Up until recently all I knew about Bukowski was the gist of his reputation. What little I had gleaned had been quite enough to put me off him. I assumed he was one of the Beats but at best you could call him an honorary Beat; he never hung with the likes of Ginsberg or Kerouac. Just over a year ago John Baker reproduced one of his poems on his blog. Purely because it was John I actually read the thing and found, to my surprise, that it wasn’t half bad. The poem was called ‘thoughts on being 71’ and here’s a link to it. I still didn’t rush away to find anything else by him and life moved on. Then, just before Xmas, the nice people at Canongate sent me a couple of books to review. The first was Howard Sounes’ biography, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life and you can read my review of that here, the second is the book I’m going to talk about just now, The Pleasure of the Damned: Poems, 1951 – 1993.
How can I describe Bukowski’s poetry? Let’s start off with this quote from Sounes’ book:
The best of Bukowski’s mature poetry was written in [a] minimalistic style, although it’s not to everyone’s taste. ‘Bukowski’s poetry was essentially stories, just like prose,’ says Lawrence Ferlinghetti. ‘It just happened some days that he didn’t get the carriage of the typewriter to the end of the line. Depends how badly hungover he was when he started to type.’
He has a point up to a point. I suspect he’s being not a little flippant here too. The thing I’ve learned about Bukowski is that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. He may well have looked like a hobo but that didn’t make him one and even if he was one then who says that unwashed equates with unread? I’m reminded of one of the most famous tramps in theatre:
You should have been a poet.
I was. (Gesture towards his rags.) Isn't that obvious?
but to me, the twenties centred mostly on Hemingway
coming out of the war and beginning to type
it was all so simple, all so deliciously clear
from ‘the last generation’
I also carried the Cantos
in and out
and Ezra helped me
strengthen my arms if not
from ‘the burning of the dream’ (about the burning of the L. A. Public Library)
His approach to writing – both poetry and prose – was similarly straightforward– ‘one simple line after another’ – and this ensures that his writing has immediacy about it. You don’t need to think about, it hits you straight in the face. That doesn’t mean you can’t think about it because let’s face it not every slap in the face means the same thing. His attitude is summed up perfectly in this simple poem:
It’s a profound statement, which is why in the 500+ pages of The Pleasure of the Damned you’ll find no sonnets, no sestinas, no haiku. This doesn’t mean that his poems have no shape – the poem above clearly has a shape – but that shape doesn’t have a name; it’s the shape that is natural to that poem.
He also maintained that he wasn’t big on metaphors but the English language is so figurative that they’re impossible to pass up and I can’t see that he went out of way to avoid them:
my goldfish stares with watery eyes
into the hemisphere of my sorrow
from ‘Goldfish’ (He was not big on capital letters but there are a few here and there)
One of the greatest exponents of Bukowski’s writing was the publisher John Martin, “a Christian Scientist who drinks nothing stronger than iced tea.” When he first met Bukowski he wasn’t a publisher, he’d simply read some of his stuff and was blown away by it, blown away enough to seek him out. The first thing Bukowski did when they met, of course, was offer him a beer:
Martin declined, reminding Bukowski that he didn’t drink. ‘That kind of put me off him right there: this guy’s inhuman, he doesn’t drink beer!’ said Bukowski, recalling the meeting.
For his part, Martin was taken aback by Bukowski’s scruffy appearance and the filthy conditions he was living in.
When he asked to see some of his writing Bukowski took him to a closet wherein there was a stack of paper that came up to Martin’s waist:
“What’s this?” asked Martin.
“Writing,” replied Bukowski.
“How long did it take you to write this?”
“Oh, I don’t know, three or four months.”
If I piled up my entire life’s writing I’d be lucky if it came up to my knees! Anyway, Martin took an extraordinary leap of faith with Bukowski once he had become his publisher. To enable him to quit work and write fulltime they worked out how much Bukowski needed to live – it came to $100 a month – and Martin agreed to pay him that . . . for life. It was a gentleman’s agreement and they stuck to it till Bukowski’s death although the sum increased by steps as his sales did.
Now, none of this is in the book of poetry, there’s not even an introduction by Martin, which it could’ve used, but I think what he did goes some way to prove that there must have been something extraordinary about what Bukowski had to say and that he seemed to have so much to say. What could he possibly have to say that he needed to write so much? The simple fact is that there is nothing that he didn’t consider appropriate subject matter for poetry and, as the best comedians demonstrate daily, there’s nothing that can’t be made interesting if you’re interested in it.
For Bukowski poetry was “the shortest, sweetest, bangingest way” to say what he wanted to say. His earliest poems set a theme however, and he would return to the subjects of “rooming house life, bar life and unfaithful women” again and again. Soon gambling was added to the list. Many are dark and introspective like this one which first appeared in the chapbook Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, in 1960:
in a cupboard sits my bottle
like a dwarf waiting to scratch out my prayers.
