American short story writer and poet, Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon in 1938. His first collection of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was published in 1976 and shortlisted for the National Book Award. After the third collection (Cathedral) appeared in 1984, he was nominated for the National Book Award a second time. Cathedral is usually thought to be Carver’s finest work. In addition to his five collections of short stories, Carver also wrote six collections of poetry. He died in 1988 from lung cancer at the age of 50. That same year, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Raymond Carver’s short stories have had a tremendous influence on that genre, and are all a classic example of refined minimalism. From his earliest days, Carver was attracted to the short form, testimony of that seen in a body of work that includes short stories and poetry, but no novels. His reputation is built solidly upon his stories, but like the English writer Thomas Hardy, readers often turn to the poetry after gaining familiarity with his stories. According to the writer, it was the brevity, as well as the intensity that attracted him to poetry.
In 1996, Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher—herself a poet—published the collected poems of Raymond Carver. The collection is titled All of Us and includes over 300 of Carver’s poems. The three selected below are, apart from any other characteristics, poems that appeal to me personally. Possibly others are also impressed by the artlessness and easy access afforded by Carver’s particularly American word choice and arrangement.
MORNING, THINKING OF EMPIRE (1983)
We press our lips to the enameled rim of the cups
and know the grease that floats
over the coffee will one day stop our hearts.
Eyes and fingers drop onto silverware
that is not silverware. Outside the window, waves
beat against the chipped walls of the old city.
Your hands rise from the rough tablecloth
as if to prophesy. Your lips tremble…
I want to say to hell with the future.
Our future lies deep in the afternoon.
It is a narrow street with a cart and driver,
a driver who looks at us and hesitates,
then shakes his head. Meanwhile,
I coolly crack the egg of a fine Leghorn chicken.
Your eyes film. You turn from me and look across
the rooftops at the sea. Even the flies are still.
I crack the other egg.
Surely we have diminished one another.
So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
WHAT THE DOCTOR SAID (1988)
He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
He said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with his man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may even have thanked him habit being so strong