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Looking for Raymond Carver

Cathedral

by Raymond Carver
Vintage, 228 pp., $12.00 (paper)

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.”

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.* 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?

1.

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 simi-lar 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 water.
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 another.
Gravel turned under my boots as I edged out.
Watched by the furious eyes of king salmon.
Their immense heads turned slowly,
eyes burning with fury, as they hung
in the deep current.
(“The River”)

  1. *

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

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