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Teaching Raymond Carver.

During the past decade I have been calling upon novelists, short story writers, poets in the teaching I do at Harvard University. I am a physician, trained in pediatrics, child psychiatry, psychoananalysis. For twenty years my wife and 1, with our children, lived as wandering "field workers"--an effort to understand how children of various backgrounds grow up: black and white, Southern and Northern, those who live on Indian reservations, or in the Eskimo villages of Alaska, or up the hollows of Appalachia, or indeed, nowhere and everywhere, as boys and girls whose parents are migrant farm workers. Eventually, we worked with children abroad, in the favelas of Brazil, the various townships of South Africa, and the strife-ridden neighborhoods of Belfast, for example--in hopes of learning how young people caught in third world poverty, or in a kind of racial or religious conflict that dominates a country's political life, manage to figure out their loyalties, their aspirations, their values and ideals.

More recently, for about ten years, I have made a major commitment to teaching, a real pleasure and challenge. When I came back from the South to Boston (in 1966), after an eight-year spell of studying school desegregation and working in the sit-in movement, I studied with Erik H. Erikson, who had in his late-middle age begun teaching at Harvard College. Erikson asked me to be one of his teaching assistants, and I gladly accepted the offer. He was interested in the relationship between psychoanalysis (his profession) and history--how our thoughts and interests are shaped not only by our early experiences but by the world we happen to inherit: our class and race and nationality, and not least, the time in which we live. He used much of his own writing, and that of other social scientists; but he did assign Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and he did allow each of us who taught the course's sections to come up with a book or two of our own as something for the students to read and discuss.

I still remember some of those sections, the way a story by Flannery O'Connor, say, or William Carlos Williams, caught the attention of the young readers, prompted in them a kind of discussion all its own: less attention, by far, to generalizations with respect to the psychology of "human development" or "psychohistory," and much time given to a contemplation of life's ironies, complexities, ambiguities, inconsistencies, paradoxes--the terrain of fiction, with its modest interest in rendering the concrete as faithfully and suggestively as possible. I still remember the braking influence of those stories on our conceptual energies, our desire to tuck into this or that generalization all we could grab in our hands. "The task of the novelist," Miss O'Connor had told us, "is to deepen mystery," and thereupon she added, pointedly: "But mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." An embarrassment, for sure, to some of us eager, ambitious social and psychological theorists: as in "The Artificial Nigger," whose character, Mr. Head, is quite readily able to betray his own grandson for the pettiest of reasons (so much for all of our heady, self-important lives); and as in "The Lame Shall Enter First," which offers a psychologist of sorts who can't see how hurt and vulnerable his own son is, even as he seeks to work with a youth who has no use for him. In such stories the old adage that "pride goeth before the fall" gets worked into a narrative that turned out to be disturbing, indeed, to those late-twentieth-century secular students, many of whom had never laid eyes on the Bible, even as they knew a lot about psychology and sociology not only through courses taken, but as one student told me, a memorable moment: "My folks brought us up on psychoanalysis and politics--that's what they believe in: you should have your head shrunk and you should try to change the world! "I was obviously not one to disagree--and yet: after the hundreds of analytic hours, and the various legislative victories (or the struggles on the streets that preceded and enabled them) there remains our rock-bottom humanity, with all the warts and larger that make us, always, less than perfect in the way we present ourselves to others.

By the early 1970s Erik H. Erikson had retired, and my wife and three sons and I were living in New Mexico, where I was talking with Spanish speaking children and with children who lived on the Pueblo reservations north of Albuquerque. In 1975 we returned to New England, and it was then that I was offered a job at Harvard by the President, Derek Bok--to teach, as he put it in a letter to me, "what you want, where [in the university] you want." I knew I did not want to teach psychoanalytic psychiatry, no matter my respect for what it can offer particular individuals (in the right physician's hands, one wants to add, immediately). I knew, actually, that I wanted to use fiction and poetry in my work with medical students and young doctors learning to be pediatricians or child psychiatrists; and I knew, too, that I wanted to teach undergraduates. Soon enough, then, I was offering a college lecture course, a freshman seminar, a "medicine and literature" course, and "supervisory seminars," as they are called, to psychiatric and pediatric residents. Across the board, I called upon William Carlos Williams: I had written my college thesis on the first two books of Paterson, had come to know him, and respect him, and seek his advice--and yes, follow his example by choosing a career in medicine. I called upon Chekhov and Tolstoy, old loves, and Tillie Olsen, whose stories meant a lot to me, and Flannery O'Connor, who had done so well as a disturber of the peace when I had taught for Professor Erikson. I called upon Walker Percy and Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston (then, in the mid-seventies, far less well known than she is today). I called upon Middlemarch and Great Expectations and Jude the Obscure--and Simone Weil and Dorothy Day and James Agee and George Orwell; and I often added a poem of Philip Levine, whose work I have long much admired, a "son," in certain respects, of Dr. Williams--a big, generous heart that has been notably responsive to the lives of "ordinary" (so-called working-class) American people.

