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.
LRB 22 March 1990 | PDF Download