Its Course,” Bill Zitter can't take steelhead this winter because his wife is “eaten up with cancer,” but tells Carver about the motorcycle races on the hill where the poet's house now stands. Zitter describes the frolic, with sympathy, and later, at the end of the poem, Carver alone rewrites it and joins it to the cancer story, carrying the poem toward its powerful yet abrupt conclusion:

Where they slap each other on the back
and reach in the burlap bag for a beer.
Now and then one of them gunning it
for all it's worth, forcing his way
to the top, and then going lickety-
split down the other side!
Disappearing in a roar, in a cloud of dust.
Right outside my window is where
all this happened. We vanish soon enough.
Soon enough, eaten up.

The things Carver knows are not exceptional; they are what everybody knows, or ought to know, or professes to know. Carver's distinction is in his capacity to convince us not only that what he knows is the truth but that his knowing it is inescapable given his circumstances. Also, as one can tell from “Its Course,” once the poem finishes we are suddenly made aware of how richly prepared for its ending has been, how it could not seemingly have happened any other way. “Disappearing” suddenly resonates, and the hill climb and the sudden descent easily comes to suggest our lives, how even if lived vigorously we go to dust. Even so the ending seems precipitous, startling, raw. Mrs. Zitter, long forgotten, an incidental reference, becomes important, essential, her dying representative, figurative of the common doom. And if such vigorous young men are gone, what of our lives?

Carver's impulse is narrative. He is a short-story writer of large reputation. Narrative distinguishes these poems amidst most of what is published today where narrative is scarce. Refreshing too and distinctive is the use of third person rather than the first person that dominates our poetry. Even where Carver is clearly writing about things he himself has suffered (the insane mother is too-obsessively portrayed to be merely an invention) he uses third person. The distancing he achieves in the process gives breadth to the self—he is both I and he, a character in his own poems, someone witnessed, depicted, a point of view. What is learned thereby or concluded is offered as limited, the lessons partial, but the self is a double self. Even with this doubling or because of it the reader is not suffocated by the “I,” but allowed to “read” the scenes and actions, to make them applicable to our own lives should we choose to or should they somehow fit. Carver himself seems to have taken the lead in this—he speaks in the poems as someone who, detached, cannot quite believe that this is in fact his life, and what he must do.

Ultramarine is a big book as books of poems go, perhaps because its impulses are chiefly fictional. If one is writing short poems instead of stories ten times the length or more, one needs lots of poems to reach an equivalent mass and density. At first the poems seem a random assortment, stressing I suppose “that element / of sheer chance” Carver is famous for, the arbitrariness of experience and our inability to make it coherent or sensible. Later patterns emerge. Or clusters of similar poems. There are those in which the consciousness is clearly only a facet or two of the more capacious person of the poet. In these poems single moods prevail, the mood of aimlessness, or being shiftless, or giving in to disappearing, imitating some aspect of experience or answering it back through a kind of willful insensitivity. There are other poems, most of them having to do with fishing, that are really quite pure in their faithfulness to physical things and the names of things, embodying a faith in the natural world that is usually not manifest in similar dealings with people. The family poems are particularly harrowing. The dead father lived a life of pain and died young. The mother terrorizes the son, as she had seemed to terrorize the father. The ex-wife is also a debilitating force, if not always in herself then through her children who seem not to have any real affection for the poet. His one salvation is Tess, Tess Gallagher, to whom the book is dedicated, and who is the subject of the happy poems toward the end. What they offer each other is a “tenderness,” a delighting in simple things, an acknowledgement of the difficulties of living, the willingness to accept the truth, even if it be a hard one.

There is no way, however, to generalize the poems. In fact, what is most exciting about them is their capacity for being continually surprising. Going on from line to line in any one of them is sheer adventure. You always get in deeper than you can remember, the way back lost, the way ahead always a bit scary. But you can get the thrill of it right off at the beginning say of “The Pen”—“The pen that told the truth / went into the washing machine / for its trouble.” And so on, though there is no way to read Carver's mind. A whole poem like “The River” keeps fighting between being a poem about the exhilaration of fishing in deep and dark water, or a poem about the terror of fishing in deep and dark water. Where king salmon watch from the current. Where something brushes your leg. Turning pages one achieves the same sorts of tension and delight, the thank-you note that turns into an apology for killing the “earwigs” that came with the rum cake, the speaker suddenly uncontrollable in his frenzy, “like an animal.” There is an incredible poem about a phone booth, a couple taking turns at the news, and weeping, steaming the booth up. There is the poem about the girl minding the store with a piece of sinew caught in her teeth, watching a fisherman, who watches her. Here the title, “Sinew,” points up Carver's magnificent use of them. The title is an emblem, a symbol, a coded thing whose full significance will widen as our awareness grows, as we work the details over in our minds. The titles tend to be brief, usually one or two words, encapsulating the story, helping to foreshadow it, sometimes compromising it. Carver will allow the titles to be inadequate, because in effect he does not wish to claim a lot for the poems—his is a modest enterprise throughout, and because he appears not to know where any poem is going to until he goes there. So the poems seem to grow out of their titles, or grow back through them. Or they will far surpass them in import and consequence, to demonstrate how life continually exceeds our reach or expectation or fear.

If Carver has one driving concern it is to present through suitable example and to account for “conflicting feelings.” His “Earwigs” begins as a friendly note to the baker of the cake but turns into a story of revulsion, violence, and finally humorous self-illumination. After reading the poem all these various things seem to co-exist, abide in it, comprise the experience. His fishing poems present both the excitement of the catch and the sense of diminishment the killing brings. A goose that calls the wild ones in to their deaths in the farmyard awakens a complex of responses in the poet. Sometimes an event promotes not just conflicting feelings but diametrically opposed ones, as in “Jean's TV” where the speaker praises Jean for saving him even as he recounts his debasing of her. Some of Genet's sacred defilement of the other is involved in this, as well as the freedom truth brings even when one is confessing one's lies. Things in delicious conflict are perhaps best savored in “The Autopsy Room,” where the scenes are ghastly yet erotic. A woman's “pale and shapely leg … took my breath away,” and later, the poet's wife has that same leg alive “ready to tremble / and raise slightly, at the slightest touch.” The poem ends in a new place, as so many Carver poems do, somewhere entirely unforeseen, but which we feel we could only have discovered with him.

was happening. Everything was happening. Life
was a stone, grinding and sharpening.

That's wonderful. Chilling. “Life was a stone, grinding and sharpening.” It is altogether typical of this book, an intense moment of sudden clarity, where the world is understood as it is. One comes out of such poems changed, as if we have ourselves been there, seen, felt, and had such thoughts.

There are dozens of such poems here, a discovery in every one of them, a phrase turned slightly askew, or that turns itself, a question raised where none had ever been asked, a sudden burst of emotion, restraint where it is unexpected, self-control masterfully exhibited in the midst of exasperation, juxtaposition to show us the world as a new place, fertile, inexhaustible, and more strange than we ever knew or wanted it to be. Carver is a writer of immense consequence. The best of his poems become unforgettable even as one reads them for the first time. They are like traffic accidents, or miraculous escapes. We come away gasping, shaken, and in awe.

Salman Rushdie (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943

SOURCE: Rushdie, Salman. “Raymond Carver.” In Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, pp. 340-42. London, UK: Granta Books, 1991.

[In the following essay, the novelist tells of reading poems in memory of Carver, discusses a few poems, and urges the reader to “read everything Raymond Carver wrote.”]

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

One Sunday last November, in some suitably ‘high tacky’ club in London, a bunch of us read out pieces for, and by, and in memory of, Raymond Carver. At one moment I looked along my row and the truth is we were all blubbering away, or close to it, anyhow, except for Ray's widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, who loved him most and who reminded me then of my grandmother refusing tears after my grandfather died. Tess gave out an iron serenity and even a kind of joy, and it's there again in A New Path to the Waterfall, their last book, in her beautiful, scrupulous, unflinching introduction and in his own last poems.

                    I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don't forget it.

It's a hard fate to beat the booze and then lose out, a decade later, to the cigarettes, but then again ten years of good and plenteous work, ten years of feeling yourself beloved on the earth, that's more than most of us get, more, even, than we learn to expect. Raymond Carver was a great writer and, as A New Path to the Waterfall tells us he knew, a pretty lucky man.

‘Memory doesn't care where it lives,’ Carver writes. The memory of a slim, gay youth as a débutante who ran off to the Folies Bergères can survive in the dirty, 300-pound body of a dying baglady. The memory of old wretchedness and ruined love can haunt a happy man. Ray never stopped writing about that old wretchedness, that ruined love, his first marriage. Manic calls on an answering machine, sudden beatings on an aeroplane, the loss of trust in the idea of love itself, the money problems, the terrible relationships with the children (‘Oh, son, in those days I wanted you dead / a hundred—no, a thousand—different times’): this old violence, as much as the late serenity, creates the distinctive Carver voice, and universe. There's no censorship in Carver, which can lay him open to the charge of writing ‘list poetry’, but which recognizes, too, the dark and cluttered actuality of the heart. He is a poet of inclusion, of capaciousness:

The faint sound of rock and roll,
The red Ferrari in my head,
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around in the kitchen …
Put it all in,
Make use.

Scattered through this book are passages of Chekhov laid out as verse. The success of these arrangements guides us to see that in Carver's work, too, even the most narrative and ‘prosaic’ of his poems, even the ones that look most like chopped-up stories, gain added resonance from their form. ‘Suspenders’, which describes a nightmarish childhood moment, would ‘work’ as prose, but would lose its formal, distanced air, which seems almost like a truce, like the quiet that settles on the quarrelling family in the poem, the ‘quiet that comes to a house / where nobody can sleep’.

In two consecutive poems, ‘Miracle’, the one about the beating he suffers on the aeroplane at the hands of his first wife, and ‘My Wife’, in which she has left him, we find the idea of having to ‘account for’ one's life: ‘It's now / they have to account for, the blood / on his collar, the dark smudge of it / staining her cuff’; ‘She left behind two nylon stockings, and / a hairbrush overlooked behind the bed … It is only the bed / that seems strange and impossible to account for.’ The phrase contains both the idea of narration and that of balance sheets, and many of Carver's poems seem to use narration as a process of arriving at a profit-and-loss understanding of life, complete with bottom line.

The bottom line, for Ray, was lung cancer. The last group of poems in this volume, poems strong enough to turn inevitable death into art, have a simple, declaratory honesty that makes them almost unbearable to read. This is the beginning of ‘What the Doctor Said’:

He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on
                    one lung before
I quit counting them

And the ending is, if anything, even more shocking: ‘I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me / something no one else on earth had ever given me / I may even have thanked him habit being so strong.’

But in writing the story of his death Raymond Carver also wrote the story of his love. There is a poem about getting married, Tess and Ray's Reno wedding, a wedding in that town of divorcees and gamblers, ‘as if we'd found an answer to / that question of what's left / when there's no more hope.’ There is a poem which sets love explicitly against death: ‘Saying it then, against / what comes: wife, while I can, while my breath, each hurried petal / can still find her’. And there are poems of farewell, of which at least one, ‘No Need’, is a great poem, of a perfection that makes me unwilling to quote. Read it. Read everything Raymond Carver wrote. His death is hard to accept, but at least he lived.

