Sometimes reading an entire collection of poems cover to cover is exhausting and maybe even inadvisable work. In fact, I often read poetry collections on the side as I'm reading fiction (or non-) because it requires such focus.
You know the feeling. Especially with poems that yawn and stretch out over a page or two. You're reading and suddenly you realize your mind has drifted, like a newbie meditation acolyte trying on Buddhism for size. You go back. Remind yourself. Focus on the words! Start over! Deep breath and go....
With Raymond Carver, this is less of an issue. One reason is his style. It is quite idiomatic, often written in chummy vernacular. Deceivingly simple, too. A Hemingway of poetry, then. And before long, due to the repeating themes coming at you in waves (like, say, Bach's music), you feel like ole Ray is your bud. Your best pal. Sympatico. Amigo.
And, say. I can write like this, too! Look how simple! Just as Hem breeds legions of aspiring short story writers who crash into the craggy shores of imitation, so does Carver with poetry imitators. The Scylla and Charybdis of deceptively simple. Scrivener sailors beware.
If, like me, you're not at home with narrative poetry and caught up with the Johnny One-Note of lyrical poetry, Carver's the antidote. He's known for his short stories more than his poetry, but so many of these thrive on the same strengths--the ability to choose a few key details from his own life or another's, to quickly build a story, to deftly find emotion or one small note of truth in it.
Many of the poems focus on simple things that make life worth living. And on death. Which is ironic and not. On the one hand, death is a theme in most all writer's writing from the dawn of days. Where do we go? And why me? Special old me? The other irony is Ray's own early demise to cancer. Struck down at age 50. The last poems are written through that glass darkly.
This particular collection contains every poem Raymond Carver ever wrote. In the back there are appendices, the first one containing his early, unpublished poems. I read these first, then went back and read in order of his four published collections so I could see his growth as a poet. He's an end-stop guy. When he's in an enjambment, he knows how to get out of it, so to speak. Lots of dependent clauses with periods. If you're enamored of complete sentences in your poetry and if grammar violations bother you, enter at your own school marm-ish risk.
Here are some sample works I like:
On the Columbia River near Vantage,
Washington, we fished for whitefish
in the winter months; my dad, Swede-
Mr. Lindgren-and me. They used belly-reels,
pencil-length sinkers, red, yellow, or brown
flies baited with maggots.
They wanted distance and went clear out there
to the edge of the riffle.
I fished near shore with a quill bobber and a cane pole.
My dad kept his maggots alive and warm
under his lower lip. Mr. Lindgren didn't drink.
I liked him better than my dad for a time.
He lets me steer his car, teased me
about my name "Junior," and said
one day I'd grow into a fine man, remember
all this, and fish with my own son.
But my dad was right. I mean
he kept silent and looked into the river,
worked his tongue, like a thought, behind the bait.
This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk -- determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong -- duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, 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. What
I've trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn't know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.
"My Dad's Wallet"
Long before he thought of his own death,
my dad said he wanted to lie close
to his parents. He missed them so
after they went away.
He said this enough that my mother remembered,
and I remembered. But when the breath
left his lungs and all signs of life
had faded, he found himself in a town
512 miles away from where he wanted most to be.
My dad, though. He was restless
even in death. Even in death
he had this one last trip to take.
All his life he liked to wander,
and now he had one more place to get to.
The undertaker said he’d arrange it,
not to worry. Some poor light
from the window fell on the dusty floor
where we waited that afternoon
until the man came out of the back room
and peeled off his rubber gloves.
He carried the smell of formaldehyde with him.
He was a big man, the undertaker said.
Then began to tell us why
he liked living in this small town.
This man who’d just opened up my dad’s veins.
How much is it going to cost? I said.
He took out his pad and pen and began
to write. First, the preparation charges.
Then he figured the transportation
of the remains at 22 cents a mile.
But this was a round-trip for the undertaker,
don’t forget. Plus, say, six meals
and two nights in a motel. He figured
some more. Add a surcharge of
$210 for his time and trouble,
and there you have it.
He thought we might argue.
There was a spot of color on
each of his cheeks as he looked up
from his figures. The same poor light
fell in the same poor place on
the dusty floor. My mother nodded
as if she understood. But she
hadn’t understood a word of it.
None of it made any sense to her,
beginning with the time she left home
with my dad. She only knew
that whatever was happening
was going to take money.
She reached into her purse and bought up
my dad’s wallet. The three of us
in that little room that afternoon.
Our breath coming and going.
We stared at the wallet for a minute.
Nobody said anything.
All the life had gone out of the wallet.
It was old and rent and soiled.
But it was my dad’s wallet. And she opened
it and looked inside. Drew out
a handful of money that would go
toward this last, most astounding, trip.
The best compliment I can pay a book is to say I won't pass it on to a like-minded friend. When I get a little selfish about a book, when I make permanent space like a star on Hollywood on the bookshelf so I can return to it for inspiration, ideas, and unpacking, it's a five plus. I realize he's not everybody's cuppa. He's not into rhyme, meter, or form poems of any sort. But that's a snapshot of me, too. Those don't much appeal to me.
As Mark Twain said of classics, so I say of poetry: I prefer water to fine wine. And if that says something about me, so be it!