It’s either this or bobcat hunting
with my friend Morris.
Trying to write a poem at six this
morning, or else running
behind the hounds with
a rifle in my hands.
Heart jumping in its cage.
I’m 45 years old. No occupation.
Imagine the luxuriousness of this life.
Try and imagine.
May go with him if he goes
tomorrow. But may not.
Raymond Carver, “The Grant”, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water(1985), in All of Us – The Collected Poems. Londres: The Harvill Press, 2003.
This poem should not have been forgotten because it is about the mystery of choosing to do one thing instead of another.
The beginning of the poem seems to describe a privileged state: either I stay here writing poems or I can go and hunt bobcats with a friend. Below, the poet reveals his condition: he is 45 years old and has no occupation, meaning no mandatory daily job. This peculiar situation comes with the grant that names the poem, probably the Strauss Living Award, which Carver won on January 10th1983, granting him $35,000 a year for five years, with a chance of renewal.
The grant is particularly important in Carver’s case. When he finished high school, Carver worked at a sawmill with his father. After marriage, he was a delivery man, a night shift janitor in a hospital, a library assistant, and in between he took the occasional odd job. He got into debt to pay for creative writing courses, and taught classes at a couple of universities. Throughout the years, he kept writing; he did it in the car, at night, after he already had both his kids.
Now he does not have to worry about how to provide for himself or for those who depend on him. The lines “Imagine the luxuriousness of this life. / Try and imagine” are directed to the reader as much as they are directed to Carver himself, expressing a state of subjective awe for the situation he sees himself in: never in my life did I think this possible. Similarly, the words that open the poem, “It’s either this or”, do not merely describe a state of good fortune; they may also describe a state of anxiety: now there are only two things for me to do: either stay here and try to write a poem, or go and hunt bobcats with Morris.
Both practices seem to induce the same emotion: the line “Heart jumping in its cage” is in immediate connection both to the act of hunting a bobcat and to the act of staying home trying to write a poem. Nevertheless, and once again, the line might be describing something else. The pleasure and the satisfaction of chasing a bobcat and the luxury of staying put and write a poem instead of going to work are not the sole propellers of the heart. There is an anxiety underlying both actions: will I be able to hunt a bobcat? Will I be able to write a poem? The tension becomes physically threatening when a gun is referred — “running / behind the hounds with / a rifle in my hands” —, and it can be compared to Wordsworth’s desperate utterance in “My Heart Leaps Up”: if when I grow old my heart does not leap up at the sight of a rainbow in the sky, then let me die.
Carver came into possession of this grant in the last years of his life (he died at 50), when he was living with writer Tess Gallagher at Port Angeles. At the time, he committed himself to write a poem each day. He had, he said, wasted too much time, and felt guilty when watching TV or even when reading (Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, p. 401). The sense of responsibility certainly weighed all those years Carver kept writing when he barely had the time for it, and we can see the power of that weight in the closing “But may not”. This utterance, structured by three negative terms, conjoins the tension that pervades the whole poem: alongside the weight of responsibility comes also the jumping of the heart at having been able to write one more poem. Although the next day brings no assurance that the same will happen, Carver suspects, and us with him, that the dawn that follows will find Morris hunting alone.
Helena Carneiro completed her Master at the Program in Literary Theory (University of Lisbon). She works as a redactor and as an editorial assistant at Imprensa da Universidade de Lisboa. People in her life have explained poetry to her. And she does enjoy Phillip Larkin, who, in his tombstone, has described himself as a “writer”.