Tess Gallagher (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4657

SOURCE: Gallagher, Tess. Introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall: Poems, by Raymond Carver, pp. xvii-xxxi. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Gallagher, a poet in her own right and Carver’s wife, describes events with Carver in the months before his death and finds these events reflected in the poems contained in the collection.]

This is a last book and last things, as we learn, have rights of their own. They don't need us, but in our need of them we commemorate and make more real that finality which encircles us, and draws us again into that central question of any death: What is life for? Raymond Carver lived and wrote his answer: “I've always squandered,” he told an interviewer, no doubt steering a hard course away from the lofty and noble. It was almost a law, Carver's law, not to save up things for some longed-for future, but to use up the best that was in him each day and to trust that more would come. Even the packaging of the cigarettes he smoked bore the imprint of his oath in the imperative: NOW.

This was an injunction that would bear down on us with increasing intensity as we attempted to finish this book. In an episode eerily like that which preceded the death of Chekhov, to whom he had recently paid tribute in his story “Errand,” Ray had been diagnosed with lung cancer after spitting up blood in September 1987. There would follow ten months of struggle during which the cancer would reoccur as a brain tumor in early March. After twice swerving away from recommendations for brain surgery by several doctors, he would undergo seven weeks of intense, full-brain radiation. After a short respite, however, tumors would again be found in his lungs in early June.

These are the facts of that time, enough to have made realists out of us if we hadn't been realists already. Nonetheless, much as Chekhov had kept reading the train schedules away from the town in which he would die, Ray kept working, planning, believing in the importance of the time he had left, and also believing that he might, through some loop in fate, even get out of this. An errand list I found in his shirt pocket later read “eggs, peanut butter, hot choc” and then, after a space, “Australia? Antarctica??” The insistent nature of Ray's belief in his own capacity to recover from reversals during the course of his illness gave us both strength. In his journal he wrote: “When hope is gone, the ultimate sanity is to grasp at straws.” In this way he lived hope as a function of gesture, a reaching for or toward, while the object of promise stayed rightly illusory. The alternative was acceptance of death, which at age fifty was impossible for him. Another journal entry revealed his anguish as the pace of the disease quickened: “I wish I had a while. Not five years—or even three years—I couldn't ask for that long, but if I had even a year. If I knew I had a year.”

In January 1988 Ray began keeping a journal under the inspiration of Stephen Spender's Journals/1939-1983, but with the discovery of his brain tumor it broke off suddenly in March, though he would start again in another notebook later. Our attentions were turned instead to the task of drafting a short essay to appear in the commencement booklet for the University of Hartford, where Ray was to accept a Doctorate of Letters in May.

During much of this time I had been clinging to the stories of Chekhov, reading one after the other of the Ecco Press volumes, and now I offered two passages to Ray from Ward No. 6 to illustrate the epigraph from Saint Teresa (“Words lead to deeds … they prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness”), which he'd used from my book of poems to begin his essay. Ray incorporated the passages from Chekhov into his piece, and this was the beginning of an important spiritual accompaniment which began to run through our days, and which eventually would play an important part in the writing of this book.

The fervor with which we both seized on these particular moments in Ward No. 6 came, I think, directly out of the ordeal we were undergoing with Ray's health, and this was particularly true of the second passage in which two characters, a disaffected doctor and an imperious postmaster, his elder, suddenly find themselves discussing the human soul:

“And you do not believe in the immortality of the soul?”

“No, honored Mihail Averyanitch; I do not believe it, and, have no grounds for believing it.”

“I must own I doubt it too,” Mihail Averyanitch admits. “And yet I have a feeling as though I should never die myself: ‘Old fogey, it's time you were dead!’ but there is a little voice in my soul that says: ‘Don't believe it; you won't die.’”

In his framing of the passage Ray underscored the power of “words which linger as deeds” and out of which “a little voice in the soul” is born. He seemed almost grateful to observe how in the Chekhov story “the way we have dismissed certain concepts about life, about death, suddenly gives over unexpectedly to belief of an admittedly fragile but insistent nature.”

I continued to bring Chekhov into our days by reading a story first thing in the morning and then telling it to Ray when I came down for breakfast. I would give the story in as true a fashion as I could, and Ray would inevitably become engaged by it and have to read it for himself that afternoon. By evening we could discuss it.

Another of Ray's influences came from one of the books he'd been reading early in the year, Czeslaw Milosz's Unattainable Earth, and it began to affect his idea of the form and latitude his own book might discover. In the interests of what he called “a more spacious form,” Milosz had incorporated prose quotes from Casanova's Memoirs, snippets from Baudelaire, from his uncle Oscar Milosz, Pascal, Goethe and other thinkers and writers who'd affected him as he was writing his poems. He also includes his own musings, which take the form of confessions, questionings and insights. Ray was very much attracted to the inclusiveness of Milosz's approach. His own reading at the time included García Lorca, Jaroslav Seifert, Tomas Tranströmer, Lowell, The Selected Poems of Milosz and a rereading of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. From these he selected whole poems, which we later used as section heads for the book.

But in early June, when the devastating news of tumors in the lungs again was given to us, it was to Chekhov we instinctively turned to restore our steadfastness. One night I looked at certain passages I had bracketed in the stories and realized that they seemed to be speaking toward poems of Ray's which I'd been helping him revise and typing into the computer. On impulse I went to the typewriter and shaped some of these excerpts into lines and gave them titles. When I showed the results to Ray, it was as if we'd discovered another Chekhov inside Chekhov. But because I'd been looking at the passages with Ray's poems in mind, there was the sense that Chekhov had stepped toward us, and that while he remained in his own time, he seemed also to have become our contemporary. The world of headlong carriage races through snowstorms and of herring-head soup, of a dish made of bulls' eyes, of cooks picking sorrel for vegetable soup, of peasant children raised not to flinch at the crude language of their drunken parents—this world was at home with the world of Raymond Carver, in which a man puts his head on the executioner's block while touring a castle only to have the hand of his companion come down on his neck like an axe, a world in which a drunken father is caught in the kitchen by his son with a strange woman in a heavily sexual context, and in which we watch as a drowned child is carried above the trees in the tongs of a helicopter.

Once we'd discovered the poet in Chekhov, Ray began to mark passages he wanted to include and to type them up himself. The results were something between poems and prose, and this pleased us because some of Ray's new poems blurred the boundaries between poem and story, just as his stories had often taken strength from dramatic and poetic strategies. Ray had so collapsed the distance between his language and thought that the resulting transparency of method allowed distinctions between genres to dissolve without violence or a feeling of trespass. The story given as poem could unwind without having to pretend to intensities of phrasing or language that might have impeded the force of the story itself, yet the story could pull at the attention of the reader in another way for having been conceived as poetry.

In order to work at all on the book during what was a bewildering time for us, we made the decision not to tell anyone about the cancer's recurrence in the lungs. Instead of giving over to visitors and a parade of sorrowful goodbyes we could keep our attention on the things we wanted to do. And one of the things we decided to do was to celebrate our eleven years together by getting married in Reno, Nevada, on June 17. The wedding was what Ray called a “high tacky affair” and it took place across from the courthouse in the Heart of Reno Chapel, which had a huge heart in the window spiked with small golden light bulbs and a sign that read Se Habla Espanol. Afterwards we went gambling in the casinos and I headed into a phenomenal three-day winning streak at roulette.

When we returned home Ray wrote “Proposal,” which carries the urgency of that time, the raw sense of life lived without guile, or that cushion of hope we count on to extend life past the provisional. Our having married anchored us in a new way and it seemed we had knowingly saved this occasion to give ourselves solace, and perhaps also to allow us to toss back our heads once more in a rippling cosmic laugh as from that “gay and empty journey” Kafka writes of.

This was also the time during which Ray wrote “Gravy.” The idea for the poem had come from a conversation we'd had while sitting on the deck facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca, taking stock. “You remember telling me how you almost died before you met me?” I asked him. “It could've ended back then and we'd never even have met. None of this would have happened.” We sat there quietly, just marveling at what we'd been allowed. “It's all been gravy,” Ray said. “Pure gravy.”

Many of the poems Ray had accumulated toward the book had been drafted during July and late August the summer before. Nearly a year later, in early July, enough finished poems had accumulated that we decided I should begin to arrange them into sections and to shape the book. I had done this with each of Ray's collections of poetry and also with most of his fiction. My perhaps primitive way of ordering a manuscript was to scatter the pages out on the living-room floor and crawl on my hands and knees among them, reading and sensing what should come next, moving by intuition and story and emotion.

We had decided to try to include the Chekhov passages. The stories had been so integral to our spiritual survival that, as with Milosz's inclusion of Whitman in his book, Chekhov seemed a companion-soul, as if Ray had somehow won permission through a lifetime of admiration to take up his work with the audacity of love.

One night I remember watching with Ray a composer being interviewed on television, and the composer was exclaiming that Tchaikovsky had lifted whole passages from Beethoven and offered them as his own. When someone had challenged him about this he had said simply, “I have a right. I love him.” Ray had jotted down this exchange, and I think this right-of-love figured heavily into his decision to bring Chekhov so boldly into conjunction with his own work. The Chekhov passages also bound Ray's poetry to his fiction, his last collection having ended with the tribute of “Errand.” The Chekhov selections seemed to fall very naturally into place in the manuscript, keying and amplifying in a tonal and emotional way the poems Ray had been writing. At times, through Chekhov, Ray was able to give himself and others instructions for the difficult task of continuing under the certainty of loss (“Downstream”), or he could admit fears he might have stifled in order to keep the upper hand in his waiting game with cancer (“Foreboding” and “Sparrow Nights”).

The book, as we finalized my arrangement, fell into six sections. It began with poems retrieved from earlier publications, poems which, for one reason and another, had not been joined with more recent work. So just as Ray was bringing the time of Chekhov to bear on his work, he was carrying forward poems from his earlier life, and perhaps affecting both lives in their imaginative composition. I think in this regard that a passage he had marked in Milosz's Unattainable Earth may illuminate Ray's inner objectives:

Jeanne, a disciple of Karl Jaspers, taught me the philosophy of freedom, which consists in being aware that a choice made now, today, projects itself backwards and changes our past actions.

There was an urge in Ray's writing, in both the poems and stories, to revisit certain evocative scenes and characters in his life, to wrest from them if not release, then at least a telling anatomy of the occasion. In this book the early love poems hint at a dark element which is realized more fully in recent poems such as “Miracle,” “The Offending Eel” and “Wake Up.” The son as an oppressive figure in former poems and in the stories “Elephant” and “The Compartment” reappears in “On an Old Photograph of My Son,” and although the pain is freshly present, there is the redeeming knowledge at the end of the poem that “we all do better in the future.” The theme of the dead child, which was explored so poignantly in his story “A Small, Good Thing” is revived in the poem “Lemonade,” in which a child, sent by the father for a thermos of lemonade, drowns in the river.

The second section introduced a series of poems whose territory was suggested by Tomas Tranströmer's poem, “The Name,” about a loss of identity. Perhaps the best way to characterize these poems is by their dis-ease, the way in which a wildness, a strangeness, can erupt and carry us into realms of unreason with no way to turn back. Here the verbally abusive woman of his story “Intimacy” is joined by the physically abusive woman of “Miracle.” Drinking continued to motivate the rituals of disintegration in the poems about his first marriage, and he inventoried the havoc it had caused as if it had occurred only yesterday.

