Hitting the Right Notes: Raymond Carver

Seán Dunne
What surprised me most about the death of Raymond Carver in 1988 was the way it affected me. I felt it as a personal loss and I kept on reading the small notice in the newspaper as if someone I'd known well had suddenly died. I took out his books of poems and stories and read through them again.
Later, when I read an article by Carver's wife, Tess Gallagher, I found out that this was a feeling shared by many others. I had never known this sense with a great writer before since eminence somehow brings with it a diminution of the personal. This never happened with Carver and so, when he died, and because of the particular way he had lived, his death was a personal event for those like myself whose inner geography is mapped by his work.
He is best-known as a story-writer, one of America's best, but his poems move me lately with a strength that grows with each reading. For some years now, I have kept an essay of his close to my work-table and the lessons it taught me are lessons one can learn as well from his own creative work. The essay is called 'On Writing' and in it he quotes a plain but powerful statement by Isak Dinesen: "Every day I write a little, without hope and without despair."
That essay contains a number of statements which I often quote when talking to schoolchildren about poems, or when I wonder what writing is for. here are two of them. As he said himself, such statements should be kept on three-by-five cards on the wall:
"Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellow 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 amazement."
Likewise, I swear by this statement, which so aptly fits Carver's own stories and poems:
"It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things 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."
Recently, Carver's last book of poems was published in England. A New Path to the Waterfall (Collins Harvill) was ?ne of the finest books of poems to appear last year. Most of It was written as Carver approached death. It has about it the wonder, purity and intensity of a man ~or whom the uni~portant has fallen away as life becomes honed to Its absolute .essentlal~ ..
Carver's own story is related to hIS work 10 a partIcularly intimate way and his life and work blend in this last book of poems in a rare and awesome manner. His story is well-known to readers of his work. Briefly, he was born in 1938 in Oregon. His world was small-town and mobile-home America. He became an alcoholic. His first marriage broke down. He wrote poems and stories:
"My attention span had gone out on me; I no .longer had ~e patience to write novels. I know it has much to do wIth why I wnte poems and short stories. Get in, ge~ out. Do~'t linger.
Page 93, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 28