‘I’m trying again. A man has to begin over and over – to try to think and feel only in a very limited field, the house on the street, the man at the corner drug store.’
Sherwood Anderson, from a letter
The quotation above is the epigram chosen by Raymond Carver at the heading of his poem Harley’s Swans from In a Marine Light (Picador, 1988). I remember writing it down in a notebook when I first read the book, and, if I am completely honest, it struck me with rather more force than the poem that follows it.
I don’t want to spend time here analysing the poem (I have been re-reading it recently, and while I think it is not one of Carver’s best, it has things in it which I enjoy and celebrate), but want to concentrate instead on how Sherwood’s line (he was a friend of Carver’s) somehow got lodged in my memory and only recently came to light as something I might one day use.
The first step was rifling through In a Marine Light, at speed, hoping to find the quote underlined somewhere. As I remembered it, the line was from one of Carver’s poems, so I spent a good chunk of time (was it fruitless?) encountering poems I had completely forgotten about. Many of them looked completely new to me, materialising not so much as re-encounter as first acquaintance.
Eventually I found the line and sat staring at it, making sure it was not by Carver himself. (I think this is one of Carver’s trademark skills (or tics): that whoever he was drawing on or quoting from -Chekhov, Milosz, Neruda- the way he framed them always made them seem like one of his own lines, not the original speaker’s.) I even did a bit of googling, just to be sure, not quite able to believe my eyes. I found this, by G P Lainsbury, from a book called The Carver Chronotype:
Graham Clarke describes Carver’s method as one that brings to bear all his intelligence and literary skill upon ‘a self-consciously limited area of attention in order to achiever as particular a realization as possible of individual marks and spaces’ (104-5).
In this self-imposed week off from the news, that line about ‘a self-consciously limited area of attention’ really struck me. It occurred to me that I would have first read the Anderson quote sometime in my mid to late twenties, recently married, not yet with children, everything still full of possibility.
Only now, as I reach my mid-fifties, already past the age that Carver left the planet, am I really beginning to understand, with my gut as well as my head, and with time appearing to speed up with each passing year and the world hurtling towards who knows what kind of catastrophe, what he was talking about.
I shall make my attention today on something very small, and rejoice in it.