Childhood innocence is abruptly sundered in the third section with “The Kitchen,” which recalls the story “Nobody Said Anything.” There are poems in which the unknown is left fully intact, as in “The Sturgeon” and “Another Mystery.” The violence of working-class family life in “Suspenders” plays off a section from Chekhov about peasant life and the brutalizing of the sensibilities of children.

The hard question Milosz asks in “Return to Kraków in 1880” at the front of the fourth section—“To win? To lose? / What for, if the world will forget us anyway?”—challenges the poet's sense of memory as an entrustment. And for Ray, of course, in facing his death the idea of whether one's memory would persist importantly in the survival of one's writing was also present. His poems suggest that an artist's obsessions and signs, fragmentary and intermittent as they may be, exist in a world of necessity that transcends anyone else's need of them. At the same time, poems like “One More” and “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes” reveal humorously the haphazard nature of creation itself, and indeed the amazement that anything worthwhile should accumulate from such a scattershot process. There is also a prose record in this section of Ray's first intimations of the literary life when he's handed a copy of Poetry by an elderly man whose home he enters as a delivery boy. Here, as in “Errand,” it is the ordinary moment which illuminates the most extraordinary things. A magazine passes from one hand to another and the young would-be writer discovers, to his surprise, a world in which writing and reading poems is believed to be a creditable endeavor.

The juxtaposition of contemporary time with the era of knights and chivalry in “The Offending Eel” is one we've seen before in the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and also in the more recent “Blackbird Pie.” Such counterpointing seems to allow the contemporary material a fresh barbarism. In light of the Lowell quote that begins the fifth section—“Yet why not say what happened?”—we look with fluorescent starkness into the unrelenting, obsessive magnetism of “the real,” its traps and violences.

The poem “Summer Fog” in the same section was made all the more extraordinary for me because of something Ray said when he first gave me the poem to read. He told me he was sorry he wouldn't be there to do the things for me that I was doing for him. “I've tried something here,” he said. “I don't know if it works.” What he had tried was to leap ahead into the time of my death, and to imagine his grief as a gift to me against my own approaching solitude. It seems all the more moving that this was done at a time when his own death was, in the words of the poem, the “stupendous grief” we were feeling together.

The last section of the book deals with the stages of his awareness as his health worsened and he moved toward death. In “Gravy,” as I've mentioned, he displaces the devastating significance of death in the present by inserting the memory of a prior death narrowly avoided, when in 1976-77 he had nearly died of alcoholism. So in effect he uses his coming death as proof of a former escape; and death, he realized, once displaced by such an excess of living during the ten productive years he'd been allowed, could never be quite the same. Nevertheless, the introductory passages from Chekhov (“Foreboding” and “Sparrow Nights”) acknowledge an inner panic. Along with the matter-of-factness of “What the Doctor Said” and the “practicing” for death in “Wake Up,” there is the defiance of “Proposal,” and the two poems which rehearse the final goodbye—“No Need” and “Through the Boughs.” I hadn't realized until three weeks after Ray's death, as I went over the manuscript to enter corrections Ray had made before we'd taken the final trip to Alaska, that I had perfectly, though unwittingly, enacted the instructions of “No Need” the night before his death. The three kisses which had been meant as “Good night” had, at the time, carried the possibility that Ray would not wake again. “Don't be afraid,” I'd said. “Just go into your sleep now” and, finally, “I love you”—to which he had answered, “I love you too. You get some sleep now.” He never opened his eyes again, and at 6:20 the next morning he stopped breathing.

The “jaunty” slant of the cigarette in the self-portrait “Afterglow” belies the consequences which have made this a last glance. Maybe it's as close as Ray would let himself come to irony at a time when a lesser writer might have carved out a sad, edgy little empire with it. In the final poem, “Late Fragment,” the voice has earned a more elevated coda. There is the sense that central to the effort of the life, of the writing, has been the need to be beloved and that one's own willingness to award that to the self—to “call myself beloved” and, beyond that, to “feel myself beloved on the earth”—has somehow been achieved. For a recovering alcoholic, this self-recognition and the more generalized feeling of love he was allowing himself was no small accomplishment. Ray knew he had been graced and blessed and that his writing had enabled him to reach far beyond the often mean circumstances from which he and those he wrote about had come, and also that through his writing those working-class lives had become a part of literature. On a piece of scrap paper near his typewriter he had written: “Forgive me if I'm thrilled with the idea, but just now I thought that every poem I write ought to be called ‘Happiness.’” And he was, in spite of not agreeing to such an early death, in the keeping of a grateful equanimity when we talked during those long summer evenings of what our life together as writers, lovers and helpmates had been.

By mid-July his last book was finished and I had found its title, taken from an early poem called “Looking for Work.” We didn't discuss the title; we just knew it was right. We had been given a rather incredible gift shortly after our wedding and this, I think, influenced us in our choice. Our painter friend, Alfredo Arreguin, had been working on a large painting about which mysterious, tantalizing hints had been leaked at intervals to us by his wife, Susan Lytle, also a painter. The day before our wedding reception, Alfredo and Susan arrived with the painting strapped to the top of their car. The painting, once hung in our living room, proved to be of several salmon leaping midair toward a vigorous, stylized waterfall. In the sky, what Ray would call “the ghost fish” were patterned into clouds heading in the opposite direction. The rocks in the background were inhabited as well, studded with prehistoric eyes.

Each morning we took our coffee in front of the painting where Ray could sometimes be seen sitting alone during the day, meditating. When I look at it now, his particular aliveness seems imbedded there in the pageantry of a cycle we had seen played out year after year in the river below our house. In the painting the fish are heading upstream, bowed eternally to the light in a fierce, determined flight above water, and above them the ghost fish float unimpeded in an opposing current, relieved of their struggle.

In Alaska, on one last fishing trip, we raised glasses of Perrier to toast the book, and ourselves, for having managed to finish it against so many odds. In the crucial last days of our work, guests had arrived for an extended stay and Ray's son had come from Germany. We'd kept working, parceling out the day, until the work was done. “Don't tell them we've finished,” he said to me—“them” meaning the guests. “I need you here.” So the book as pretext allowed us a few more precious mornings with each other before what would be the final onset of his illness. After our guests had left, we began making calls, trying desperately to arrange a trip to Russia to see Chekhov's grave and to visit the houses of Dostoyevski and Tolstoy. There were places associated with Akhmatova that I wanted to find. Even though this wasn't to be, our planning in those last days was, in itself, a kind of dream-visit that lifted our spirits. Later, when Ray entered the hospital, we talked about what a great trip it would have been. “I'll go there,” I said, “I'll go for us.” “I'll get there before you,” he said, and grinned. “I'm traveling faster.”

After Ray's death at home in Port Angeles on August 2, the mail was heaped for weeks with letters and cards from people all over the world mourning his passing, sending me often very moving accounts of their having met him even briefly, things he'd said, acts of kindness performed, stories of his life before I had known him. Copies of obituaries also began to arrive from papers around the country, and one day I opened a packet from London with the obituary from the Sunday Times. The headline above the photograph of Ray with his hands in his jacket pocket reads simply: “The American Chekhov.” From The Guardian there was the possessive “America's Chekhov.” I seemed to be reading these with Ray, and to be carrying his knowing of it. Either headline would have been accolade enough to have made him humbly and deeply happy.

It seems important finally to say that Ray did not regard his poetry as simply a hobby or a pastime he turned to when he wanted a rest from fiction. Poetry was a spiritual necessity. The truths he came to through his poetry involved a dismantling of artifice to a degree not even Williams, whom he had admired early on, could have anticipated. He'd read Milosz's lines in “Ars Poetica?” and they'd appealed to him:

I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.

Ray used his poetry to flush the tiger from hiding. Further, he did not look on his writing life as the offering of products to a readership, and he was purposefully disobedient when pressures were put on him to write stories because that's where his reputation was centered and that's where the largest reward in terms of publication and audience lay. He didn't care. When he received the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award, given only to prose writers, he immediately sat down and wrote two books of poetry. He was not “building a career”; he was living a vocation and this meant that his writing, whether poetry or prose, was tied to inner mandates that insisted more and more on an increasingly unmediated apprehension of his subjects, and poetry was the form that best allowed this.

I can imagine that it might be tempting for those who loved Ray's fiction to the exclusion of his poetry to feel he had gone astray in giving so much of his time to poetry in the final years. But this would be to miss the gift of freshness his poems offer in a passionless era. Because judgments about the contribution of poets lags far behind those volunteered toward fiction writers in this country, it will likely be some time before Ray's impact as a poet can be adequately assessed. So far, the most astute essay on his poetry is Greg Kuzma's, published in the Michigan Quarterly Review (Spring 1988). It could be that Ray, in his own fashion, has done as much to challenge the idea of what poetry can be as he did to reinvigorate the short story. What is sure is that he wrote and lived his last ten years by his own design, and as his companion in that life, I'm glad to have helped him keep his poetry alive for the journey, for the comfort and soul making he drew from it so crucially in his too-early going.

Randolph Paul Runyon (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Runyon, Randolph Paul. Epilogue to Reading Raymond Carver, pp. 207-16. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, some of Carver's late poems are read as strategies for interpreting other works by Carver, as well as intimating an ability to interpret the motives and intentions of other people.]

His wife gone, the narrator in “Blackbird Pie,” still troubled by “the question of the handwriting” (510), suggests one more interpretive strategy—actually two—to supplement that of “picking out a line here and a line there” (501) and setting them side by side. If “my wife writes more letters, or tells a friend who keeps a diary … then, years later, someone can look back on this time, interpret it according to the record, its scraps and tirades, its silences and innuendos” (510-11). To read the “silences and innuendos” of Carver's fiction has been our task in these pages and, though to pursue them fully would really be a project beyond the scope of this book, we ought to give some consideration to whether what Carver seems through this narrator to invite us to do could be done. For as the wife could write more letters Raymond Carver has written more than the stories we have read here: the poems of Fires, Where Water Comes Together With Other Water, Ultramarine, A New Path to the Waterfall, not to mention earlier collected and uncollected poems (as well as a few stories that did not appear in the collections discussed here). And as the wife could have a friend in whom she confides and who also writes, so too has Carver had for the last decade of his life in Tess Gallagher a confidante who does, of course, write—though so magnificently that she should not be read for what we can glimpse of Raymond Carver except to the extent that such curiosity on our part, sanctioned to the degree by which “Blackbird Pie” invites it, is a pardonable offense.

“The poems in Fires,” as William Stull writes in the DLB Yearbook 1988, “written during his turbulent middle years” (209), come from an earlier period than the maturity that has been our focus here. The later three collections were written after Cathedral, after Carver moved into Tess Gallagher's house in Port Angeles, Washington, in 1984 (Stull, 209). Ultramarine (1986), I believe, is the best of the three: The poems in Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985) have not yet fully emerged from prose, while A New Path to the Waterfall (1989) would doubtless have assumed a somewhat different state—certainly a more unified one—had Carver lived.1 Though there are some fine poems in it, he had to fill out its pages with quotations from other writers (Chekhov, Milosz, and a half-dozen others).

