A Summary and Analysis of Raymond Carver’s ‘Happiness’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Happiness’ is a poem by the American writer Raymond Carver (1938-88). Carver is probably best-known for his short stories, especially the anthology favourite ‘What We Talk about When We Talk about Love’, but he was also a gifted poet, and his poetry helps us to clarify our understanding of his work as a whole.

In ‘Happiness’, a speaker drinks coffee by the window one early morning and observes two boys delivering newspapers. They appear happy to him, and this prompts him to think about the nature of happiness. Before we offer an analysis of the poem, here’s a brief summary of its content.

‘Happiness’: summary

The whole poem comprises one stanza. The speaker of the poem – who may or may not be the same person as Raymond Carver the writer – tells us that it is still so early in the morning that it’s almost still dark outdoors. He is by the window, with a coffee, and his mind is full of the typical thoughts (if they can be described in such grandiose terms) that occupy his brain first thing in the morning.

Among other things, he sees a boy walking up the road with his friend to deliver the newspaper, and observes how happy the two boys appear to be, so happy they are content to walk together in silence, not needing to speak. The speaker believes that the two boys would take each other’s arm, if society would permit such an act.

It’s early in the morning, the speaker remarks, and these two boys are doing something together, taking their time. The sky is beginning to get lighter again as night recedes, although the moon is lingering palely above the water. The world seems to be so beautiful that, for a minute at least, all grand topics of thought, such as death, ambition, and love, are far from the speaker’s mind.

This is because he is happy, he realises. Happiness takes us by surprise and no words can really do justice to that feeling.

‘Happiness’: analysis

The above summary constitutes an attempt at paraphrasing the meaning of Raymond Carver’s poem. But a paraphrase of a poem is not the same as the specific words the poet uses in a poem, and much of the impact of ‘Happiness’ is derived from the rather colloquial, even offhand, manner in which Carver describes his early morning thoughts and observations (or at any rate, the thoughts and observations of his poem’s speaker).

And the language Carver uses is itself aware of the limitations of language. Happiness, the poem suggests, is something that happens outside of or away from language: the two boys walk silently as they deliver the newspapers because they are too happy for words. Similarly, the speaker feels this way and simply watching the two of them makes him happy. This makes sense when we reflect that happiness, no matter how elusive it may be, can be infectious: seeing someone else smiling and laughing can often help to lift our own mood.

And yet the poem’s speaker has nevertheless tried to put this happiness into words, the words that constitute the poem which is itself called, in what feels almost like an existential joke, ‘Happiness’. Happiness cannot be adequately or accurately described in words, so here are some words to a poem about happiness, called ‘Happiness’.

In other words, we might remark that the poem acknowledges through its spare, informal style and its rather taut syntax the very limits of language in helping us to convey what ‘happiness’ is. All the poem’s speaker can do is describe the scene, draw some questionable inferences from what he sees (how can he be so sure that the two boys would walk arm in arm, if they could?), and conclude with an acknowledgment that happiness reaches beyond any attempt to articulate it. Nevertheless, he can use language to reinforce the subtle link between happiness and the two boys: the boys ‘come on, slowly’, he tells us, while happiness itself ‘comes on / unexpectedly.’

Psychoanalysts and literary theorists may well agree. Desire, as Jacques Lacan and others argued, represents a lack of something: we want what we cannot have (as the word ‘want’ itself neatly conveys via its two distinct but related meanings: namely, to desire something but also to lack it, as in the phrase ‘found wanting’). And language is an attempt to articulate a lack: we use language to signal to others that we want or need something, ever since, as babies, we cry to signal to our parents that we’re hungry.

When we are truly happy, then, we require no language. We only need to speak when we find ourselves within those long periods between brief moments of joy. Carver uses the naturalistic detail of the arrival of the day to symbolise, unobtrusively, the dawning of hope and the sudden onset of happiness. Light replaces darkness in both a literal and emotional sense. Yet that moon, which continues to hang over the water, seems to symbolise the ever-present threat of the departure of happiness, a reminder of the transient nature of moments of true joy.

‘Happiness’ is written in free verse: it lacks a rhyme scheme or a regular metre or rhythm, in keeping with the colloquial language Raymond Carver uses throughout. The line lengths are also irregular. This helps to reinforce the almost offhand nature of the speaker’s remarks, which, he suggests, are little more than ‘early morning talk’ and are barely even worthy of the name of ‘thoughts’.

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