The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

NaPoReMo #11: a reckoning

I have a little solar flower on my windowsill, which cheerily waves its arms until dusk and then slowly goes to sleep. I once gave a similar flower to my friend Robbie, who recently showed me a photo of it bobbing away on her late husband’s grave. I loved that image; the irrepressible little trinket, keeping its good cheer in the last place you’d expect to see it, standing for undaunted happiness. It reminded me of this poem:


Late Fragment
Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.


Is it a poem? Yes. It has enough structure to justify the title, even in six lines. Two questions, two answers. Three ‘dids’ emphasising that the life in question is in the past tense. Repetition, for emphasis, of the phrase ‘to call myself/ to feel myself’ and of that all-important word ‘beloved.’ It leaves gaps in the narrative so that the reader can imagine a scenario that fits their own life – first by dropping right in with ‘And’, suggesting an interrupted conversation, and then with that immensely suggestive ‘even so’. Carver could have written [insert regrets and poor life choices here] because ‘even so’ suggests all of our frustrations and thwarted needs. In short (and gosh, it is short) though it is definitely free verse, Late Fragment is more than just a broken paragraph.

The line breaks are a bit odd though, aren’t they? The middle three are straightforward: the line ends where the sentence ends. The full stop or question mark gives a full breath, making this is a slow, even halting little piece. But the first and last line breaks are a bit odd. A line break is more of a blink than a breath. It’s not necessarily a place to stop, and it certainly isn’t an instruction to deliver the last word of the line in the sonorous tone beloved of those who take their own readings a little too seriously. It’s a suggestion that the word on either side might be particularly worthy of attention. On those terms I see the logic of the last line break, ‘to feel myself/ beloved…’ It gives extra emphasis to the second ‘beloved’. It’s a reiteration; Yes, on consideration, to be beloved is what I wanted from my life. Worldly achievements are all very well, it says, but what matters is to live life well enough and kindly enough that people will love you. Hear hear.

The first line break, however – ‘did you get what/ you wanted…’ is curious. I don’t think it works. It doesn’t create the little cliffhanger that a line break sometimes gives – if that was the aim, it would have worked bettter to break after ‘get’. It doesn’t emphasise the ‘wanted’, which might have been the case if the line break came after ‘you’. It doesn’t even serve the visual shape of the poem, by making the lines look right on the page or keeping them roughly the same length.  I think a stanza break after ‘I did’ might have made it feel a bit less ragged too, cleaving it into two short stanzas and adding to the sense of rumination.

Get me, critiquing Raymond Carver. Well, he was a great writer, but he was only human. Carver was allegedly a little slapdash as an editor of his own work. My attitude in reading poems is that we should be always respectful, but never reverential. We can’t assume that just because a poem got published, it’s perfect and we should look at it as an exemplar of all things poetic. Famous poets get things wrong too. If we approach them with our knee permanently bent, we won’t learn all that we could. This poem is one of my favourites, and I carry a physical copy with me all the time, but it’s imperfect. I read it at my father’s funeral: he was imperfect too, no doubt. He was beloved on the earth, even so.


2 comments on “NaPoReMo #11: a reckoning

  1. Jonathan Pagden
    April 11, 2017

    My first judgement of any written piece is always how it sounds when read aloud. (Logical, since reading things out loud is how I spend most of my working hours.) Speaking this I find myself almost pausing for thought at the line break, as if wondering how to word what’s in my mind. This bears out the thought of it suggesting an interrupted conversation.

  2. stevedsmart
    April 12, 2017

    I’m really enjoying this NaPoReMo series of posts. Thank you for writing them!

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on April 11, 2017 by in NaPoWriMo: poems to read, Readings and writings and tagged , .
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