Ultramarine has the kind of unity one would expect from a collection of poems written in a short space of time and meant to appear together in a sequence. But it has a greater unity than that: it displays an integration that rivals that of the three major story collections analyzed here, in which each poem repeats turns of phrase from its immediate predecessor and surrounds them with a new context. In “This Morning,” for example, the first poem in Ultramarine, the poet awakens to a beautiful winter morning by the sea, gazes at the water, but finds that, “as usual, my thoughts / began to wander. I had to will / myself to see what I was seeing / and nothing else. I had to tell my self this is what / mattered, not the other” (3). The “other,” he goes on to explain, is largely made up of the concerns of his past life, whether he has done the right things, “tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat / with my former wife. All the things / I hoped would go away this morning.” The second poem in the collection may be entirely taken, as a note below the title indicates, “from a letter by Renoir.” Entitled “What You Need for Painting,” it begins with a list of some eighteen different colors for the palette, among which is hidden—as the titles of Carver's stories were so often hidden—the title of the collection itself: “Ultramarine blue” (5). In the context of the titles of the two volumes of poetry published immediately before and after this one, Ultramarine does not seem to do much more than perpetuate the aquatic theme. But the epigraph Carver supplies (the other two have no such explanatory inscription and need none, for both are titles of poems that appear therein) says a lot about the kind of ultramarine blue with which he painted these poems: “‘Sick with exile, they yearn homeward now, their eyes / Turned to the ultramarine, first-star-pierced dark / Reflected on the dark, incoming waves.’—Derek Mahon, ‘Mt. Gabriel,’ from Antarctica, 1985” (ix). If the title of the collection is a quotation from the epigraph, or at least if its echo in the epigraph explains—as its appearance in the epigraph gives us every right to expect that it does explain—what kind of ultramarine the title is talking about, then it is important to realize that it is an ultramarine that originally comes, despite the etymology so evident in the word, not from the ocean but from the sky, though it is seen through its reflection on the surface of the waves.2 Things, in other words, are turned around. And sea and sky are almost inextricably mixed, the sea reflecting the color from the sky that originally had a marine origin. There are two ultramarines, each so connected to the other that it is perhaps impossible to determine which came first. So too these first two poems: for in “What You Need for Painting,” after the requisite colors and knives, turpentine and brushes, comes—and this, too, evidently from Renoir's letter—“indifference to everything except your canvas.” In other words, the need “to will”—and for Renoir too it was a question of will, since among the prerequisites the poem goes on to list is “an iron will”—“to will / myself to see what I was seeing / and nothing else.”

Both poems are about the need to will oneself to focus full attention on “this”—the sight of the sea in the first poem, the canvas in the other—instead of on “the other.” Like the two ultramarines (the one in the sky and the one seen on the marine surface), these two poems are in one very important regard the same: each speaks of demanding one's attention and of the necessity of not allowing that attention to wander elsewhere. Yet by that very duplication of demand each poem demands that we turn our attention from one poem and give it to the other, or that we turn from the demand to the demand's having been made twice. The sequence of these two poems, if not the poems themselves, is highly self-referential: Carver's is a metafictional poetry.

“An Afternoon,” the third poem in the series, is the third act in this minidrama, continuing the theme of the need to keep one's attention on the matter at hand. The poem builds in particular on the motif first introduced in the second poem of the need for a creative artist to obey this stricture, yet returns us to a concern specific to the first poem by recalling what it was that distracted him there.

As he writes, without looking at the sea,
he feels the tip of his pen begin to tremble.
The tide is going out across the shingle.
But it isn't that. No,
it's because at that moment she chooses
to walk into the room without any clothes on.


The creative pen assumes phallic proportions here, transforming itself into a penis whose tip trembles at the sight of the beloved in all her splendor.3 We may be distracted for a moment from the story so intriguingly told in “An Afternoon” by the realization that this is not the first time the poet's wife has been a source of distraction. Tess Gallagher has declared (at least to me) that there is no irony in Carver.4 Yet there's something at least a little ironical in the circumstance that Carver's second wife distracts him in “An Afternoon” from what he is trying to keep his mind on, but it was his first wife who distracted him from what he was trying to focus his attention on in “This Morning”:

I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong—duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.


The irony resides in both wives doing the same thing (distracting him) but with what a difference.

Every poem of Ultramarine enacts such an echo as this, and quite often the echo itself addresses its being an echo. Near the middle of the collection, “The Phenomenon” tells of seeing “The sun and moon hang side-by-side over the water. / Two sides of the same coin” (79). This sun and this moon are to each other as “The Phenomenon” is to the immediately preceding poem, “Bahia, Brazil,” in the brief moment that the reader glimpses the parallel between this astonishing celestial “phenomenon” and the unnatural contiguity the poet finds equally astonishing there: In Bahia he saw the ghosts of slaves with “arms shackled together. / Jesus, the very idea of such a thing!” (78)5 Like the slaves, the contiguous poems are linked; like the side-by-side sun and moon, they are “two sides of the same coin.” In “Bahia, Brazil,” Carver resurrects the old question of whether, if a house were on fire, you would “save the cat or the Rembrandt,” with the obvious application in this instance to the slaves: “Lines of men in the street, / as opposed to lines of poetry. / Choose!” (77-78) But in this very moment of quandary, he may have opted for giving poetry the last word, since the lines of poetry are—as those lines turn into the sequence of poems in Ultramarine—as linked as the slaves. Indeed, the “side-by-side” phenomenon “over the water” in “The Phenomenon” is linked, on its other side, to the “boat rocking from side to side” (81; emphasis added) of the poem that follows it, “Wind.” There, another astonishing phenomenon will take place over the water (though closer to its surface), a mysterious “wind / moving across the water” of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Future biographers will want to compare Carver's Brazilian poems in Ultramarine, “Bahia, Brazil” and “In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo,” to the ones Tess Gallagher wrote in Amplitude: New and Selected Poems (1987) about what they experienced there. In “That Kind of Thing,” she recounts a conversation she and Carver had with an American consular official in Bahia in which arises the same question Carver raised in “Bahia, Brazil” concerning the cat and the Rembrandt—lines of suffering slaves versus lines of poetry. The consular official, “speaking to Ray: ‘I read your stuff. Well / written. But, to be perfectly / honest, too depressing. I have to live / with that kind of thing / down here all the time’” (152). What's the point, in other words, of writing about suffering, or reading about it, when human misery in the streets of Bahia is so overwhelming? In Amplitude Gallagher places this poem just after “Refusing Silence,” which is not about Brazil but is about, as “That Kind of Thing” is also about, the writer's need to justify her choice of vocation: To “Insist for us all … is the job / of the voice, and especially / of the poet. Else / what am I for … ? / There are messages to send” (148).

In “If Blood Were Not as Powerful as It Is,” another poem from Amplitude with a Brazilian setting (along with “In Maceio” and “Sugar”), Gallagher is struck by the sight of a bloody religious icon: “The rays spiking / from his golden head / set off the irregular rays of blood / streaming down” (158). And of another Christ in the same Recife chapel: “A rivulet trickles from his rib cage / and stops without dropping / one precious drop—this heavenly body / that bleeds without bleeding.” As if to demonstrate that certain universals underlie historically separate cultures—while allowing us to see that she is just as interested as Carver in planting the same image in two widely divergent yet, by the poetic sequence she creates, side-by-side contexts—the immediately following poem, “Redwing,” recounts a myth from the American Northwest about another bloody religious phenomenon.

The readers of poetry, the writers of
poetry. Nation inside
the nation. That rainbow holding briefly over
the Strait of Juan de Fuca. …
.....… I don't have to think
of raindrops hanging as light, or to command
the schoolbook corpses of refraction and
internal reflection to be dazzled. The myth
of the Vilela Indians, its rainbow
a gigantic serpent charmed
by a small girl until it sheds her
sway and piecemeal ravages the world, vanquished
at last by an army of birds—that's good enough
for me. And victory too, each bird
dipping itself in the blood
of the monster.


And so are Christians dipped in the blood of the Lamb (an oldtime religion, they say, “that's good enough / for me”). The “nation inside of the nation” of the readers (and writers) of poetry will see what is so strangely the same in Recife, Brazil, and Washington State and appreciate the way this poem acquires increasing power from the way it speaks not only on its own but in answer too to its immediate precursor.6

Carver's and Gallagher's poems, in ways that space permits only a glimpse of here, do open themselves to those other interpretive strategies suggested by the reader of “Blackbird Pie”: like the author of that troubling letter, Carver has written “more letters”; and like her, he had a companion in whose writing we can find something that could help us “interpret [the] silences and innuendos” of his stories, something in particular to explain why Carver in his next-to-last published story gave us a model reader who took to reading by juxtaposition.

In “The Gift,” the last poem in Ultramarine, Carver remembers that on their flight home from South America

                              Your breathing said
you were fast asleep. I covered you with an arm
and went on from Argentina to recall a place
I lived in once in Palo Alto. …
.....The refrigerator stood next to the bed.
When I became dehydrated in the middle of the night,
all I had to do to slake that thirst was reach out
and open the door.

(139; emphasis added)

The memory of how easy it was to reach out to get what he needed was evidently prompted by the way his arm had reached out to cover Tess as she curled up next to him to sleep on the plane. Yet in the reader's mind it could evoke another memory, that of how in the immediately preceding poem, “Asia,” “ships pass so close to land / a man could reach out / and break a branch from one of the willow trees” (137; emphasis added). These poems reach out to each other and in doing so reenact the companionship of Tess and Ray whose conjugal happiness is celebrated in so many of them, but most especially in “The Gift.” “Asia” and “The Gift” have different agendas, different contexts, different stories to tell, different things on their minds. So too do these lovers, as “The Gift” goes on to say:

You tell me you didn't sleep well. I say
I didn't either. You had a terrible night. “Me too.”
We're extraordinarily calm and tender with each other
as if sensing the other's rickety state of mind.
As if we knew what the other was feeling.


There is an almost uncanny sense in which they do seem to know what the other is thinking.7 And so do the poems. Indeed, what these last two poems are thinking of is the very idea of knowing what the other is thinking, for as the poet in “Asia” gazes from his balcony at the men on the ship headed for Asia, he declares “I can read the faces / … I know what they're thinking.” Just as in “The Gift” it is “as if we knew what the other was feeling.” Yet, he goes on to say, “We don't, / of course. We never do. No matter.” Just as the poems, despite their speaking the same words, don't really know it. Yet, in their silence, the innuendo remains that they do.


  1. Carver himself judged Ultramarine superior to Where Water Comes Together With Other Water: “Ultramarine seems more considered, somehow, more careful in certain ways” (Conversations, 189). “It may be the stronger of the two books” (Conversations, 188).

  2. The etymology actually has the blue coming not from the sea but from beyond it, which is in fact what Mahon has it doing when he places its origin in the sky beyond the ocean, the night sky whose stars beckon the travelers beyond the ocean where they are to the home to which the stars will guide them: “f. L. ultra beyond + mare sea. … Ultramarine blue: A pigment of colouring matter of various shades of blue, originally obtained from the mineral lapis lazuli and named with reference to the foreign origin of this” (Oxford English Dictionary).

