Raymond Carver 1938-1988
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.
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.
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.”
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.”