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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Number 169: Raymond Carver "Happiness"


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.

--Raymond Carver

Hap Notes: Raymond Carver (1938-1988) is arguably one of the most influential short-story writers and poets of the last few decades. There are few people writing, who, once they have read his work, are not strongly influenced by his brevity and power with words.

The beginning of his life reads like a Richard Brautigan story, born in a mill town in Oregon to a saw mill worker and a waitress, he grows up, works in a sawmill, marries and has two kids by the time he's 20. The couple move to California to be with his mother-in-law.

While he's there he takes a creative writing class taught by John Gardner, who was to be his mentor for a time. He goes to Chico State and Humboldt State and starts writing. His wife, Ruth, gets her degree from San Jose State and becomes an English teacher. He also attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Like Vonnegut working as a night watchman at a General Electric plant and writing, Carver worked as a night janitor, in the middle of the 60's, at a hospital in Sacramento, whisked through his job and then spent the night writing. His first book of poems was written then,

He worked a plethora of jobs until his career got rolling and by that time Carver was drinking pretty heavily. He taught at some universities and even edited for a science textbook company. By the time he was teaching at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1973, he and fellow teacher John Cheever, mostly sat around drinking. He was hospitalized several times before he figured out that drinking was killing him. He went to AA.

It's always been a bone of literary contention whether his work with Esquire writer/editor Gordon Lish really created his style. Of course, Lish says he's responsible for showing Carver the light. Carver felt Lish was a bit too terse. However, I love the work of Gordon Lish and I hear he is a stern and eccentric teacher that nobody goes away from without a mark. Carver was immensely talented, Lish knew how to refine it, Carver, like anyone, at some point had to break it off and create his own style. Lish is awesome but he can throw the baby out with the bathwater sometimes.

At any rate, Carver's new lease on life gave him a 10 year period of being a professor and director of the creative writing program at Syracuse University before he died of lung cancer at 50 years old.

His short stories have often been made into movies, notably Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Carver's spare style and sense of the poetry of the every day has been, as I said, enormously influential with contemporary fiction writers and poets.

But it's Carver's eye and ear that sets him apart, I think. Note the perfect facts in today's poem to tell us a story that sends our imagination reeling about the poet at the window and the story of the two boys. There's an immediate and intense connection with these people. Carver knew exactly which things would move us. He doesn't tell us the color of their sweaters and caps, he doesn't wax too poetic about the sunrise. He knows the moment is transcendent and he lets us have a moment like that, too. There's a deep generosity in this poem, the poet looking at the boys, the poet sharing it with us.

Here's a good Carver quote: "I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing- a sunset or an old shoe- in absolute and simple amazement."

and another:

"It's possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power."

You can find more Carver here:

P.S. I know usually on Saturdays we have a sillier poem but honestly, this is the one that came into my head that made me feel the happiest and happiness is what I shoot for on Saturdays. Hope it worked.

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