  3. Compare the moment in “Nobody Said Anything” when the boy protagonist “had a big boner and she waved me over with her hand [in his fantasy]. Just as I was going to unzip, I heard a plop in the creek. I looked and saw the tip of my fly rod jiggling” (49).

  4. In a conversation 22 February 1990 in which she anticipated what she would say in her introduction to Adelman's Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver: “One of his French translators, François Lascan, had originally misapprehended Ray's stance in the stories as ironic” but told Gallagher that when he saw a photograph of Carver he realized that such a man “‘could never condescend to his characters. I had to retranslate the entire book’” (10). Irony toward his characters is not, of course, the kind I'm talking about here, which could be more accurately described as irony of the text toward itself.

  5. The brief moment in which the reader will glimpse the parallel—before being distracted from it by the other demands the poem will make on the attention—is itself already inscribed here: the poet first sees the side-by-side sun and moon from his bed, then climbs out of bed slowly, momentarily distracted by fatigue (“I climb from bed / slowly, much as an old man might maneuver / from his musty bed in midwinter” [79]), and then when he looks out of the window again, distracted once more, this time by the splendor of the landscape itself without reference to what is happening in the sky (“when I look out / the window again … I'm arrested with the beauty of this place”), he will discover that the celestial phenomenon has vanished: “I move closer to the glass and see it's happened / between this thought and that. The moon / is gone. Set, at last” (79). Yet even this reenactment of the reader's first seeing and then losing (or forgetting) the parallel is itself one of the parallels between this poem and its immediate predecessor. For in “Bahia, Brazil” there are “no sunsets in this place. Light one minute, / and then the stars come out” (77). That is to say as the moon will suddenly drop below the horizon without warning in the poem to come, here the sun will suddenly do the same (will set: compare “sunsets” with “Set, at last”). In other words, what happens in “The Phenomenon” is also enacted in the intratext these two contiguous poems form: They are “two sides of the same coin.”

  6. The rainbow in “Redwing” comes after rain, while “If Blood Were Not as Powerful as It Is” concerns, in addition to a certain insistent religious blood imagery, an account of the suffering caused by a prolonged absence of rain, a “drought / five years running” (159). A woman at the door of the church asks for a glass of water, and tries “to drink / deeply enough to get past the fear of the next / thirsting.” In this regard, too, “Redwing” responds to “If Blood,” as it also does by presenting a religious blood myth in which the poet can wholeheartedly delight in place of the one for which she can barely conceal her disgust, though that disgust is most heavily directed at the gold with which the priests have coated their Christ: The “blood … would be golden too, if blood / were not as powerful as it—powerful / enough to avoid even gold” (158). It is a testimony to the power not so much of Christ's blood as of blood itself, which is powerful enough to return, freed from its Christic associations (though not from their echoes), in “Redwing.”

  7. As in “Slippers,” the poem just before “Asia,” a woman “woke up / barking this one night. And found her little dog, / Teddy, beside the bed, watching” (135)—as if she had, in her sleep (for she had been dreaming), assumed something of a dog's consciousness, and as if the dog, intently watching, had divined something of her dream. “Asia,” too, it turns out, is about a kind of mystic communication between man and beast: The ship is bound for Asia, and the men on board wave at horses on the shore, who “stand like statues of horses. / Watching the ship as it passes. / Waves breaking against the ship. / Against the beach. And in the mind / of the horses, where / it is always Asia” (138). As if the horses could read the sailors' minds, as if they knew where they were going, and wanted to go there too.

A. O. Scott (essay date August 12, 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8204

SOURCE: Scott, A. O. “Looking for Raymond Carver.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 13 (August 12, 1999): 52-9.

[In the following essay, Carver's work and career are considered in terms of the influences of his friends, mentors and editors, and his literary reputation in relation to the tremendous good will he engendered in just about everyone he met.]

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel
beloved on the earth.”

Plenty of writers are admired, celebrated, imitated, and hyped. Very few writers can, as Raymond Carver does in his poem “Late Fragment,” call themselves beloved. In the years since his death in 1988, at fifty, from lung cancer, Carver's reputation has blossomed. He has gone from being an influential—and controversial—member of a briefly fashionable school of experimental fiction to being an international icon of traditional American literary values. His genius—but more his honesty, his decency, his commitment to the exigencies of craft—is praised by an extraordinarily diverse cross section of his peers.

Richard Ford, whose work, like Carver's, carries the Hemingway tradition of masculine virtue into the perilous world of discount stores, suburban sprawl, and no-fault divorce, published a tribute to his old friend in The New Yorker last year. Jay McInerney, a student of Carver's at Syracuse in the early 1980s whose cheeky, cosmopolitan sensibility seems, at first glance, antithetical to Carver's plain-spoken provinciality, has written memorably, and movingly, about his teacher. And Carver's stripped-down vignettes of ordinary life in the United States have been championed by such heroes of international postmodern super-fiction as Salman Rushdie, Amos Oz, and Haruki Murakami, who is also Carver's principal Japanese translator.

Carver's influence has proven remarkably durable and protean: the chronicles of family dysfunction, addiction, and recovery that dominate American writing in the late 1990s may owe as much to his example as did the flood of laconic, present-tense short fiction that nearly drowned it in the mid-1980s.

Through the ministrations of his friends and the tireless efforts of his widow, the poet and short-story writer Tess Gallagher, to keep his memory alive. Carver has begun to approach something like literary sainthood. Certain facts about his life and death—his stoicism in the face of terminal illness, his generosity as a friend and teacher, his successful battle with alcoholism, the happy and productive life he made in Port Angeles, Washington, with Gallagher after the collapse of his first marriage—have added luster to his image. The best of Carver's writing now seems, in retrospect, to be suffused with the best of his personality—affable, humble, battered, wise. But to say this may also be to note that the adversities and triumphs of Carver's life have obscured his work, that we now read that work through the screen of biography, and that his identity as a writer is, in consequence, blurred. What kind of a writer was he, and how are we to assess his achievement? Was he a hard-boiled cynic or an open-hearted sentimentalist? A regionalist rooted in his native Pacific Northwest or the chronicler of an America whose trailer parks and subdivisions had become indistinguishable? Did he help to revive American fiction or contribute to its ruin? Is he, as the London Times once declared, “America's Chekhov,” or merely the O. Henry of America's graduate writing programs?

If anything, the current state of Carver's published work makes these questions, which have lingered for some time, more difficult than ever to address. More than a decade after his death, Carver's oeuvre is still taking shape. Last autumn Knopf brought out his collected poems, and the Atlantic Monthly Press issued a tenth-anniversary hardcover edition of Where I'm Calling From, which Carver viewed as the definitive collection of his stories. Around the same time, a New York Times Magazine article raised questions about the extent to which Carver was the sole, or even the primary, begetter of his own work, pointing to evidence that Gordon Lish, the editor of Carver's first two books, had drastically cut, rearranged, and even rewritten many of the stories which established Carver's fame.1 And then there is the question of Gallagher's role, which seems to have been that of soulmate, sounding board, first reader—and collaborator. The journal Philosophy and Literature recently printed some short plays Carver and Gallagher wrote together. The journal also ran a photograph of the manuscript of the final page of “Errand,” Carver's last published story; the concluding paragraph is in Gallagher's handwriting.

Esquire magazine is publishing three newly discovered early stories. One of these stories, “Kindling,” which appeared in the July issue, is, like “The Cabin” and “Where I'm Calling From,” a portrait of a man seeking both solitude and human connection in the wake of an unspecified personal catastrophe. Next year the University of Michigan Press will publish Soul Barnacles, which Gallagher has described as a collection of her “essays, introductions, interviews, and letters concerning Ray's work and mine.” All of these developments promise to add new, complicating dimensions to our idea of Carver and his work. But even the books that first made his reputation and remain in print present a rather contradictory and unsettled picture. Reading Where I'm Calling From alongside the earlier collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love can be like reading the same stories written by different authors. The unsuspecting bookstore customer, choosing between the slender What We Talk About, with its vivid, sexy cover, and the heftier, more sober-looking Where I'm Calling From, is in effect choosing between authors strikingly different in voice, manner, and attitude. Why should a writer valued above all for his forthrightness (and sometimes criticized for his literal-mindedness) be such a mystery? Which Carver is the real Carver? Which Carver is the Carver worth reading? Or are they both the same?

One thing is certain: Raymond Carver, the most beloved short-story writer of our time, was first of all, in his own estimation, a poet. “I began as a poet,” he wrote, “my first publication was a poem. So I suppose on my tombstone I'd be very pleased if they put ‘Poet and short-story writer—and occasional essayist’ in that order.” All of Us, while not quite tombstone-sized, is nonetheless bulky with the trappings of literary importance. In addition to nearly three hundred pages of closely set, handsomely printed poems, the volume boasts no fewer than seven appendixes, including thirty-five pages of textual notes recording variant readings of words, phrases, and in some cases whole stanzas. The editor's preface, by William Stull of the University of Hartford, explains that, in the preparation of this book, “every known printing of each of Raymond Carver's poems was collated against the editor's copy-text,” and that the bibliography (Appendix 5) records “all inclusions in other books by Raymond Carver,” as well as “subsequent appearances in the form of broadsides, greeting cards, or limited editions.” If nothing else, All of Us is a monument of textual scholarship.

The question is not whether Carver deserves this treatment—of a kind very few American poets have received (there is no such edition of Robert Lowell, for example, or of Marianne Moore)—but how well it serves him. “Remember Haydn's 104 symphonies,” Carver writes. “Not all of them / were great. But there were 104 of them.” These lines are from a poem called “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes,” which seems to consist of the contents of those same pockets. And All of Us has a similar feel, as if quantity rather than quality were the measure of the artist. Tess Gallagher anticipates this objection, with some defensiveness, in her introduction:

I am aware of those honed minds that find Ray's transparency somehow an insult to intelligence. They would have applied an editor like a tourniquet. I might have served as such, had I thought it true to his gift. I didn't. If Ray hadn't given and published in the ample way he did, I believe we would not receive his guileless offering with the same credulity and gratitude. Certainly … any number of poems I love might have been omitted. Overreach was natural and necessary to him, and to fault him for it would be like spanking a cat for swallowing the goldfish.

Aside from her self-undermining sarcasm (are dull, credulous minds best suited to appreciating Carver's poetry?) and her taste for outlandish similes, what is most striking about Gallagher's introduction is the recurrence of words like “guileless,” “artless,” and “natural” to describe Carver's approach to poetry. Indeed, the poems are without exception composed (if that's the right word) in a vernacular, off-the-cuff, unadorned style:

This foot's giving me nothing
but trouble. The ball,
the arch, the ankle—I'm saying
it hurts to walk. But
          mainly it's these toes
I worry about. Those
“terminal digits” as they're
otherwise called. How true!

