Not to be forgotten in any consideration of Raymond Carver is his poetry. Mostly written in the last ten sober years of his life, the poems support the notion of the self-absorbed Carver that Carol Sklenicka’s recent biography suggests. Never one to admire poets dependent on “I” as subject for each and every poem, I still admire Carver for his simplicity, his ability to develop familiar things into metaphor and a certain type of insight that, self-obsessed as it seems, sees our mortality, our history and our hopes as all the same thing. His “I” becomes us.
Carver was expert at making something out of commonly-shared experience. In “Locking Yourself Out, Then Trying To Get Back In,” he makes it easy: You simply go out and shut the door/without thinking. And when you look back/at what you’ve done/it’s too late. If this sounds/like the story of a life, okay. If Carver had stopped there, fine (call it the Lish-like edit). But he goes on for another 40, mostly indulgent line to strengthen the image even as he weakens its effect. “I brought my face close to the glass/and imagined myself inside/sitting at my desk.
Still, it’s not so easy to dismiss those 40 lines. Carver talks about the personalization of his writing, how his work is a window on his past and his shame at “the injury I’d done back then.” Maybe he could have done it in 20 lines and with less self-indulgence: This was the window on the other side/of the desk where I’d raise my eye/and stare out when I sat at that desk. And gotten right to the poem’s conclusion: I bashed that beautiful window.
In her introduction to Carver’s All of Us: The Collected Poems (good luck finding a copy), second-wife and poet Tess Gallagher finds virtue in Carver’s simplicity, seemingly making an argument that poetry shouldn’t be demanding: “Who wouldn’t be disarmed by poetry which requires so much less of us than it unstintingly gives?” Much of this ease which readers find in Carver’s poetry comes from personal involvement. He doesn’t stand apart as “I” but turns the reader into that same self. One can’t help but think of Carver’s relationship to Lish when Gallagher says that Carver’s “transparency” might insult some weightier thinkers who “would have applied an editor like a tourniquet.” She goes on to explain,: “Overreach was natural and necessary to him, and to fault him for it would be like spanking a cat for swallowing a goldfish.”
Still, it’s all about him. Carver’s ability to take an innocent walk and dredge up personal history is unparalleled. In “This Morning” from Ultramarine, the poet strolls out determined not to return/until I took in what Nature had to offer. Despite the distractions of fresh snow, blue sky and sea and wheeling gulls, as usual, my thoughts/began to wander until he’s thinking about how I should treat/with my former wife. All the things/ I hoped would go away this morning./ The stuff I live with every day. One can almost hear the pop-psychologists yelling at him to get over it.
But he never does. His last and perhaps best known poem, “Late Fragment” opens with a question to the reader before turning back to himself. It’s last two lines seem to reveal the source of his self-obsession: To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth.—Cabbage Rabbit