What the doctor said

Edna Longley

  • A New Path to the Waterfall by Raymond Carver
    Collins Harvill, 158 pp, £11.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 271043 9
  • Wolfwatching by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 55 pp, £8.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 571 14167 6
  • Poems 1954-1987 by Peter Redgrove
    Penguin, 228 pp, £5.99, August 1989, ISBN 0 14 058641 5
  • The First Earthquake by Peter Redgrove
    Secker, 76 pp, £7.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 436 41006 0
  • Mount Eagle by John Montague
    Bloodaxe, 75 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 1 85224 090 3
  • The Wreck of the Archangel by George Mackay Brown
    Murray, 116 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7195 4750 4
  • The Perfect Man by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
    Abacus, 96 pp, £3.99, November 1989, ISBN 0 349 10122 1

Most books offered as poetry never leave the condition of prose – which is not to say they are good prose. But when a prose voice enters poetry, it can clear and freshen the air. Beside Raymond Carver’s posthumous collection, the others I have been reading seem musty, costumed, made-up. Anyone who finds his poems flat or prosaic might consider Edward Thomas’s defence of Robert Frost: ‘if his work were printed [as prose] it would have little in common with the kind of prose that runs to blank verse ... It is poetry because it is better than prose.’ A New Path to the Waterfall is poetry because it is better than prose. Another of Thomas’s insights into Frost also applies to Carver at his best: ‘with a confidence like genius, he has trusted his conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply, and he has turned it over until he has no doubt what it means to him, when he has no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other.’ Let the theorists make of that what they will.

Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow and partner in an intense literary enterprise (she moved in the opposite direction, from poems to stories), has collated his last book. Her introduction stresses that poetry was always on the horizon for him. Carver preferred, indeed, to be called ‘poet and short-story writer – and occasional essayist’. Gallagher reprints his occasional essay ‘Some Prose on Poetry’, which tells how he came across a copy of the magazine Poetry in a house he visited while working as a delivery boy. The magazine’s owner let him keep it: an epiphanic ‘moment when the very thing I needed most in my life – call it a polestar – was casually, generously given to me’. More recently, Carver, who has been called ‘America’s Chekhov’, followed his star by re-arranging as verse passages from Chekhov’s stories. Gallagher, who initiated this practice, says: ‘it was as if we’d discovered another Chekhov inside Chekhov.’ (Shades of Frost and Thomas again.) These Chekhov ‘poems’, interspersed through A New Path to the Waterfall, suggest how Raymond Carver went on discovering another Carver inside Carver. Dying from lung cancer, having already published his selected poems (In a Marine Light), he reached still more intently for something glimpsed when ‘bleary from reading [Poetry and the Little Review Anthology] I had the distinct feeling my life was in the process of being altered in some significant and even, forgive me, magnificent way.’

Both the re-formed Chekhov extracts and Carver’s own poems put pressure on line-endings. Frost’s ‘common decasyllabics’ less radically tested that crucial borderline between poetry and prose. But Carver’s line-breaks have little in common with the kind of poetry that runs to free verse. They participate in a larger rhythm which depends on sentence-sounds, on a primarily syntactical music. (Frost compared poems without sentence-sounds to clothes tied together without a clothes-line.) Significantly, Carver’s methods most fully declare themselves where he is most immersed in storytelling.

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[*] Elephant, and Other Stories was issued in paperback by Collins Harvill on 21 September 1989. (124 pp., £4.95, 0 00 27104 0)

[†] A selection of the Moortown poems has been reissued as Moortown Diary (Faber, 68 pp., £8.99 and £3.99, 18 September 1989, 0 571 14196 2).