(“The Toes”)

But it's also true that All of Us abounds with signs of wide reading and intense—intensely literary—ambition. The poems from A New Path to the Waterfall (1989), the last book of poems Carver saw through publication, are interspersed with lengthy selections from other writers—Chekhov, preeminently, but also Anna Akhmatova, Tomas Tranströmer, Robert Lowell, and Czeslaw Milosz, all of whom Gallagher credits herself with having “brought close” to Carver. And the book's single prose selection, a brief essay Carver wrote for Poetry magazine in 1987, recounts his discovery, as a teenager, of the dominant tradition of twentieth-century literature, a discovery made virtually by accident, in circumstances that are, well, like something out of a Raymond Carver story. Working as a delivery boy for a pharmacist in Yakima, Washington, already, at eighteen or nineteen, a husband and a father, Carver, “obsessed with the need to ‘write something,’” was given copies of Poetry and The Little Review Anthology by an elderly customer. Just as so many of his characters find their lives subtly but unmistakably altered by casual, contingent happenings, so did Carver find himself changed by his encounter with the old man, whose name he quickly forgot and whom he never saw again: “Nothing remotely approaching that moment has happened since.”

“In the anthology,” Carver recalls, “there was serious talk about ‘modernism’ in literature, and the role played in advancing modernism by a man bearing the strange name of Ezra Pound. Some of his poems, letters and lists of rules—the do's and don'ts for writing—had been included in the anthology.” Among the most consequential of Pound's rules was that poetry should be at least as well written as prose, a piece of wisdom Carver seems to have taken to heart, whether or not he encountered it in the pages of The Little Review Anthology. Most of Carver's poetry is in fact indistinguishable from prose, and not always very well-written prose at that:

I waded, deepening, into the dark
Evening, and the push
and swirl of the river as it closed
around my legs and held on.
Young grilse broke water.
Parr darted one way, smolt
Gravel turned under my boots as
          I edged out.
Watched by the furious eyes of
          king salmon.
Their immense heads turned
eyes burning with fury, as they
in the deep current.

(“The River”)

Lines like these are indeed “artless,” but not in an especially complimentary sense. They are recognizable as verse only in their habit of lingering on images (“There was discussion and analysis of poetry movements [in The Little Review Anthology]; imagism, I remember, was one of those movements”), and in the unevenness of the right-hand margin. Some lines are end-stopped by punctuation marks, others break against the flow of the syntax, but there seems to be no consistent logic, either semantic or metrical, behind the line breaks. Carver had virtually no interest in rhyme or meter, and not much more in the other musical or rhythmic aspects of poetry—or even in its visual aspects, beyond the cascade of broken lines arrayed in variable stanzas (or, more accurately, verse paragraphs) down the page. “I hate tricks,” he once wrote, and while he meant the formal experimentation fashionable among fiction writers in the 1970s, the evidence of his poetry suggests that for him “tricks” included figurative language, allusion, elevated diction, and anything else that might divert his words from the task of describing, with maximal fidelity and minimal fuss, the world as it is.

Carver's approach to composition, and to literary form, was hardly casual, and it is unnerving to see a writer lionized for the meticulous craftsmanship of his prose celebrated for the loose abundance (“amplitude,” Gallagher calls it) of his poetry. Yet the unbuttoned, quotidian feel of the poems—one envisions the writer in his bathrobe, jotting down observations and recollections more or less as they occur—is a product of the same aesthetic principles that give the best stories their characteristic cleanness of expression and tightness of organization. “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing,” wrote Pound, and Carver thought enough of this dictum that he copied it onto an index card and taped it to the wall behind his desk. “It's possible, in a poem or a short story,” Carver himself argued in a brief essay called “On Writing,” “to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power.”

This claim, of course, belongs to the history of modernism: its antecedents can be found not only in Pound's cranky pronouncements, but in the mottoes of such disparate poets as William Carlos Williams (“No ideas but in things!”), Wallace Stevens (“Not Ideas of the Thing but the Thing Itself”), and Frank O'Hara (“I do this I do that”), and the sentences of Hemingway, who learned modernist aesthetics at the feet of Gertrude Stein. Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, the values of precision and concreteness have been rediscovered again and again, as succeeding generations of writers have felt the need to break out of the confinements of literary convention and inherited style and reconnect with the object world. The epigraphs in All of Us could fill a small anthology of expressions of this impulse: from Flaubert—“If I call stones blue it is because blue is the precise word, believe me”—to Sherwood Anderson—“A man has to begin over and over—to try to think and feel only in a very limited field, the house on the street, the man at the corner drug store”—to Robert Lowell—“Why not say what happened?”

Lowell's words, often quoted, rarely in context, are sometimes taken to endorse the flood of mawkish, anecdotal, undisciplined writing—prose as well as poetry—that has spilled from the creative writing workshops and into the literary quarterlies in the years since he wrote them. They appear to license a plain, direct, empirical approach to the narrative content at the core of poems. But for Lowell, “Why not say what happened?” is by no means a rhetorical question; it articulates a problem, rather than a solution. “Epilogue,” the poem organized around this question, begins, in a self-elegizing mood that recalls Yeats's “The Circus Animals' Desertion,” with an evocation of poetic resources that are, in present circumstances, no longer available:

Those blessèd structures, plot and
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not

The abandonment of poetic form is treated not as a breakthrough, but as a necessary, inexplicable loss. What is lost when the “blessèd structures” fall apart is precisely the ability to make representations that preserve life by being true to it. The poem goes on to contrast the easy, momentary, and ultimately falsifying verisimilitude of the snapshot—“lurid, rapid, garish, grouped, / heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact”—with the “grace of accuracy” of a Vermeer painting. For Lowell, it is photography—the simple, unmediated, “threadbare art” of reproducing things just as they are—that has the status of a trick.

In the middle 1950s, Robert Lowell, a poet of fearsome, unmatched formal skill, began writing a memoir. He turned to prose in the wake of a series of personal catastrophes: the end of his first marriage, the death of his mother, a series of terrifying breakdowns, and his break with the Catholicism that had anchored and fed his poetic vocation. The fragments of the memoir that have been published—one as the second section of Life Studies, the other posthumously in Lowell's Collected Prose—are moving and beautifully written, but it is clear from Lowell's accounts of the memoir's composition that he viewed it as a respite, a temporary break from the demands of poetry.

The kind of poetry Lowell had written up to then—elaborate, musical, highly charged with religious symbolism and historical judgment—seemed inadequate to the personal subjects—mental illness, childhood, family life—he felt compelled to address. He turned to prose as a way of engaging those subjects, and also as a way of regenerating his poetry. The poems that resulted—the fifth section of Life Studies, which includes “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” “Waking in the Blue,” and “Skunk Hour”—dispense with complex symbolism, with metrical regularity, and, for the most part, with rhyme. Their diction is conversational, their syntax prosaic. But they are poems—poems that embed themselves, word for word, in the memory, in a way that virtually none of Carver's poems do—because their very simplicity, their transparency, feels hard won, accomplished against the stubborn resistance of the materials at hand.

Poets often turn to prose because it seems easier, more immediate, less constrained by formal considerations than poetry. This is one of the things that makes them poets: they are acutely aware of the difficulty of what they do best. Carver, I suspect, turned to poetry for an analogous, yet opposite, reason: to record ideas that were too singular, too unformed, or too raw and painful for fiction. The results reveal that he was, first and last, a fiction writer. Carver's account, in “On Writing,” of how he composed the story “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” is telling: “I made the story just as I'd make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next.” In other words, he made the story just as someone would make a poem whose customary and preferred activity was making stories, which after all depend on linear sequentiality in a way that poems, almost by definition, do not: Carver's mistake was not that he valued accuracy, simplicity, and fidelity to the physical world: these are clearly values he shared with Lowell, as well as with Chekhov, Milosz, and the other writers he admired. His mistake was in assuming that the means of achieving these values in a short story are the same as the means of achieving them in a poem.

It is therefore not surprising that Carver's most interesting poems are the ones that most resemble his stories. His occasional forays into whimsical, imagistic surrealism in the manner of Robert Bly or Galway Kinnell—a mode much in vogue on campuses in the 1960s and 1970s—are flat and forced:

At night the salmon move
out from the river and into town.
They avoid places with names
like Foster's Freeze, A&W,
but swim close to the tract
homes on Wright Avenue where
in the early morning hours
you can hear them trying
or bumping against Cable TV
We wait up for them.
We leave our back windows open
and call out when we hear a
Mornings are a disappointment.

(“At Night the Salmon Move”)

And his attempts to broaden the geographical scope and deepen the historical resonance of his lyrics—in poems with titles like “The Caucasus: A Romance,” “The News Carried To Macedonia,” and “Thermopylae”—are constrained by the stubborn modesty of his voice. His preferred mode, especially in his later poems, is a kind of post-Romantic meditative lyric, resembling most closely the work of poets like Charles Wright, which juxtaposes observations of the natural world with reflections on the poet's own life and emotions:

I fished alone that languid
          autumn evening.
Fished as darkness kept coming
Experiencing exceptional loss and
exceptional joy when I brought a
          silver salmon
to the boat, and dipped a net
          under the fish.
Secret heart! When I looked into
          the moving water
and up at the dark outline of the
behind the town, nothing hinted
I would suffer so this longing
to be back once more, before I
Far from everything, and far from


In spite of its unimpeachable sincerity of feeling and its careful recording of experience, there is nothing in this poem to distinguish it from the hundreds like it that crowd the pages of literary journals and innumerable volumes issued each year by university press publishing series.

Whether or not you believe poetry should be committed to memory, one of its distinguishing features is that it can be. “Memorable speech” is one of the most concise and durable definitions of poetry. And All of Us does, in fact, contain a number of memorable poems. But they are not quite memorable as poems. After reading through this collection, what you remember are not lines, or even images, but scenes: the wife assaulting her husband on an airplane (“Miracle”); the drowned boy fished out of a river by a helicopter (“Lemonade”); the child bringing his ailing, thirsty father a glass of soapy dishwater to drink (“Suspenders”). And any number of half-humorous, half-sad recollections of drunkenness, debauchery, and squalor:

                                        Later, in the living room,
thinking everyone had gone out
          for hamburgers,
she blew him in front of the TV.
          Then said,
“Happy birthday, you son of a
          bitch!” And slapped his
glasses off. The glasses he'd been
while she made love to him. I
          walked into the room
and said, “Friends, don't do this
          to each other.”
She didn't flinch a muscle or
          wonder aloud
which rock I'd come out from
          under. All she said was
“Who asked you, hobo-urine?”

(“Union Street: San Francisco, Summer 1975”)

At the beginning of the story “Why Don't You Dance?” a nameless man drinks whiskey and stares through his kitchen window at the contents of his house, arranged in the front yard:

The chiffonier stood a few feet from the foot of the bed. He had emptied the drawers into cartons that morning, and the cartons were in the living room. A portable heater was next to the chiffonier. A rattan chair with a decorator pillow stood at the foot of the bed. The buffed aluminum kitchen set took up a part of the driveway. A yellow muslin cloth, much too large, a gift, covered the table and hung down over the sides. A potted fern was on the table, along with a box of silverware and a record player, also gifts.

In some ways, All of Us resembles this tableau—the interior furnishings of a life dragged out into the sunlight, where they seem incongruous and, at the same time, desperately sad. The pathos of “Why Don't You Dance?”—surely a case of ordinary objects acquiring power by being rendered in ordinary language—intensifies when we learn early on in the collected poems, that the man at the window is Carver himself. “Distress Sale” begins with a catalog of household goods:

Early one Sunday morning
          everything outside—
the child's canopy bed and vanity
the sofa, end tables and lamps,
of assorted books and records.

