In a Marine Light: the poetry of Raymond Carver

‘Cigarette smoke hanging on
in the living room. The ship’s lights
out on the water, dimming. The stars
burning holes in the sky. Becoming ash, yes.’

– ‘Tomorrow’

Every poet is a critic, at least if you believe Harold Bloom. In The Anxiety of Influence, he imagined the great poets of the twentieth century wrestling with their antecedents over the course of a career, fighting for their places in the canon. There’s a curious amount of Norman Mailer in Bloom’s thesis: the quest for Greatness with a big ‘G’, the Oedipal strut of the post-war American male. Still, that writing is the purest form of criticism has a pleasing currency, even if I’m less convinced by the idea that criticism therefore qualifies as artistic struggle, which seems to be Bloom’s conclusion.

‘This morning I woke up to rain
on the glass. And understood
that for a long time now
I’ve chosen the corrupt when
I had a choice’

– ‘Company’

I’m not a critic. In the cinema, I get carried away with the dream, and friends find my recommendations laughable. And, with poetry, I can sometimes find it difficult to strip out what the poems meant to me when I first encountered them. In the same way you can’t separate heartbreak from the associated songs, you often can’t separate the situation of reading from your memory of a book.

‘Days of rain and high water.
leaves hammered into the ground finally.
in my heart, this plot of earth
that the storm lights’
– ‘Aspens’

Around the time that I discovered Raymond Carver, my family were in the middle of moving house. Every day, my father and I would make the hour long drive to the town where he had found a new job, and where I attended college. By the afternoon, I would be at a loose end for two or three hours and the library became a favourite destination. It had, I remember, a fairly meagre collection of twentieth century poetry: Auden, MacNeice, some Ted Hughes. The Carver ‘Selected Poems’ stood out from them, for its stark white Picador spine. In A Marine Light.

The next poem I write will have firewood
right in the middle of it, firewood so thick
with pitch my friend will leave behind
his gloves and tell me, “Wear these when you
handle that stuff.”
– ‘The Pipe’

At the time, the poems attracted me for their conversational directness, the level voice finding solace and humour in the ordinary. And for someone lacking in life experience, Carver’s ability to look for beauty within the grubbiness of life had a certain attraction: by recounting tales of drunks and domestic disaster, he reminded me of Charles Bukowski, only without the blackheads. You can see the same domestic terseness in his poems that marks the works of Fred Voss and Billy Collins, but also an element of basic reflexivity- which often goes unremarked upon in Carver’s short fiction- in that a poem will often be perpetuated out of the act of its writing.

‘But I was young at the time,
and drunk and wanted to play.
I didn’t have to listen.
So I walked away. Didn’t turn back ever,
or find this in my head, until today.’

– ‘Blood’

I never owned a copy of that Picador edition. It went out of print, at a time when the search for out-of-print books was a mostly fruitless pursuit. When I lived in America, I picked up the two collections that formed the selection (Ultramarine and Where Water Comes Together With Other Water), but already, the poems had lost their lustre. In some of the pieces, particularly the later ones, I found that the poetry spilled over into a slackness: prose in narrow bars that lacked energy in the line breaks. ‘Lemonade’, which inspired one of the sections of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a good example of this, or  ‘To My Daughter’:

‘You must be crazy! Wasn’t all that enough for you?
You want to die? Maybe that’s it. Maybe
I think I know you and I don’t.’

For a long time, I kept those two collections at my parents’ house. They were no longer essential, cut off from that canon which all developing writers leave behind them, the tricky pathway of influence. Still, whenever I returned to that house- for holidays and weddings, for a couple of funerals- I’d pick through the books I’d left behind, and, I’d always return to the Carver poems. Now, when I look over them, it isn’t his world of lovelorn fishermen and anguished drunks that I recollect. It’s the world in which I first encountered them. A feeling of tipping over, from one life to another. Evenings of rootlessness, a free time charged with potential. Early autumn sun through the high windows of a library. The wide tables, the strangers sitting together in respectful silence. A perfect place to read, which is all you can ask of from any place that you pass through.

© Daniel Bennett

8 thoughts on “In a Marine Light: the poetry of Raymond Carver

  1. Rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly!) I don’t think Carver actually understood what (if anything) Poetry is. Unless he percieved it as the difference between sitting still (poetry) or moving around (prose). I have a lot of respect for Carver but reading his Collected Poems recently I couldn’t help thinking that the majority of pieces were not (and would not ever be) finished. Lazy is an apt word. They reminded me of poor modern versions of early Chinese and Japanese poetry with some axle grease, whiskey/vodka and neon 24hr garage forecourt light chucked in instead of herons, moons and jade ruins…


    1. I think that’s a little harsh over all, although I can sympathise with that view about some of the later poems. After Carver died, there seemed to be something of a gold rush to get all the work into print, and I don’t think some it needed or deserved to see the light. Poems from A New Path to the Waterfall are like that, and in fact read more like notes to himself than work which offers anything challenging or coherent to a reader. That said, I looked over Fires recently, and think that some of the poems there still hold up. Pieces like ‘Country Matters’, ‘Prosser’ or ‘The Blue Stones’ have a pleasing, realist tangibility to them, and overall it’s a better selection than In A Marine Light. I’d have made more use of those pieces in this post, except that I managed to misplace my copy, and besides it seemed better to focus on the one book in particular.


  2. Perhaps I am being a bit harsh. I think you write very eloquently about your memories of first reading Carver’s poetry and the feelings engendered by going back to it. I purchased a nice edition of the collected poems not that long ago but my initial enthusiasm soon waned when it dawned on me that work I had admired so much years ago now appeared clumsy, even hokey. I tried an experiment and read some Bukowski (another poet I don’t really read anymore) and felt that, when he avoids self parody, much of it was still pretty good. He certainly has a better sense of how a poem functions, how it is ‘alive’, I think. I still like the essays in ‘Fires’ though.


    1. That sounds like my experience with the two separate collections when I finally got hold of them. I think ‘hokey’ is a pretty good word for the worst of Carver’s poetry. The comparison with Bukowski is relevant too. I read some Bukowski towards the end of last year after years (and years) of avoiding him, and, like you, I was surprised by how much I liked it, in the main. It’s strange, but in some ways the myth of some writers is what attracts you to them, but it’s also the first thing that turns you off. Not sure why that is. Another post in that, maybe…


  3. And I agree with you about Prosser too….

    Geese love this green wheat.

    I ate some of it once too, to see.

    OK I was being a little harsh.


    1. And, yes, Prosser is a lovely poem. The Fires stuff has some of his best work, because it has the sense of solitary sadness to it. Mainly because a lot of them are about fishing…!


  4. ‘Prayers on the edges of maps, burns on the
    retina, precise folds, accurate creases,
    gunpowder residue secreted in rehearsed
    narratives, suffocated memories of
    magic trees and massive rivers.
    Occult strategies: blood and barns.’

    A dead drop. Ignore or pick up. This will be the last of it. Time is short. Unfinished business.


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