Monday, January 07, 2008


Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish

Many things contributed to the destruction of T.S. Eliot’s reputation as the leading modernist poet – a School of Quietude claim that was still being treated as a truism in some quarters when I was an undergrad at Berkeley circa 1970 – among them the rise of a new generation of poets, the New Americans, who were immediately evident as much more lively than the School of Q, and who very obviously had no truck with this claim. The end of the 1960s also saw the return of the Objectivists, who offered direct evidence that the funneling of modernist inclinations away from Pound & toward the SoQ’s curious blend of Southern fugitives and Boston Brahmins was itself a bit of a sham.

To this, several of the best-and-brightest SoQ students piled on by rebelling in one form or another: Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, James Wright, W.S. Merwin, even Donald Hall & John Berryman stopped writing in ye olde manner & began anew. Further still, out in Iowa & then in Philadelphia, the “open poetry” advocated by Phil Levine, Stephen Berg et al offered still another mode of rebellion against the old ways.

The consequences were severe. If you look at Robert Richman’s The Direction of Poetry, one of the first collections of so-called New Formalism, one thing that jumps out at you is that not one of the Americans included there were born in the 1930s.

But what really buried Eliot as Pound’s ostensible equal as a modernist, what sealed the deal, was the publication of the facsimile edition of The Waste Land in 1971, edited by Eliot’s widow, Valerie. That wasn’t exactly the outcome she had in mind.

The claim of Eliot as a major modernist – the cause of so much consternation for William Carlos Williams, for example – requires reading The Waste Land on two levels. It is first of all a collection of texts of varying interest & quality – tho I think anyone would acknowledge that the writing is quite good. But it is also a work of large sections juxtaposed against one another almost architecturally – it’s a kind of part:whole relationship without much precedent in English language poetry. It’s more radical in this regard even than The Cantos. It is not, however, more radical in this aspect than Hugh Sewlyn Mauberly, often figured as Pound’s last pre-modernist masterpiece, completed one year ahead of Eliot’s.

Readers had known for decades that Pound offered Eliot advice in the creation of The Waste Land, but until Valerie Eliot laid it out chapter & verse, few really understood the degree to which what we know as The Waste Land is Pound’s collage from Eliot’s raw materials. If, in fact, you remove Pound’s edits, Eliot’s writing is closer in tone & kind to the florid verse & slow changes of The Four Quartets, a decidedly anti-modernist project. In spite of the promise of Prufrock, Eliot turns out to have been a School of Quietude lad all along. This doesn’t mean that the verse in The Waste Land is bad – certainly not the embarrassment of the Quartets – but it does mean that the modernism of this alleged apotheosis is Pound’s alone.

I’ve been thinking about this while reading the fascinating materials available on The New Yorker website concerning the editing of Raymond Carver’s stories by Gordon Lish. Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, is bringing a collection of Carver’s stories in their “unedited” state. Since the story in question on the site is Carver’s signature “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” now with its original title “Beginners,” this has raised eyebrows & set tongues – and blogs – a-wagging. Is Gallagher inadvertently committing another Valerie Eliot faux pas, revealing her beloved to have been a plodder made “great” under the hands of a careful editor? Gallagher has actually been compared at least once to Yoko Ono – and you know that’s not a compliment.

Here is one paragraph from the story as originally written:

After a minute, Terri said, “We were afraid. Herb even made a will out and wrote to his brother in California who used to be a Green Beret. He told him who to look for if something happened to him mysteriously. Or not so mysteriously!” She shook her head and laughed at it now. She drank from her glass. She went on. “But we did live a little like fugitives. We were afraid of him, no question. I even called the police at one point, but they were no help. They said they couldn’t do anything to him, they couldn’t arrest him or do anything unless he actually did something to Herb. Isn’t that a laugh?” Terri said. She poured the last of the gin into her glass and wagged the bottle. Herb got up from the table and went to the cupboard. He took down another bottle of gin.

Here is Lish’ edit:

Terri said, “We were afraid. Mel even made a will out and wrote to his brother in California who used to be a Green Beret. Mel told him who to look for if something happened to him.

