Poet, short-story writer and essayist Raymond Carver became one of the towering figures of contemporary American literature. I only came to him late in my reading life; long after I had devoured Fitzgerald, Faulkner; Hemingway and Bellow. I liked them and admired their craft but I grew to love Carver and in the course of one long dark winter he turned out to be the best friend this boy ever had. But first, for those who know little of the man, a few details.
Raymond Carver was born into a blue collar family in Oregon in 1935. His father worked in the saw mills, his mother was a waitress and a clerk. They had come up from Arkansas to escape the Great Depression, restless people chasing the moment that would transform their marginal circumstances. But in Carver's childhood world the big dreams withered fast, reduced relentlessly to the small victories of survival. People wanted better for themselves and their children but, as Carver later wrote, their "luck had gone south".
The vast world of blue collar America with its dreary small towns and trailer parks would later become the primary landscape of his fiction and poetry, a world that no writer before has evoked with such honesty and power. Consider these few lines from the poem "Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year".
to be bold.
But the eyes give him away,
and the hands
that limply offer the string of
dead perch and
the bottle of beer. Father I love
you, yet how
can I say thank you, I who
can't hold my
liquor either, and don't even
know the places
Carver married young and worked at a succession of low-paid jobs. With two children to support, his writing took second place to the imperatives of family life. Like his father before him he was gradually beaten down by alcoholism. The drinking wrought havoc in his own life and in the lives of those he loved. Some of the finest writing anywhere on the subject of that lonely disease is to be found in Carver's short fiction and poems - the world of black depressions and shaking hands, drying out clinics, broken promises, betrayals, sick stomachs and shame. You have to live there to know it; Carver did and he described it with searing honesty.
I came to Carver through my father. Some months before his death from the effects of alcoholism he sent me a copy of Carver's collected stories. The book was, I think, a quiet message. Read this, it seemed to say, and you will know what it is like to live in my world and with that knowledge you will never see things in quite the same way again. I read the book and felt as if I had been hit by a thunderbolt, the jolt of recognition both liberating and painful. That weekend I went out and bought everything of Carver's I could find. It was the poetry which most directly addressed the alcoholic world.
It was then that I remembered
back to those days
and how telephones used to
jump when they rang.
And the people who would come
in those early-morning
hours to pound on the door in
alarm. Never mind the
alarm felt inside.
I remembered that, and gravy
dinners. Knives lying
around, waiting for trouble.
Going to bed and hoping
I wouldn't wake up.
(`The Old Days')
This is writing stripped of pretence. Direct but not bludgeoning, artful but never arch. The language is ordinary but not in a self conscious or patronising way. A poet who had to imagine that marginal world, who had not lived it, could all too easily sound condescending or resort to dramatics. Carver understood that the true agony of that world was its dreariness and shame. There were sudden explosions yes, but the real damage was in the endlessness, the slow choking off of possibility, the aching silences that followed each binge and hospitalisation. With Carver you read it as it really was.
In 1976, after several hospitalisations brought about by his drinking, Carver finally quit alcohol. In the same period his first marriage collapsed and he met the writer Tess Gallagher with whom he was to spend the lest 11 years of his life. Along with that happy relationship, and his growing literary fame and financial security, came a sense of inner peace. It wasn't that Carver had forgotten the world he had just left - far from it. But he had found the strength to deal with his ghosts.
His final collection, A New Path to the Waterfall, was written as he battled with the cancer that would first invade his lungs and then his brain. It is a remarkable work both for its absence of self pity and Carver's celebration of the life that was slowly ebbing away from him.
As the cancer attacked, Carver and Tess Gallagher worked against the clock to complete the book. The result, in poems like "Hummingbird", is an extraordinary tenderness, simplicity and directness:
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.
I lived with that book by my side in the months around my father's death, I cannot remember how many times it rescued me from the depths. In the way that some men cling to prayer books I clasped New Path to The Waterfall. But for me Carver's writing was about more than simple empathy. To borrow Fitzgerald's lines about Gatsby, it was Carver's "extraordinary gift for hope" that saw me through.
No matter where or who you've been, he seemed to say, there is another, sweeter life to be had. It is a life you have to work for but a life that is your right. They were the words of a dying man but to read into them some kind of last minute "religious" awakening would be mistaken. Carver would never have fallen for anything so glib.
The good news is that Carver's collected poems have just been published in a single volume, entitled All Of Us. To those who haven't yet discovered him, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. You don't have to be the child of an alcoholic home to find resonance in Carver's work. It is ultimately a meditation on the things which shape all of our lives: loneliness, fear, hope, loss, love. More than anything love. I leave you with the last and shortest poem in the book, "Late Fragment". Carver wrote it in the final stages of his illness. It is my favourite.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to
Beloved on the earth.
`All Of Us' is published by Harvill at pounds 12.00Reuse content