I've tried hard not to grow old with those authors alone, those books alone. I've tried to meet others, get close to their writing, feel able to teach their stories, their poems--most recently, the work of Raymond Carver, who has been a mainstay of my teaching life, now, for over five years, to the point that I don't frankly know how I did without him back in the seventies. I had read an occasional story of Carver's on my own, but I was introduced to his full range and power by a former student of mine, Jay Woodruff, who went on to attend the Iowa Writer's Workshop, become a short story writer, and also (for four years) work with me, help teach (and run) my college course. Jay knew how much time I'd spent talking with factory workers, with men and women who barely get by, who are nurses or automobile mechanics, who work in restaurants or hotels, who are struggling hard and long to pay their bills, to hold onto what they have, no matter the odds against them. He brought to my attention one Carver story after another, and soon I was exploring every square mile of Carver country, and eager to take with me my students.

I began by connecting Carver to one of his own heroes, William Carlos Williams. I asked students in my college lecture course to read Williams's "Doctor Stories" and his novel White Mule, then read Carver's stories, such as "Cathedral," "Vitamins," "What's in Alaska," "Fat." The students really took to those stories--asked a lot of questions not only about them, but their author. We have about twenty-five sections (each with twenty members) in the course and we who teach found ourselves in our weekly discussions spending more and more time on Carver--on the way Carver gets so much going among all of us who read him. He became more than yet another author for us; he became the heart and soul of the course--an important writer, indeed, for a number of students, and their section leaders (not to mention me, who gives two lectures a week). When I read passages from the stories, in a lecture, or read from the personal essays, such as "My Father's Life," or "On Writing," or "Fires," I sometimes hear my voice crack; and I learn, afterwards, that a number of students had teared up, or had gone back to their rooms and read those passages again and again--and had wanted to talk and talk about them with their roommates and friends, or in the sections which they attended. When I visit those sections (and I do so throughout the term) Carver is more on the minds of many of these young men and women than the other writers: he touches them, gives them pause, stays with them in a powerful way.

Moreover, he prompts those youths (so many of them lucky all their lives, at least with respect to the money and social position they can take for granted, or in hopes, soon enough, of being lucky) to stop and think about others, and not only a distant "them," living in another city, but men and women and children who live only a few blocks from important university buildings-indeed, even nearer than that, as one student reminded himself in an essay he wrote, and later, me, in a discussion we held during my office hours: "The people who keep this place running--they're out of Carver's stories. I worked a summer for "buildings and grounds," and we'd be raking or sweeping, and I'd hear them talk, and I realized, after a while, that they were really on the edge, those guys. They were up to their ears in debt, and there'd always be some trouble, it seemed--something that was about to pull the rug out from under them. There I was, making a few bucks for the summer, in between my sophomore and junior year at Harvard; and there they were, fighting disaster all the time, or just |keeping even.' There was a guy who kept knocking on wood, any time he talked about his life, his family and himself, and if there wasn't any wood nearby, he'd go walk, to find it--and he kept saying |things are OK,' and |we're keeping even, so far,' and he'd knock on wood, and I could see in his eyes that he was glad, but he didn't know how long his luck would hold out, and he was always expecting the worst. I kept thinking of him when I read Carver's stories--and when I'd see him, sometimes, I felt a little closer to him. I mean, he wasn't this stranger, who seemed to be a big worrier--that's how I first saw him. He was a guy I understood a little now: he was trying to steer clear of trouble, but he sure didn't have much on living on life, and so he was running scared!

