I must say … Raymond Carver is growing on me. Thanks to some literary friends, I overcame my prejudice against poets who “play with the net down” and write in free verse.
At first I was put off by Carver’s early focus on his alcoholism. But, after sticking with it, I’m warming to his honesty and humanity.
He can take a sliver of a memory and spin it into a little short story in the form of a free-verse poem. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that Carver is most well known as a short story writer.
His poems are little mini-short stories.
I’m also appreciating Carver’s blue collar roots. I’m not sure I should say he celebrates his blue collar roots. It just is, and he doesn’t shy away from it.
I’ve read that he left the Iowa State Workshop because he was having trouble fitting in with the “upper-middle-class milieu” at the school. And although his wife-at-the-time successfully lobbied for him to be given a second chance by comparing his struggles to Tennessee Williams’ difficult experience with the program 30 years earlier, Carver eventually dropped out with no degree.
I’ve known what it is like to go from blue collar roots in a small town to the jungle of an academic arena, and that’s a story for another day.
But, Carver has my empathy.
I’ve also come to appreciate how Carver can spin a little story and — BAM — just nail you with a feeling or an observation that leaves you pondering and pondering. He’s open and honest to a fault.
Whether he’s writing about getting letters from his kids asking for money, or about him committing adultery, you can be cocksure he’s telling you the truth.
I love, too, how his childhood in the American Northwest gave him insight into nature.
While I now live in the Northwest, I didn’t grow up here. I did grow up in the country in Missouri, so we have some shared experiences.
For the first few years of my life, I grew up on a farm. Here is a story of one memory from that time.
I heard them long before I saw them
Like a cacophony of oncoming clown cars.
Rising up out of the valley
And breaking over the Douglas firs.
The biggest formation I’d ever seen,
A magnificent wedge of geese all headed somewhere fast.
There must have been a hundred of them
Flying so low they went by just-like-that
With two hundred wings pumping urgently in unison.
And then they were gone
With just a fading honking echo left behind.
Was it a flock like that, dear brother,
That enticed you to run out of the barn door
That evening so long ago, shotgun in hand,
Thinking you might have a chance at bagging one?
Mom and I were up at the house making cookies,
And I remember hearing eerie wails and noises
Coming from the dark outside
And laughing, thinking it must be some strange animal
Making its strange animal sounds.
But when the cries went on and on
Mom got worried and went to look.
It could have been worse, you know.
You could have blown your head off,
You big klutz.
As it was, you only tripped over the threshold
And broke your elbow, which was bad enough,
So bad you couldn’t wrangle open the barnyard gate,
And so bad it made you moan like a dying beast.
But we drove you all the way to Cameron that night
To find a doctor who could set the bone.
And you got a cast and it healed up mostly,
And though you’d live another 60 years or so,
You never would be able to straighten out that arm.
You did your best to teach me how to hunt
But I never was much for killing things,
Yet … any time I hear wild geese approaching
I still run to where I can get a clear line of sight,
If only to shoot them with my eyes.
By all accounts, George Herbert was a cool guy. Our knowledge is limited because he lived long ago … more than 400 years ago. He only lived to the age of 39, but that was in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing.
I’ve chosen to write about this poetic champion because of how he expresses his art as a means of worship.
Born into a wealthy artistic family in Wales, he enrolled in Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest. He seems to have gotten sidetracked by politics, became a supporter of King James, and served in Parliament.
But King James died, Herbert’s secular prospects dimmed, and he became an Anglican priest in his mid-30s. He was reportedly an attentive parish priest. He cared for his parishioners, looking out for the poor and ill. He was only to live a few more years before dying of tuberculosis.
When I recently asked my Anglican son for suggestions he suggested Herbert. Coincidentally, I already had him on my list. His poem The Quiddity has been one of my favorites for some time.
Quiddity is a Latin word for “the essence,” or “what the thing really is.” The poem is a poet writing about poetry. It starts out with a litany of things that a poem is isn’t.
But, at the end of the poem, Herbert gets to the point about what a poem really is. And for him, poetry is the thing that brings him close to God.
The Quiddity by George Herbert
My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.
It cannot vault, or dance, or play ;
It never was in France or Spain ;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.
It is no office, art, or news ;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall :
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee : and Most take all.
When love is good and it lasts, it can be tempting to idealize its beginnings.
One piece of insider information: the very first time I saw my wife, she was glowing. I kid you not. Sitting in the second row of a darkened auditorium listening to the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate she was surrounded by a golden aura.
I had a camera, but was so befuddled I failed to get the shot. You might argue I was imagining things, but I don’t think so. I’m not given to visions nor hallucinations. I’ve never witnessed anything like it before or since.
I think it was a special gift for a fellow a bit slow on the uptake, who needed a sign to notice a good thing right under my nose.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
We come now to the winter of our years
(Where did the autumn with its pleasures go?)
Our roof will all too soon be cloaked with snow,
So, come, let’s stoke our fire against the fears.
It seems another life ago, my dear,
That full of grace you pilgrim sat aglow
Enkindled so this prodigal would know
That grace was free and grace was very near.
Midsummer’s eve brought more epiphanies
Of spotless bride adorned, redeemed, in white,
Too ill for customary liberties,
So wan, yet still for these sore eyes a sight.
Then! Over Lake Champlain the full moon sees
A railway sleeper car rock through the night.
He struggled at Oxford, and ultimately left without a degree. He published poems and made great friends, yet held a lifelong grudge against C.S. Lewis from his time at Oxford when Lewis was his teacher. (Lewis reportedly assessed Betjeman as “an idle prig.”
During World War II, he worked for the Ministry of Information and may have been involved in intelligence gathering. One story that has grown up about Betjeman is that he was once targeted for assassination by the Irish Republican Army. But the order was supposedly rescinded when an old IRA man spoke on his behalf because he had been impressed by his poems.
You might say Betjeman was eventually vindicated. He was named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.
His poem is rich with specific detail and is so descriptive, it almost overloads the senses. Betjeman is a reserved Englishman, but he tells you enough to let you know what’s going on.
The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
by John Betjeman
In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened licorice bush
Was blooming round our feet;
Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.
The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.
She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.