Terri drank from her glass. She said, “But Mel’s right we lived like fugitives. We were afraid. Mel was, weren’t you, honey? I even called he police at one point, but they were no help. They said they couldn’t do anything until Ed actually did something. Isn’t that a laugh?” Terri said.

She poured the last of the gin into her glass and waggled the bottle. Mel got up from the table and went to the cupboard. He took down another bottle.

The original paragraph is organized around Terri & everything she did & said at this point in the narrative. While the original paragraph has an open-ended, almost organic feel to it – it seems casual in its construction, if not shapeless – there is an important sequence in the middle, three consecutive sentences starting with the word She, composed entirely of single syllable words. The first is nine words long, the second five, the third three. Coming as the first one does after a five-syllable word, this is the rhythmic center of the passage. Further, the sequence drives home the degree to which the remainder of the paragraph swirls about sentences starting off with different subjects: We, I, They, Terri, She, Herb, He.

Lish, who is the person responsible for transforming Herb into Mel, has abandoned these three key sentences altogether, choosing instead to reiterate the name Terri Breaking the paragraph into three parts further transforms its rhythm. The original paragraph expressed through prosody Terri’s sense of turmoil over this account of their fear at her previous (now deceased) lover. The edited version treats the same material cinematically – the primary affect of the new rhythm is to convey dread. It’s a cleaner, cooler path through the same material, but if you think about it, clean & cool is not what this content is about. Lish’ version is the prose equivalent of a made-for-TV movie where all the light is too bright & nothing ever clutters a counter top – the original has more of the handheld/jumpcut feel of an indie documentary. My sense is that these are very typical of the changes made throughout the manuscript.

Now the stakes here are very different than for Eliot – nobody is arguing particularly that Carver is the central figure in a literary history that will collapse in on itself if he turns out to be other than we readers have been originally led to believe. Plus Tess Gallagher is not Valerie Eliot – she’s a significant poet, albeit not especially my cup of tea, but somebody certainly qualified to understand what she’s doing here & why she’s doing it.

To a degree that poets never have to deal with, prose writers have to cope with the demands of market institutions – trade publishers and the “big mags” – that control fiction as product and treat all works with respect to that market. The “clean” feel of the edited version fits Carver into a larger consumer space that includes everyone from Saul Bellow, John Updike & the Salinger of the Glass family stories to Philip Roth & all the many Wallace Stegner clones. What The New Yorker feature, especially online, demonstrates is that a good editor – and Lish is one of the greatest, from the p.o.v. of the New York trades – can turn anything into this product.

But Gallagher is I think right that the original Raymond Carver is the better, more important writer. He’s just someone that the New York trades would normally pay no heed to whatsoever. It’s not evident that he would have written many of the works for which he’s known today without the encouragement and guidance of Lish – the correspondence from Carver to Lish that is excerpted here is enough to make you want to cry. Carver may have stopped drinking, but the dependent personality of the alcoholic is everywhere evident. When he’s not actually arguing against Lish’ edits, he’s servile to the point of being craven, lavishing hollow praise. Lish made his career, made Carver famous & employable, really kept him going for some time. All that Carver had to do was surrender his soul as a writer, and he was smart enough to realize that this is what he was doing.

Had Carver written all those stories but with none of the editing that carved them into trade press product he would have had a very different career altogether, something much closer to the ones experienced by Douglas Woolf or Fielding Dawson, fine important prose stylists who never got the New York celebrity fame treatment and whose works are increasingly difficult to find now that they’re gone. I think a single volume like Dawson’s Krazy Kat is worth all the Roth & Bellow in the world, but Dawson’s not the one who became a millionaire. Dawson never had to worry about which publisher would give him a $7,000,000 advance on his next novel a la Tom Wolfe.

Worse yet, where poetry has a great tendency to right old wrongs – Gertrude Stein is taken far more seriously now than she ever was while alive, and most “major” School of Quietude figures disappear quickly once they’re gone – fictional prose lacks that larger grounding within a community that causes this to happen. Just because Dawson’s a better writer than Wolfe or Roth doesn’t guarantee that in fifty years people will even remember him. So becoming a better writer post mortem is a significant risk for Raymond Carver. But which do you think he really wanted to be: a good writer or famous product?

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