Happiness by Raymond Carver

Happiness by Raymond Carver - student project

For my assignment, I decided to design a book cover for Happiness by Raymond Carver

Happiness by Raymond Carver - image 1 - student project

(My printer wasn't working, so I wrote out the poem.)

At first, the poem seems very simple--the speaker describes looking out a window, very early in the morning. He spots a pair of newspaper delivery boys and comments on how happy the boys seem to be. He then starts to reflect on the beauty of happiness. This is my understanding of surface meaning of the poem. 

After reading the poem a couple more times, I began to unpack many more layers of complexity.

First of all, the core message of the poem seems to revolve around the idea of transience, particularly the transience of happiness and the fact that it can appear "unexpectedly" and disappear the same way. The speaker, recognizing this transience, seems to wish to slow down or suspend time and hang on to the beautiful moment he is witnessing. 

The speaker uses several images and metaphors to expound on this idea, but I want to focus on three in particular:

First, there are the boys. They are newspaper delivery boys, so we can assume that they are fairly young, but old enough to be taking on a job like that. The speaker in the poem notes that they boys seem so easily happy in one another's company that he thinks "if they could, they would take/each other's arm."

I wondered about his inclusion of the phrase "if they could." Why couldn't they? Would it be too awkward? Not a manly/masculine thing to do? I get the sense that these are boys who are slowly leaving the innocence of youth behind. 

Second, there is the approaching dawn. The speaker describes it several times. In the first line, we are told that "So early it's still almost dark out." Halfway through the poem, we are reminded that "It's early in the morning," then a few lines later: "The sky is taking on light,/though the moon still hangs palely over the water."

There is a significance in the way the speaker describes the approach of dawn. His syntax, the descriptors he uses, and the images he points out all give off a sense that the speaker wishes time would slow down. He draws out the moment as much as he can by emphazing the earliness of the hour over and over again. Even the moon seems reluctant to leave and let the new day begin.

Third, is the passage of time. References and allusions to the passage of time appear all over this poem. The poem itself is relatively long and slow-paced considering the short span of time it is actually describing. For example, the speaker devotes five entire lines solely to the description of the boys' arrival. I also feel that the overall discussion of the boys is meant to draw our attention to the fact that they will age and someday leave youth (and the ease with which the young can attain happiness) behind. Then, there is the slow encroachment of dawn and the fading of the moon, followed by the speaker expressing his thought that happiness is a beautiful, spontaneous, but ultimately transient, thing.

Overall, there is a parallel progression of things:

  • The passage of time -----> the transience or impermanence of things
  • the boys, young but aging -----> leaving youth behind 
  • pre-dawn, moon -----> dawn, light/sun
  • happiness as a spontaneous feeling -----> fades/disappears eventually

And out of all of this, recognizing the beauty of the moment, the speaker is struck with the desire to preserve it in time--to draw out the moment of happiness that the two boys are sharing for as long as he can. 

Happiness by Raymond Carver - image 2 - student project

I came up with 3 pages of ideas. I disliked my first page of ideas--most contained visual representations of the poem that were too literal. 

Reading about the ideas of transience in the poem reminded me of a Japanese phrase: mono no aware. This is a "term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō?), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life." (Wikipedia)

I felt that this concept perfectly embodied what the speaker of the poem seemed to be experiencing. Although the poem is entitled "Happiness", the speaker's desire to draw out the moment and his recognition that it cannot last forever reflects the gentle sadness/wistfulness present in mono no aware. In Japanese culture, a common symbol or motif associated with mono no aware is the cherry blossom, due to its extreme beauty but short lifespan.

Because the poem is set in America and because I am designing a cover for the American market, it wouldn't make sense to use a cherry blossom as a symbol. So, I looked back to the poem for images or objects that could reflect this concept. What stuck out to me in particular was the image of the moon, still hanging "palely over water." In my head, this line conjured up the image of a pale moon fading out in the light of an encroaching dawn. I thought this was an interesting image to work with, because it reflected both the overall idea of transience, but also the passage of time/arrival of dawn, both of which were key metaphors, as I discussed above. 

Happiness by Raymond Carver - image 3 - student project

Once I came up with that idea, I began creating the actual cover. I experimented with text placement, font styles, colors and brightness, etc, until I came up with something I liked.

Here's the finished cover. The font used is Quicksand, which I chose for its clean lines and gentle curves. 

Happiness by Raymond Carver - image 4 - student project

Happiness by Raymond Carver - image 5 - student project

Namie A

graphic designer | illustrator | writer