Good vibrations

Raymond Carver is famous for his prose, but somehow I prefer his poetry, for which he is much less well known.

His prose has the quality of gritty authenticity. His characters seem real. Many of them have endured tough times or ill luck. A lot of them are what we’d call battlers. A lot are just ordinary middle class folk trying to find their way through day by day. Their problems are our problems. They deal with them much as we do. They make do. They make mistakes, they doubt, they do their best, and sometimes it works out. End of the day what is exposed is human frailty in plain, unadorned prose.

I admire his writing, but for the most part don’t warm to it.

His poetry is different because poetry is different. Stories touch upon different parts of our being, at least the good stories do. There’s a chemical response to good writing, but it begins intellectually as we take in the description of events portrayed by the author. Stories are not always linear, but generally they have a shape in which a beginning, middle and an end is present. Our response to the story on the one level is purely based on plot, and emphasised or undermined by the quality of the writing. Underlying it is the theme of the story. The story may describe a sequence of events, but it might be something very different. That’s the art of the writer, and many of the best stories are like that.

All of this we take in, and the good readers more. It’s there on the page, either in the lines or between them. The good stories vibrate in us. They reflect and refract off the surfaces within us. They make us pause and consider. They move and provoke and occasionally inspire. They set off a chain reaction of response. A good story is much more than the sum of its parts.

Somehow poetry when it’s well written gets to that end point without any of the formal preamble of a story. There may be some semblance of narrative, but except in some folk poetry it’s not explicit in form. Poetry touches on different parts of the mind. I always think good poetry is felt more than considered. I respond sometimes without knowing precisely why. Yet I do, and I think it is because good poetry touches upon things deeply held within us, but which we are mostly oblivious to. It’s like music played at such a pitch we cannot hear, but somehow sense all the same.

Poetry is like music in many ways. And like music it is very personal. We respond to different things in different ways. There might be some standards we all agree are classics, but the rest comes down to personal taste. Poetry, more than music, vibrates within us according to our life experiences: what we know, what we have felt, what we have lost and what we yearn for. Music carries us along and transports us; poetry holds us close.

In my case the poetry of Raymond Carver speaks to me personally much more so than other, better known and more reputable poets. It is a subjective reaction. What he writes I know, even if I have no words for it. I sit where he sits. I read and afterwards I feel the poem continue to move in me, as if it is my poem and my experience.

I’ve copied other Carver poems to this blog. Here’s another:

Sweet Light

After the winter, grieving and dull,
I flourished here all spring. Sweet light

began to fill my chest. I pulled up
a chair. Sat for hours in front of the sea.

and the sound of a bell. I wanted
everything behind me. I even wanted

to become inhuman. And I did that.
I know I did. (She’ll back me up on this.)

I remember her the morning I closed the lid
on memory and turned the handle.

out here, sea. Only you and I know.
At night, clouds form in front of the moon.

By morning they’re gone. And that sweet light
I spoke of? That’s gone too.


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