These things belong to someone else, a family reduced to selling off all their possessions. The speaker is a friend—“I'm staying with them, trying to dry out”—whose sympathy is both deepened and limited by the fact that he's not much better off than they are: “I reach for my wallet and that is how I understand it: / I can't help anyone.”

In fact, as Carver recorded in poems like “Bankruptcy” and “The Miracle,” he and his first wife, Maryann, were twice forced to declare bankruptcy. And the hardships of Carver's early adulthood—the alcoholism, the financial insecurity, the cruelties and betrayals that finally wrecked his marriage—turn up again and again in his poetry. As Gallagher puts it, “Ray's appetite for inventorying domestic havoc is often relentless.” “Inventory” is perhaps more apt than Gallagher would wish, given the formal slackness of so many of the poems, but the poems in All of Us will serve, for serious readers of Carver's fiction, as a useful storehouse of biographical information, and as irrefutable cumulative evidence of how closely bound up Carver's stories are with the events and circumstances of his life.

All of Us is hardly the first such evidence. “None of my stories really happened, of course,” Carver once wrote, “but most of them bear a resemblance, however faint, to certain life occurrences or situations.” This is from “Fires,” the title essay of a collection of poems, essays, and stories Carver published in 1983, following the success of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please in 1976 and the even greater triumph of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981. “Fires” is about influence, which for Carver has little to do with lessons learned from other writers:

So I don't know about literary influences. But I do have some notions about other kinds of influences. The influences I know something about have pressed on me in ways that were often mysterious at first glance, sometimes stopping just short of the miraculous. But these influences have become clear to me as my work has progressed. These influences were (and they still are) relentless. These were the influences that sent me in this direction, onto this spit of land instead of some other—that one over there on the far side of the lake, for example. But if the main influence on my life and writing has been a negative one, oppressive and often malevolent, as I believe is the case, what am I to make of this?

He is talking about his children: “Theirs is the main influence.” “There were good times back there, of course,” he allows, reflecting on his life as a husband, a father, and a drunk; “certain grown-up pleasures and satisfactions that only parents have access to. But I'd take poison before I'd go through that time again.”

Short of declaring a wish to kill his children (which Carver does in a poem called “On an Old Photograph of My Son”), this is perhaps the most horrifying thing a father can say, and Carver's candor makes it all the more monstrous. He is not the kind of man who exaggerates; he means what he says. It may be a small relief (but then again, maybe not), to discover that, at least in “Fires,” Carver does not hold a specific grudge against his children as individuals. Rather, they seem to have exercised their malign influence simply by existing; they serve as a convenient synecdoche for the forces and obligations that formed and deformed Carver's work—what he calls, quoting D. H. Lawrence, the “grip and slog” of daily life, “the unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction” of parenthood. Carver, it turns out, did not come to the short story and the short lyric out of any sense of vocation, but rather because, in the fleeting interstices between work (“in those days I always worked some crap job or another, and my wife did the same”) and domestic duty he needed to write “things I could sit down and, with any luck, write quickly and have done with.”

“Fires” is a disconcerting piece, at once utterly forthright and maddeningly evasive, painful in its details and yet, for a writer so adamantly committed to concreteness, oddly abstract, as if the full awfulness of Carver's family life had to be wrapped in commonplaces and generalities:

For years my wife and I had held to a belief that if we worked hard and tried to do the right things, the right things would happen. It's not such a bad thing to build a life on. Hard work, goals, good intentions, loyalty, we believed these were virtues and would someday be rewarded. We dreamt when we had the time for it. But, eventually, we realized that hard work and dreams were not enough. Somewhere, in Iowa City maybe, or shortly afterwards, in Sacramento, the dreams began to go bust.

This kind of reticence, the balked, clumsy attempt to express an experience paralyzing in its enormity and yet at the same time resolutely ordinary—the destruction of a family—resembles the way many of the characters in Carver's stories express themselves. At the end of “Why Don't You Dance?,” for example, the point of view shifts from the man at the window to a young woman who had stopped with her boyfriend to check out the junk on the man's lawn:

Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don't laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”

She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she gave up trying.

The girl knows she has witnessed something terrible, but lacks the resources—quite literally, the vocabulary—to explain to herself or anyone else what she has seen. She can only say what happened, and it isn't enough—there is more to it. But in her inarticulate state she is not much different from the narrator of the story, or indeed, as the poems and essays suggest, from Carver himself. And yet, the girl's inability to say more, when coupled with Carver's refusal to say more—the words husband, wife, divorce, alcoholism, bankruptcy, and despair occur nowhere in the story—manages to say it all.

To his admirers, Carver's taciturnity becomes its own kind of eloquence. But critics, especially those who are bothered by Carver's disproportionate influence on other writers, have complained about how much he leaves out. For Sven Birkerts, writing in 1986, the fiction of Carver and his followers is marked by “a total refusal of any vision of larger social connection.” And it is true that the inhabitants of Carver's world appear to exist not only in states of isolation and impermanence, but, to borrow a phrase from George W. S. Trow, in a context of no context, without geographical, social, or historical coordinates. We seldom learn the name of the town, or even the state, in which a given story takes place. The stories tend to be devoid of the cultural and commercial references—popular songs, brand names, movies—that so many contemporary writers use to fix their narratives in time and space. And though Carver began writing in the early 1960s, and came to prominence over the next two decades, his stories, at first glance, take no notice of the social and political tumult of the era. We never know who the president is, or whether men have walked on the moon; the characters never read newspapers; and nobody expresses any political interests or opinions. As far as I can tell, Vietnam is mentioned exactly once: in “Vitamins” the leering, predatory behavior of a black man named Nelson—one of the very few nonwhite characters who appear in Carver's work—is ascribed to the fact that he is a veteran just returned from combat in Southeast Asia.

Carver's people often exist not only outside history and politics, but beyond psychology, unless the psychology in question is Skinnerian behaviorism. Their thoughts are typically left unreported; they are creatures of simple speech and sudden action:

She unbuttoned her coat and put her purse down on the counter. She looked at L. D. and said, “L. D., I've had it. So has Rae. So has everyone who knows you. I've been thinking it over. I want you out of here. Tonight. This minute. Now. Get the hell out of here right now.”

L. D. had no intention of going anywhere. He looked from Maxine to the jar of pickles that had been on the table since lunch. He picked up the jar and pitched it through the kitchen window.

The jaggedness, the deadpan narration, the rigorous refusal of any inflection of language that would suggest interpretation, judgment, or inwardness—these are the aspects of Carver's style that inspired people to think of him as a minimalist. The passage above is from “One More, Thing,” which, like “Why Don't You Dance?,” appears both in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and in Where I'm Calling From. The earlier book, which did a great deal to solidify Carver's reputation as an important voice in American fiction in the 1980s, has also done him lasting damage. It was on this book that the editorial hand of Gordon Lish fell most heavily, as Lish cut, rearranged, and rewrote freely, without regard for Carver's wishes or feelings. According to Tess Gallagher, “Ray felt the book, even at the time of its publication, did not represent the main thrust of his writing, nor his true pulse and instinct in the work. He had, in fact, even begged Gordon Lish, to no avail, not to publish the book in this misbegotten version.”

Carver, it seems to me, was well within his rights. He was also, as a matter of literary judgment, right. There has been much discussion of the changes Lish imposed on two stories in particular, “The Bath” (which Carver had originally and would subsequently title “A Small, Good Thing”) and “So Much Water So Close to Home.” The Lish versions are jarring and, briefly, horrifying: the stories, like the people who inhabit them, seem violently discombobulated. In “The Bath,” events happen almost at random, and crucial information—for instance, whether a child is alive or dead—is cruelly, capriciously, withheld. At the end of “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a woman who has felt increasingly estranged from her husband after learning that he and some friends had discovered a girl's dead body on a fishing trip, and had continued to fish rather than alert the authorities, suddenly submits to his sexual advances.

Carver lost no time in correcting his erstwhile mentor's violations. He put “A Small, Good Thing,” in which the child recovers from his coma, in Cathedral, and included a restored version of “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a study of a woman falling out of love and into depression, in Fires. But there are other comparisons available that reveal just how badly Carver's editor—and, in consequence, many of his critics—misjudged him. Consider two passages. The first is from “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” which appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the second from a longer, earlier version of the same story, called “Where is Everyone?,” as it appeared in Fires.

I left my mother with the man on her sofa and drove around for a while. When I got home, Myrna made me a coffee.

She went out to the kitchen to do it while I waited until I heard her running water. Then I reached under a cushion for the bottle.

I left my mother with the man on her sofa and drove around for a while, not wanting to go home and not wanting to sit in a bar that day either.

Sometimes Cynthia and I would talk about things—“reviewing the situation,” we'd call it. But now and then on rare occasions we'd talk a little about things that bore no relation to the situation. One afternoon we were in the living room and she said, “When I was pregnant with Mike you carried me to the bathroom when I was so sick and pregnant I couldn't get out of bed. You carried me. No one else will ever do that, no one else could ever love me in that way, that much. We have that, no matter what. We've loved each other like nobody else could or ever will love the other again.”

We looked at each other. Maybe we touched hands, I don't recall. Then I remembered the half-pint of whisky or vodka or gin or Scotch or tequila that I'd hidden under the very sofa cushion we were sitting on and I began to hope she might soon have to get up and move around—go to the kitchen, the bathroom, out to clean the garage.

“Maybe you could make us some coffee,” I said. “A pot of coffee might be nice.”

“Would you eat something? I can fix some soup.”

“Maybe I could eat something, but I'll for sure drink a cup of coffee.”

She went out to the kitchen. I waited until I heard her begin to run water. Then I reached under the cushion for the bottle, unscrewed the lid, and drank.

I never told those things at AA. I never said much at the meetings. I'd “pass” as they called it when it came your turn to speak and you didn't say anything except “I'll pass tonight, thanks.” But I would listen and shake my head and laugh in recognition of the awful stories I heard. Usually I was drunk when I went to those meetings. You're scared and you need something more than cookies and instant coffee.

These two selections can be taken to illustrate a great many things, not the least of which is why people still read Raymond Carver, while nobody bothers much with the other once-celebrated members of the “school of Lish” (like Barry Hannah, Janet Kauffman, Mary Robison, or Raymond Kennedy), or with the ever-prolific Gordon Lish himself. It is hard to give an adequate summary of what has been stripped away from “Where is Everyone?” to make “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit”—humanity, for starters—but it's worth noting the idiomatic and stylistic blunders that have been added. Most Americans—certainly the kind of people Carver writes about—would never say “made me a coffee”; they would say “made me some coffee.” And to say “I reached under the couch cushion for the bottle” without establishing that a bottle was there in the first place may be an attempt at alcoholic humor (no drunk is ever far from the sauce), but it comes across as sloppy.

In any case, this kind of knowing joke at the expense of a character is entirely alien to Carver's sensibility. The people in “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” are jerked around like puppets, without intelligible motive or meaningful engagement with each other. Alcoholism and adultery, the données of this story as of so many of Carver's early pieces, consist in the Lish version simply of repeated actions: drinking and cheating. The relationships in which they work their damage are already so blasted, so minimal, that episodes of drunkenness or infidelity elicit no real pathos, but only a grim chuckle or a grimace of disgust. There is certainly nothing in the way of recognition: these characters are not like any people we know, because they aren't people.