Somehow, for that student, as for others, Carver's stories enabled a leap out of one world, into another--not an immersion, but a sense of how it goes, walking in other shoes as a result of such conversations. I decided three years ago to offer a freshman seminar devoted to Carver alone, so far as reading goes. I titled the seminar "American Light," with this subtitle: "Raymond Carver's writing and Edward Hopper's paintings." I gave this description of what we'd try to do: "Members of the seminar will examine those [books and paintings] separately and together as a means of thinking about the lives of America's twentieth-century, working-class people. All of Carver's fiction and essays, and much of his poetry, will be read. The seminar will look closely at selected Hopper paintings and drawings. Members of the seminar will discuss contemporary American working-class culture, its characteristics and its values, as narrated by a master American storyteller and as glimpsed by a master American artist. The tradition of documentary observation and research will be discussed to provide a context for the lessons Carver and Hopper offer. with respect to the lives of ordinary working-class Americans--their routines and habits, their goals and aspirations, their values, the moral complexities and ambiguities of their lives."

Such flat, stilted academic language notwithstanding, the ten or so students and I have had quite a time each autumn, once a week for several hours, reading those stories, talking about them, sharing with one another what they have caused us to think about, remember, notice, ask of ourselves and others. I'm no great one for "deconstruction"--I share Carver's bold suggestion that it may be a kind of lunacy. But I love reading him carefully, closely-noticing moments, scenes, images, words I'd missed the first or second time around. I love imagining the people he has created--their looks, their surroundings. In my thoughts, I start with Carver's descriptions, then amplify, sometimes out of clear memories I have of others: people I've got to know doing my "field-work"--meaning fellow human beings I've visited in their homes, sat with, the television on, now and then my tape-recorder also on, or people I've heard talking in offices or stories or factories or hotels or bars, people who have spoken of how it goes for them in this life. (When such "fieldwork" ends and "life" begins might be described in the pompous literature of social science as a "methodological issue"!) So with the students--I encourage them to make friends with Carver's stories, read them for pleasure, for the education about the world to be had, for the wisdom they offer. I encouraged them to meet his longtime companion, Tess Gallagher, to read her poems and stories, and to meet his two friends, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff, to read their stories. I encourage them to learn to be as watchful as Carver was, and to enjoy his plain yet magically suggestive language. I encourage them to let his cast of mind inform what used to be called their "sensibility"--the shrewd and knowing clarity of vision that helps us comprehend the confusions, the mix-ups, the perplexities that present themselves to us during this time spent here called "life." I encourage them to stick fast to those stories, to take them on as companions or friends, as warnings, as reminders, as teachers. Needless to say, what I urge of them, I try hard to keep in mind for myself. I know we are all getting someplace when a student will say (it keeps happening, repeatedly, each year): "This Carver, he's really something." What follows is not an outburst of cleverness, a "text" analyzed, words and more words devoted to big-deal abstract silence, and the nods of us who have also begun to know just that, and to talk in moments as this guy who has become a presence of sorts in our lives used to talk, and maybe even, to think as he used to think.

I've gone elsewhere with Carver--to medical students at Harvard and at Dartmouth medical schools. In those places I teach something called "medical humanities"; that is, my old hero and friend Doc Williams, and Tillie Olsen and Tolstoy and Walker Percy and Carver's hero Chekhov, and Carver himself: "A Small Good Thing," obviously, and "Errand" and "Cathedral," and his last poems, such as "What the Doctor Said" and "Gravy" and "After-Glow" and "No Need," but also some others, such as "Poem for Hemingway and W.C. Williams" (I love it) and "The Mailman as Cancer Patient," and "Alcohol," and "Your Dog Dies"--as many of them as I can work into the time I have. I get excited, really turned on, trying to figure out how to introduce a particular poem, how to bring it to those soon-to-be doctors in such a way that the language, the sights and sounds, will stick fast and long to minds filled to the brim with the fearful or foreboding factuality of those big fat medical textbooks.

So many of Carver's stories tell of the trouble people have in understanding one another: remarks that are heard the wrong way; silences that won't yield to a reasonably pleasant exchange; outright battles that are, really, in-their sum, the last straw, the final goodbye for people supposedly so close by virtue of blood, or the past intimacy of sex, or marriage. Again and again, misunderstandings are evoked, small and large, and we become sad, or we shudder, aware that we run our own risks along similar lines. Doctors, especially, in their work, struggle to make themselves clear--and so often, fail miserably, out of their own fear and anxiety, out of callousness, out of simple human error, out of the limitations imposed by their inevitably flawed humanity.

