One of my students wrote an essay about Raymond Carver’s poem “Happiness” for the literary analysis assignment this week. I didn’t even know that Carver wrote poetry, or maybe it’s among the many things I’ve forgotten. In any case, as I sat with my hot coffee (cream and 2 sugars) Saturday morning marking the student’s analysis, I decided to give the poem a quick read. In this case, the quick read, turned into an entire leisurely stroll down that lane known as Memory.
The last time I read any Carver it was for a class in post-modernism. We read some of his short stories, all of which I found resonant but disturbing. I’m sorry I don’t still have my notes to tell you what my 23-year-old self put down as reaction to his work. I do remember I didn’t like his stories. Resonant but disturbing was difficult to incorporate into my worldview back then. I was not surprised though that this little piece of poetic imagery brought to me by a student prompted memories of (again) the way images speak softly but clearly to our experience, reminding us to pay attention.
Reminding us, for example, of the parallel qualities of our lives. Don’t we all have coffee (or tea, or juice) in the morning just at dawn, our minds full of “early morning stuff that passes for thought” (lines 3-4): what to wear, bills pending payment, the dog needing to be walked, the car washed, and the yard mowed. We collect up the leavings of responsibility, like the speaker in the poem, and erroneously call them thoughts.
Then the speaker looks out through a window, sees the boys, delivering the newspaper (in our world of digital instantaneity, how quaint the analog world looks where a person delivers the news written on paper). They are silent in their happiness. The boys are so utterly consumed with their happiness that there is nothing to say about it. I can imagine that they say nothing because, perhaps — like so many of us with our coffee in the morning — they don’t even realize that they are happy. For a moment, I wonder if the speaker is being wry, that perhaps these aren’t happy boys at all, but rather sleepy, burdened boys who have to get up to deliver the paper to help generate family income. But then the speaker suggests that he believes “if they could, they would take each other’s arm” (lines 12-13) and the human contact implied doesn’t seem to be seeking comfort in a time of need, just sharing “doing this thing together” (line 15) and doing it “slowly” (line 16), as if it needed attention and time to savor. I imagine them running off, later and faster, in afternoon sunlight to a record store to spend their early morning cash.
Our speaker, still at the window, looks out on a lovely but melancholy “pale” moon that persists even though “the sky is taking on light” (line 17-18). The sick, the tired, the worn are pallid, but happiness? How can this pale moon be part of a snapshot of supposed happiness? Our doubts about the speaker’s assertion are answered when he explains the sight of this pale moon as “Such beauty that for a minute / death and ambition, even love, / doesn’t enter into this” (lines 19-21). Sipping our own steaming cups, we know this feeling. It is a feeling so rare that it tends to escape us. A moment in which we forget the transitory nature of our own humanity, and the day-to-day struggles to make meaning slip away into the wave of happiness before we are washed back out to a sea of routine.
The speaker didn’t expect happiness to be delivering the paper as he took his morning coffee, and he knows, as we must, that “It comes on / unexpectedly” (line 22). I look out my kitchen window, washing my coffee cup, and think about how to talk to my student about her incomplete analysis, and the sun shines white through the glass. I am still considering happiness and the melancholy that comes with it, but there aren’t really words, because I guess I know that the experience of poetry is sometimes like the experience of happiness; it “goes beyond, really / any early morning talk about it” (lines 22-23). Maybe that’s what I’ll tell her.
Carver, Raymond. “Happiness.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. 2 June 2003. Web. 8 Mar 2014.
Post script for my students: Yes, you CAN do this. Yes, it IS literary analysis. I’m sure there are many flaws in this piece, intellectually and compositionally. When you find them, let me know so that I can make the appropriate revisions and rewrite as needed. Notice that picky and petty things like the author and title in paragraph one, as well as in-text citations and bibliography are still present. The thesis is also present, although it is NOT in the first paragraph.
Post script for everyone else: I did this mainly to see if I still could. ‘-) Let me know what you think. If you don’t know the poem, click on the link in the bibliography to give it a look.