Reaching under the couch cushion for the bottle is, in “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” a purely mechanical action, like a sitcom gag. (Wife exits. Husband reaches under cushion. Laughter.) But the same action, in “Where is Everyone?,” is at once funnier and more pathetic. Alcoholism is, in the longer story, a mental condition, in which the need for a drink will trump every other motive or feeling, and in which dishonesty is less a strategy than a reflex. (Or, as Carver says in a poem called “Luck,” “I … wanted to give up / friends, love, starry skies, / for a house where no one / was home, no one coming back, / and all I could drink.”) And the quoted passage manages, with exemplary verbal economy, to establish both the narrator's sincerity and his deviousness. His misfortune is simultaneously nobody's fault and nobody else's.

For Lish, the paring of a story down to its verbal and narrative skeleton was a mode of formal experimentation—a trick, if you will. The kind of writing he championed in the 1980s was not an antidote to the antirealist, avant-garde impulse, of the 1960s and 1970s, of writers like John Barth and Donald Barthelme, but rather its most extreme expression. The refusal of explanation, the resistance to psychology, and the deliberate impoverishment of language reflect, on Lish's part, an aesthetic choice, and it is clear that he saw affinities between Carver's plain manner and his own stark vision. But the aesthetic principles that Carver discovered in the course of his literary education—from his readings in the modernist tradition, from his first teacher, the novelist John Gardner, and from Lish himself—were ultimately less important than the ethical commitments that are the deepest source of his work.

Carver's Poetry essay, while it records the beginning of a literary education, is equally the manifesto of an autodidact, a person dimly, acutely conscious of a vocation (“the need to ‘write something’”) yet without access to the learning that would enable him to make good on it. There is something unmistakably poignant in the mature Carver's gentle evocation of his youthful innocence: “I'd never seen a personal library before”; “it was a mystery to me then just what ‘edited by’ meant”; “right there in my hand was visible proof that there were responsible people somewhere out in the great world who produced, sweet Jesus, a monthly magazine of poetry.” But there is also a note of almost defiant class consciousness, a reminder that literature is not part of everyone's birthright. Carver's parents, Clevie Raymond (C. R.) and Ella Casey Carver, had migrated during the Great Depression from Arkansas to Oregon, where Carver was born in 1938. C. R. worked as a laborer in sawmills and lumber camps around the Northwest until 1957, when he was disabled by illness, alcohol, and a nervous breakdown. The hard circumstances of Carver's boyhood figure occasionally in his fiction (notably in “The Third Thing that Killed My Father Off”), and more frequently in his poems:

The people who were better than
          us were comfortable.
They lived in painted houses with
          flush toilets.
Drove cars whose year and make
          were recognizable.
The ones worse off were sorry
          and didn't work.
Their strange cars sat on blocks in
          dusty yards.


“I'm much more interested in my characters,” Carver once told an interviewer, “in the people in my story, than I am in any potential reader.” This is a statement of artistic priorities, to be sure, but it also amounts to an expression of solidarity. Carver's characters are a lot like him: they marry too young, divorce too late, and drink too much. Their midlife crises occur in their early thirties. They are menaced by debt and sporadically employed. Childhood in Carver's world consists of the uncomprehending, often brutal imitation of adults; adulthood, which comes suddenly and irreversibly, is a state of mourning for lost possibilities punctuated by eruptions of childishness. The desire for permanence, for stability, for home and family and steady work, is perpetually at war with the impulse to flee, to strike it rich, or just to be left alone.

The spareness of Carver's style represents not parsimoniousness, but tact. It represents, above all, an absolute loyalty to the people he writes about. It's as if Carver, in deciding to become the kind of person who has his own library, and who will someday see his own name under the words “edited by,” at the same time swore to remain true not only to the delivery boy he had been, but to that boy's original state of ignorance. In his recent introduction to The Best American Stories of the Twentieth Century, John Updike writes, somewhat ruefully, that the fiction of Carver and fellow minimalists like Barthelme and Ann Beattie involves “a withdrawal of authorial guidance, an existential determination to let things speak out of their own silence.” This is well put, but it would be more accurate in Carver's case to say that he is motivated by a moral determination to let persons speak out of their own deep reticence. The exercise of authorial guidance would imply, for him, an unprincipled claim to omniscience, an assertion that he knows more than his characters and is, therefore, better than they are.

To read Where I'm Calling From from beginning to end, supplemented by some of the stories from earlier collections that Carver chose not to reprint, is to discover that a great deal of what is supposed to be missing—in particular, the changing social landscape of the United States—has been there all along, but that it has been witnessed from a perspective almost without precedent in American literature. Stories like “What Do You Do in San Francisco?” and “After the Denim” record the curious, suspicious, and disgusted reactions of the smalltown working class to interlopers from the urban, well-to-do counterculture. “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” “Nobody Said Anything,” and “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes,” among others, are ultimately about how the spread of the suburbs transformed family life, and about the crisis of masculinity that resulted. Carver's work, read closely and in the aggregate, also carries a lot of news about feminism, working conditions, and substance abuse in late-twentieth-century provincial America.

To generalize in this way is, of course, to engage in a kind of analytical discourse Carver resolutely mistrusted. More often than not, the big talkers in Carver's stories are in possession of a degree of class privilege. “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking,” goes the famous opening of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” “Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.” The imperious homeowner in “Put Yourself in My Shoes” and the jealous college teacher in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” also come to mind. People who carry on as if they know what they're talking about are regarded with suspicion. Carver's greatest sympathy is reserved for those characters who struggle to use language to make sense of things, but who founder or fail in the attempt.

It is striking how many of his stories turn on the inability or refusal of people to say what happened. Think of the girl at the end of “Why Don't You Dance?,” unable to convey the fullness of what she has seen on the strange man's lawn, or the narrator of “Where is Everyone?,” clamming up at his AA meetings. And there are many more examples. “Why, Honey?” is a mother's desperate, almost incoherent, and yet strangely formal effort (“Dear Sir,” it begins) to explain to a nameless, prying stranger how her darling son went wrong. In “Distance” (also published as “Everything Stuck to Him”), a father, asked by his grown daughter to tell her “what it was like when she was a kid,” produces a fairy tale of young parenthood (the main characters in which are referred to only as “the boy” and “the girl”) that leaves both teller and listener unsettled, unenlightened, and remote from each-other.

And then there is “Cathedral,” one of Carver's most beloved stories and the closest thing he produced to an allegory of his own method. The narrator is visited by a garrulous blind man, an old friend of his wife's, whose arrival he anticipates with apprehension. The two men end up smoking marijuana together, while the television airs a documentary about the cathedrals of Europe. It starts to bother the narrator that his new acquaintance, while he knows something about the history of church-building, has no idea of what cathedrals really are, and he tries to tell him about them:

“They're really big,” I said. “They're massive. They're built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone's life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I'm sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that's the best I can do for you. I'm just no good at it.”

The blind man proposes that they draw a cathedral instead, and they do—the narrator's eyes closed, the blind man's hand guiding his. The narrator undergoes an epiphany: “It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”

The reader is left out: the men's shared experience, visual and tactile, is beyond the reach of words. But the frustrating vicariousness of the story is also the source of its power. Art, according to Carver, is a matter of the blind leading the tongue-tied. Carver was an artist of a rare and valuable kind: he told simple stories, and made it look hard.


  1. D. T. Max, “The Carver Chronicles,” The New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1998.

Further Reading

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Bethea, Arthur F. “Carver's Wes Hardin: From a Photograph and A Small Good Thing.” Explicator 57, no. 3 (spring 1999): 176-79.

Bethea explicates two of Carver's poems for their numeric symbolism.

———. “Raymond Carver's Poetic Technique.” In Technique and Sensibility in the Fiction and Poetry of Raymond Carver, pp. 186-96. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2001.

Summarizes the prevailing critical view that questions whether Carver's poetry is legitimate poetry, concluding that Carver's work is poetry “because it has a technique beyond narrative. The exact word matters, the line matters, sound matters, structure matters, the exact placement of words on the page matters.”

Chappell, Fred. “Attempts Upon Delight: Six Poetry Books.” Kenyon Review 12, no. 3 (summer 1990): 168-76.

The author dismisses A New Path to the Waterfall because “the only trouble with Raymond Carver's poems is that he was not a poet.”

Graham, Peter W. “Metapathography: Three Unruly Texts.” Literature and Medicine 16, no. 1 (spring 1997): 70-87.

Examines A New Path to the Waterfall in the context of literature written by people suffering from a serious illness.

Harbaugh, S. J., Jim. “Literature (and Other Arts): What We Talk About When We Talk About Spirituality and Recovery.” Dionysos 11, no. 1 (spring 2001): 35-46.

Explores a few examples of Carver's writings and their relevance to counseling people struggling with substance abuse.

Meyer, Adam. “Poetry.” In Raymond Carver, pp. 163-180. Toronto, Canada: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Calls for more scholarly attention to Carver's poetry, which “is of more than passing interest” and helps readers of the artist's fiction get a better glimpse of his world view.

Muske, Carol. “Disc Jockeys, Eggplants and Desaparecidos.” New York Times Book Review (February 9, 1986): 28.

The poet praises Carver's “credible voice” in the poems of Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, but believes the poems are “rehearsals for poems, anecdotes precedent to poetry.”

Orr, David. “The Poetics of Populism.” Poetry 174, no. 4 (July 1999): 231-39.

Orr finds an occasional “overflowing emotionalism” in Carver's poems but concludes that “his strongest work draws a few simple, perfect notes from the straightforward presentation of an ordinary experience.”

Saltzman, Arthur M. “Poetry.” In Understanding Raymond Carver, pp. 157-168. Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Argues that Carver's poems evoke efforts at renewal and that Carver's poetic “modesty promotes precision.”

Schweizer, Harold. “The Very Short Stories of Raymond Carver.” College Literature 21, no. 2 (June 1994): 126-31.

Literary theorist Schweizer traces the connections between Carver's stories, with their accumulated tensions, and his poems, in which hope “is an unfinished time, an inexplicable deferral of meaning.”

Smith, Dave. “Short Reviews.” Poetry 147, no. 1 (October 1985): 39-40.

Argues that Carver's poems in Where Water Comes Together with Other Water are more than vignettes. Smith concludes that this is indeed a volume of poetry, that in fact the poems within are “often very good, very moving, very memorable,” but that Carver the poet is an “acquired taste,” a bit like a “primitive painter”

Steed, J. P. “Raymond Carver and the Poem as Transitional Object.” The Midwest Quarterly 44, no. 3 (spring 2003): 309-22.

Discusses Carver's poetry in relation to William Carlos Williams and the psychoanalytical theories of D. W. Winnicott.

Additional coverage of Carver's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 44; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 33-36R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 17, 34, 61, 103; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 126; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 22, 36, 53, 55, 126; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Eds. 1984, 1988; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry for Students, Vol. 17; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 6, 12, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 8, 51; Twayne's United States Authors; and Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2.

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Carver, Raymond (Contemporary Literary Criticism)