Sunday, January 20, 2013

Late Carver

I came to an appreciation of Raymond Carver's work late in his career (and life). Born in 1938, growing up in a lower middle (working-) class family in the Pacific Northwest, Carver struggled during the first decade and a half of his adult life with addiction, depression, marital and financial problems, and the obscurity of being unknown and unappreciated as a writer. But through his work, he overcame all these obstacles to become one of the best-known and loved writers of his generation; finally dying at the too early age of 50, from cancer. 

The one impression Carver's stories and poems leave me with is its improbability. Here is a man whose work--in subject and method--is both unassuming and modest. It is almost totally without pretense in the literary sense, but as anyone knows, the least degree of apparent artificiality is often the result of the greatest art, or artifice. To appear to be unpretentious often requires considerable effort. Carver's stories are often about the smallest event or detail. People move through a typical short space of time and condition, and suddenly an unexpected revelation unfolds, as if by magic. Like Chekhov, Carver is full of suprises.

Raymond Carver in 1984

But it isn't Carver's stories I want to talk about here. It's his poems. Carver's poems are so much like his stories, in the way they work--so much so, that it hardly suffices to describe the formal "techniques" of his verse. Indeed, he hardly seems to have a formal syntactical or grammatical poetics at all. The poems are really just very very short stories, usually small autobiographical events that inspire a thought or moral observation.

One of my favorite Carver poems is The Net, from his last (posthumous) collection A New Path to the Waterfall [1989].

                      The Net

Toward evening the wind changes. Boats
still out on the bay
head for shore. A man with one arm
sits on the keel of a rotting-away
vessel, working on a glimmering net.
He raises his eyes. Pulls at something
with his teeth, and bites hard.
I go past without a word.
Reduced to confusion
by the variableness of the weather,
the importunities of my heart. I keep
going. When I turn back to look
I'm far enough away
to see that man caught in a net.

Like most Carver poems, it's an observed event, not particularly important in itself, but augmented by a subtle conceptual frame that permits us to perceive its meaning or significance from an unsuspected angle. It isn't "difficult" or interposed with complex verbal prestidigitation. The poem seems to have no "showing off" or vanity of display. It wants to tell you something in the most straightforward manner possible. It will work, if as a reader you have no sense of selection or strategic manipulation, if you aren't moved to question how it proceeds. It could simply be this guy Raymond Carver talking to you over coffee, or during a walk across town. It's that absence of caution, the dropping of one's guard which is almost a condition of the appreciation which leads one to accept the terms of a Carver poem or story. Sometimes the subtlest apprehensions we derive from experience require a release--that suspension of disbelief--which characterizes our response to the greatest dramatic portrayals in all art. In the quotidian world in which most people live, that suspension involves our faith in the possibility of discovery or revelation in the meanest of circumstances--that we can find redemption or joy or confirming recognition in the most ordinary situations. Though it is true that the kings and queens and heroes and heroines of dramatic art suffer the same slings and arrows everyone is susceptible to, one of the great changes that has occurred over the last two centuries (in literature and drama) has been the portrayal of human feeling and example in people of any station of life or society. 

Carver's people are ordinary. They are unremarkable. They're not rich, or especially talented or destined for greatness. They don't suffer great tragic events. In his poems, though, it's usually Carver himself who is the human presence, and that presence has a certain dependable quality. His voice, the voice of his poems, is relaxed, but interested, paying attention to small details, recording, noting. As in a casual notebook. What happened today. What did the mailman do? Were the clouds blue, or grey, or silver? It almost hardly seems to matter, since in every event there are the seeds of some small secret waiting to be revealed. Maybe not even a small secret, perhaps a big one. We must be open to experience, we have to be prepared to be led, drawn in, seduced, rewarded, even betrayed by our credulity. Even our credulity may hurt us. 

You can talk about poetic strategies in terms of the naturalness or ease of their manner, but I suspect that there's a poetic cunning involved in the kind of poetry Carver writes. You can never guess what a Carver poem is going to say, what its message will be. And yet you know there always will be one, which you didn't expect. That's what I mean by cunning, that it's bound to surprise you. They don't always work, these Carver poems, because what he's attempting is extraordinarily difficult. If you don't believe it, try writing one in imitation. Artlessness, successful manipulation, is almost impossible, and sometimes you get to the end and feel let down. 

The net is a very traditional poetic trope. What's caught in the fisherman's net? We accept the narrative of the poet walking down along the docks, where fishermen are found tinkering with their equipment. Telling detail is a cliché of poetic technique, so we have a one-armed fisherman sitting in a picturesquely rotting old boat, mending a net. Using his teeth to tie a knot or sever a splice. The poet's lack of focus--"reduced to confusion . . . the importunities of [his] heart"--is vague, his mind is clouded by distraction, considerations outside the poem. All we need to know is that he's not initially clear about what life, or this segment of his experience, is supposed to mean. It's casual, accidental, opportunistic. The poet is fishing for experience, fishing for a meaning, he's casting his net about to see what might turn up. The sea is like our unconscious life, or like the chaotic mass of experience, out of which we may catch or dredge up something unsuspected, strange. But he keeps walking. Nothing but the detail of a single one-armed man tying knots in a net.

But then he turns back, looks at the scene from a distance. Sees the man within the larger context of the docks, the shore, the sky, the town expanding away from the water's edge, the bay, and everything suddenly resolves into a relaxed acknowledgment: the man with the net is inside the larger net of everything. The net of our sustenance, our daily needs, our life-work, the industry of human getting and spending, of going down to the sea in ships, of the society of men and women, and finally the web of matter and energy and enormous complexity of which we're all a part. Each caught in the web of matter and meaning and motion. Caught in our fates. In the moment. Stuck with what we have, with the accidents and choices and conditions which govern our fate(s).       

The Carver of poems.  


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