Still, we ought keep trying to reach out, to connect with those others who get called patients in such a way that we have a good idea what we intend to convey, and then offer our words in a manner that enables the person addressed to get our intended message. If the immediately foregoing is a bit didactic or hectoring, the reason may have to do with the precariousness of a doctor's situation, not to mention that of patients: they are desperately seeking clues, not to mention reassurance, hope, and they will, often enough, take what they've heard and tailor it to their urgent needs, their craving, even as some of us physicians are tempted to appease at all costs those we fear to disappoint, or too, tempted to hide from them with inscrutable phrases, or the inscrutability of our manner, our mien. Our arrogance can measure fear or the apprehension of a coming defeat, even as a patient's pleadings, become importunate demands, can measure a hunch that soon it may well be over for good--all of which Carver knew to work into some of his poems and stories: a wonderfully thought-provoking gift to a profession he, alas, like Chekhov, came to know too well, as a patient, far too early in life. Speaking of Chekhov, my medical students find "Errand" especially stirring--and some wonder whether a glass of champagne might be exactly what certain patients and their close kin need to share with their physicians at a certain point in time--even as those students, too, wonder how they, as future doctors, might somehow become the kind of baker who sat with the heart-broken father and mother in "A Small Good Thing," fed them, helped drain their anger, their bitterness, their rage: a communion, a taking of "bread and wine."

I've brought Carver to other students, to a class I gave, one spring, at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies--those stories, again, as a way of seeing the world, taking note of dozens and dozens of social variations: the subtleties of class and region that inform our lives, given shape by someone with a keen ear for language, a wide-eyed responsiveness to a broad segment of America's people. I've brought Carver, also, to the psychiatric and pediatric residents I get to teach--in separate seminars, each calling upon the reading of stories as a means of moral and personal reflection. Sometimes, as I listen to them talking about their patients, I ask them to read one of Carver's stories, such as "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," or "Elephant," or "Neighbors," or "Why Don't You Dance"--and we have quite a time of it. These young psychiatrists or pediatricians, occasionally, are all too condescending, at first: how "intuitive" the writer is, I hear them say to one another, to me--as if he has almost approached their level of psychological or medical savvy. After a while, though, such gratuitous compliments (a masquerade for a put-down) yield to a growing respect, and in turn, a sense of awe, of enormous admiration. I have sat with these psychiatrists, these pediatricians, at moments, in a hushed silence, watched them as they shake their heads: an acknowledgement of a particular writer's extraordinary grasp of the mind's life--its capacity for aspiration, for survival, and its more than occasional moments of self-deception, meanness, despair.

Not rarely I work with graduate students, some of whom teach in my course. I ask them (I ask myself) to pick up "The Student's Wife" now and then, reflect upon all it has to say. When I read it, I remember Doc Williams giving me lectures on the distinction between "big shot learning," as he put it, and "our daily conduct." Throughout Paterson he reminds us (sometimes confessionally) that one can be learned, indeed, gifted with the muse, a great success, and not necessarily a kind and thoughtful person. That story of Carver's, for me, belongs with Chekhov's "Anyuta," with his "Two Tragedies," with Williams's moments of Augustinian self-scrutiny in Patersor, with Tolstoy's Confession, with Walker Percy's observations in Lost in the Cosmos, as well as The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman--to read Rilke, yet to be unable to meet the challenge a marriage presents, is to be one more bright failure, and so it can go for any of us.

Teaching Raymond Carver, for me, has meant calling upon a great storyteller in order to bestir both my students and myself: that we look inward and outward, both; that we try to extend the range of our social vision, but also, our moral empathy; that we try to understand how pitiable any of us can be, how isolated and lonely (as in many of Hopper's paintings--such a strange congruence, their vision and Carver's), but that we also remember those daily, unheralded breakthroughs which, finally, give us human beings what dignity we can achieve, as in those closing moments of "Cathedral," moments worth textbooks of psychology and philosophy. Teaching Raymond Carver has meant, I now realize, learning about how to teach, and yes, how to be: we all, so often, as in "Cathedral," are the blind leading the blind, yet we can and do enable sight, even elicit the visionary in one another--our only hope, one another. Teaching Raymond Carver has meant glimpsing lots of flaws in myself; yet feeling stronger for partaking of the wonderful feast this exceptionally talented twentieth-century writer has left us: a large and great thing, his books, their astonishing, compelling wisdom as it slowly, modestly unfolds, nourishes and sustains and inspires us fragile, thirsty, hungry, ever so needy readers.
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Author:Coles, Robert
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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