A Carver carved
An Irishman’s Diary: Remembering a writer who (more than once, perhaps) was cut off in his prime
‘Raymond Carver’s poems’ popularity must be in part due to their unrelenting cheerfulness – a contrast with many of his stories.’
The writer Raymond Carver would have been 75 today. That he didn’t get anywhere near that age may be a cruel irony. During his 30s, he nearly drank himself to death. Then he enjoyed a decade of sobriety, before dying of lung cancer, aged 50.
But by his own account, he had another birthday, also around this time of year. “I’ve had two lives,” he once said. “My second began on June 2nd 1977 when I quit drinking.” Soon afterwards, he met his second wife, Tess Gallagher, who was central to the happiness of his last decade. A fellow writer, she was also to some extent his opposite. Where his life had been chaotic, hers was well-ordered. For this and other reasons, the partnership thrived. Like many couples, they exchanged habits as well as vows. Mainly a poet, Gallagher wrote prose at Carver’s encouragement. Carver, best known for his short stories, turned increasingly to verse.
Gallagher is a frequent visitor to Ireland and brought him with her on at least one occasion. He’s said to have enjoyed the country but, unsurprisingly, found the ubiquity of alcohol at every social event here a challenge.
In some ways, Carver’s life reflected his spare, bleak stories. He first married at 19, had two children by 20, and spent years drifting in and out of menial jobs. The marriage fell apart because of the drinking. But in a revelation as shocking as anything in his fiction, he once complained of the “malevolent” influence of his children, who he said were “eating me alive”.
Even his death was Carveresque. Its abrupt ending is foretold in a poem, What the Doctor Said , which recounts his receipt of the grim diagnosis, tersely but not without humour. After a brief discussion on the likelihood of him taking up religion, he and the doctor shake hands, and the poem finishes on a throwaway line: “I may even have thanked him habit being so strong.”
Two months after writing that, on August 2nd, 1988, Carver was himself cut off abruptly. And when nominating the poem as her contribution to the Wesley College anthology Lifelines: Letters from Famous People about their Favourite Poem , Tess Gallagher compared the circumstances of its composition it to “the Buddhist monks who used to write a brief haiku, then put down their pens and die”.
In the years since that death, however, a curious question arose concerning Carver’s writing, specifically his prose. Namely, whether the curt style for which he remains famous was his at all, or the creation of an editing process that changed what he himself wrote beyond recognition.
All writers need editors and good editors usually improve the original. But it has emerged in recent years that Gordon Lish, literary editor at the magazine where Carver first published many of his stories, had sometimes cut more than 50 per cent of the text, as well as imposing the now-trademark blunt endings, and even changing characters’ names.
What Carver called this “surgical amputation” eventually led to a split between the two. But it also led to much critical acclaim for the 1981 story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love . When in 2009 Gallagher republished the stories in their original – much longer – form, some reviewers thought the comparison more to Lish’s credit than the author’s.
It wasn’t that Lish imposed the minimalism that became the writer’s signature. He just accentuated it severely. The difference has been reduced to an equation. Where an earlier mentor had advised Carver to reduce every 25 words to 15, Lish suggested cutting the 15 down to five.
So maybe, in the circumstances, Carver’s poems should be the last word about him. And for surprisingly many people, they are. In the aforementioned Lifelines , for example, he is the fifth most chosen author, and easily the most popular American, beaten only by Yeats, Heaney, Kavanagh, and Gerald Manley Hopkins.
His poems’ popularity must be in part due to their unrelenting cheerfulness – a contrast with many of his stories. Gravy , for example – Nick Hornby’s nomination – is Carver’s breezy description of his last years as an unexpected, unearned, bonus. The title of Happiness (Joe O’Connor’s favourite) speaks for itself.
And a whole raft of Lifelines contributors chose a short Carver poem called Late Fragment , which also now serves as his epitaph: “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?/I did./And what did you want?/To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth.”