Ray Carver was an alcoholic. He and John Cheever used to drink the shit of the local liquor store. Coming back with cases. Going back for more. Carver eventually found AA. He divorced his first wife, Maryann, his high school sweetheart. Alcohol ruined their marriage. He married Tess Gallagher. There’s a wonderful image in my mind of the two of them laying out all the poems for his collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Dude had a gift for titles. He wrote the best ones.
He’s probably inspired more bad short stories than anyone ever, but he got people writing short stories and reading short stories. I think that’s all to the good, probably. He still has more imitators than any other writer of that century except for possibly John Ashbery, who basically is modern poetry.
His stories are pretty good, some hold up better than others. He definitely knew what to write abut. I wrote a paper about semiotic systems in What’s in Alaska? which is probably my favorite, the one with the dead kid and the cake store just seems manipulative and stupid to me now. He wrote in a plain language and he had a terrific ear, both for the way people talked and the way they do what they do.
Most people know by now that Carver was a poet, too. His poetry is a strange bird–much seems like abandoned story ideas. Most is prosaic, simple, boring. I’m not quite sure what its best audience is, and although I own individual copies of all his books of poetry, I don’t know how much I’d recommend to others. I like to read them because I like to see the mind that wrote the stories apply itself to something even less ephemeral.
Carver’s most famous short story is Cathedral, in which a man’s wife’s old lover comes to visit, and is blind. It’s a very simple story, by and large, but it’s taken on lots of meaning over time because it’s very open. That’s the thing about Carver–he’s great to reread and see what you missed. He never tells you everything. This was the greatest sin of all the writers before him.
I’ve argued before that Carver was a lot freer and more interesting than most gave him credit for, but with that said, some of his work hasn’t aged very well, particularly his more sentimental pieces, which now seem very sappy and preordained.
Chekhov, who wrote many perfect short stories, was Carver’s idol, but Carver was very well read, and especially enjoyed poetry. His entire poetic oeuvre is collected in a paperback that you can buy used for $10–I’ve probably owned seven over the course of my life. His favorite poet was Czeslaw Milosz, who he quotes often.
The reason I’ve been thinking about Carver is that his ex-wife is publishing her book about him, some of which you can read here. It comes out July 10, and you can see the cover later on down the page. I’m excited to read it. Here’s a fun little moment as a teaser:
I think it should be part of every marriage and every divorce–someone has to write about the other person–what they were and weren’t. And also–the world is dying for a non-glorified version of what she went through married to this extremely talented but disturbed man.
Five Poems by Raymond Carver
The Other Life
Now for the other life. The one
My wife is in the other half of this mobile home
making a case against me.
I can hear her pen scratch, scratch.
Now and then she stops to weep,
then — scratch, scratch.
The frost is going out of the ground.
The man who owns this unit tells me,
Don’t leave your car here.
My wife goes on writing and weeping,
weeping and writing in our new kitchen.
All Her Life
I lay down for a nap. But everytime I closed my eyes,
mares’ tails passed slowly over the Strait
toward Canada. And the waves. They rolled up on the beach
and then back again. You know I don’t dream.
But last night I dreamt we were watching
a burial at sea. At first I was astonished.
And then filled with regret. But you
touched my arm and said, “No, it’s all right.
She was very old, and he’d loved her all her life.”
This morning I’m torn
between responsibility to
to my publisher, and the pull
I feel toward the river
below my house. The winter-
run steelhead are in,
is the problem. It’s
nearly dawn, the tide
is high. Even as
this little dilemma
occurs, and the debate
goes on, fish
are starting into the river.
Hey, I’ll live, and be happy,
whatever I decide.
Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The Basement are a UK band I am enjoying right now (Website)
Their track “Bringing Out the Dead” is pretty dope, you can listen to that on their myspace.
“Just Caught a Face” — The Basement (highly recommended)