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Raymond Carver: A New Path to the Waterfall

By    Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2004
Category: Poetry

What if you only had a year to live? How would you live it?

There’s no easier question. Everyone knows the “right” answer: You live as if there’s no tomorrow. You smell the roses. Smile at children. Call yourself “lucky.” In short, you move through your remaining days with the kind of grace and awareness that might have enriched all the years you wasted through pettiness and worry. 

But for the poet and short story writer Raymond Carver, a fatal diagnosis of lung cancer in September 1987 was really a cruel irony. Carver had already died once — killed, in effect, by his own hard life. For this was a  man who had married at 19, fathered two kids by 21, and then set out on a path of bad jobs and drinking. That’s never a good combination, but then, as Carver said, “You never start out life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.” 

About the drinking: His was hospitalized for alcohol abuse four times in 1976 and 1977. He nearly died. Then he got sober, hooked up the poet Tess Gallagher, and had a decade of productive writing and literary celebrity.  And then, at 49, the fatal diagnosis. 

Not that Americans much care. Most Americans — even those who Like to Read — have a problem with poetry. It’s some sort of elite voodoo, practiced by weirdos who care about stuff of no interest to ordinary mortals. In an old-fashioned culture, that attitude would be cause for embarrassment. In America, it’s almost a matter of pride. 

Ray Carver is the stake in the heart of that anything-but-poetry argument. No poet was easier to read. Few were as direct. And in his last book, “A New Path to the Waterfall,” almost all “poetic” devices are replaced by blunt confessions. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

Oh, there’s some “arty” stuff. Chekhov, his idol and model, had written eloquently about his impending death, so Carver (with Gallagher’s help) intersperses his writing with excerpts from Chekhov. But what’s a little Chekhov between friends? 

Some excerpts: 

Don’t forget when the phone was off the hook/All day, every day.

The bill collector (in Victoria, B.C.) who asks/the widow if she’d like it if the bailiff dug up/Her husband and repossessed the suit he was buried in.

And this, perhaps Carver’s most quoted poem: 

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 this earth