I drink and cough like some idiot at a symphony,
sunlight and maddened birds are everywhere,
the phone rings gambolling its sounds
against the odds of the crooked sea;
I drink deeply and evenly now,
I drink to paradise
and the lie of love
but few are without humour. As he grew older, and women began to be a part of his life, love poems appear, sex poems, domestic poems, breakup poems and finally poems about fatherhood:
my little girl is
on the carpet –
He documented everything but he also had a way of looking at things, even death, for example, here’s the opening to ‘eulogy to a hell of a dame’:
some dogs who sleep at night
must dream of bones
and I remember your bones
in that dark green dress
and those high-heeled bright
The fact is he wasn’t really that crazy about dogs; he was a cat person, like me:
there is a
adjusting to the
space of itself
with a delightful
from ‘in other words’
I was particularly touched by a poem about the death of one of his cats, ‘one for the old boy’, which ends:
the lungs gave out
now he’s in the rose
and I’ve heard a
playing for him
inside of me
which I know
but some of you
would like to
At times what he has to say is absolutely heartbreaking in its honest simplicity. It’s like when you read a poem like ‘oh,yes’ – the words are so simple and the sentiment so obvious you wonder how you managed not to think that thought for yourself. This is why we need poets, to state the blinkin’ obvious:
there are worse things than
but if often takes decades
to realise this
and most often
when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
A number of the poems are character studies, like ‘the young girl who lives in Canoga Park’ who
...only fucks the ones she doesn’t want
to the others she says
you’ve got to marry me
or maybe she just fucks the ones she wants
there’s Barry in his ripped walking shorts
he’s on Thorazine
people he sees out of the window as he’s typing. Almost all his poems tell stories. In his article on Bukowski in 20th Century American Poetry Michael Basinski called these “narrative vignettes” that expose “the ridiculous in American society”. But his appeal isn’t confined to Americans.
I’m fifty just now and so these few lines from ‘one more good one’ really struck a chord with me:
to be writing poetry at the age of 50
like a schoolboy,
surely, I must be crazy
I sit between 2 lamps,
bottle on the floor
begging a 20-year-old typewriter
to say something in a way and
so they won’t confuse me
with the more comfortable
Bukowski has his fans and his detractors. In many respects he was his own worst enemy in that his lifestyle came to overshadow his work. He is imitated more than many would like to admit but I wouldn’t be too quick to think if you adopt his lifestyle you’ll automatically start churning out poems at the same rate he did. When the drinking dried up and he cleaned himself up, when he had money to burn and a stable relationship he continued to work. In an article in The Guardian, Tony O’Neill had this to say:
Of course, there are a lot of bad poets in thrall to Bukowski - after all, his great skill lay in making the writing of great poetry seem easy. Poets who affect his lifestyle without learning the craft of writing do so at their peril. And don't look to the man himself for clues on where the poems come from: he once said that writing a poem is "like taking a shit, you smell it and then flush it away ... writing is all about leaving behind as much a stink as possible". – 'Don’t Blame Bukowski for Bad Poetry', The Guardian, 5th September 2007
Bearing this in mind I found an amusing – and please tell me, tongue-in-cheek – wee article entitled How to Write Poetry Like Bukowski which I’ll summarise here:
- Boast about yourself
- Take boasting to another level. Exaggerate.
- Write about women
- Write about hardships
- Use daily experiences as motivations
Personally I would’ve thought the #1 would have been ‘Get drunk. Stay drunk’ but there you go. I have no doubt that any attempt to turn what he did into a formula would set him off on a rant. I think even the idea that he was a trend-setter would have bothered him.
Bukowski approved of large collections of his poetry and I doubt there are any collections bigger than this one. One of the reasons a large collection works is that, as Adam Kirsh put it in The New Yorker:
Bukowski’s poems are best appreciated not as individual verbal artefacts but as ongoing instalments in the tale of his true adventures, like a comic book or a movie serial. They are strongly narrative, drawing from an endless supply of anecdotes that typically involve a bar, a skid-row hotel, a horse race, a girlfriend, or any permutation thereof. Bukowski’s free verse is really a series of declarative sentences broken up into a long, narrow column, the short lines giving an impression of speed and terseness even when the language is sentimental or clichéd. The effect is as though some legendary tough guy, a cross between Philip Marlowe and Paul Bunyan, were to take the barstool next to you, buy a round, and start telling his life story. – ‘Smashed’, The New Yorker, 4th January 2010
The thing about Bukowski, as his publisher, John Martin put it, “he is not a mainstream author and he will never have a mainstream public.” The world is growing and a lot of people now constitute the not-mainstream. Millions have bought his books. However, after reading about his life I can see a real dichotomy when it comes to Bukowski. I’m tempted to think that he played a part for all his life but couldn’t hide the other side of himself. He was well-read – “Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four I must have read a whole library,” he admitted – and had a good knowledge of classical music – I’ve so far spotted Wagner, Verdi, Hugo Wolf, Donizetti, Hindemith, Chopin and Bruckner in this collection – and particularly from his letters it turns out that he revealed himself to be quite the Bohemian™ intellectual even if he did try and play down the image. Here’s a poem about Prokofiev that’s not in the collection:
first time my father overheard me listening to
this bit of music he asked me,
"what is it?"
"it's called Love For Three Oranges,"
I informed him.
"boy," he said, "that's getting it
he meant sex.
listening to it
I always imagined three oranges
you know how orange they can
so mightily orange.
maybe Prokofiev had meant
what my father
if so, I preferred it the
the most horrible thing
I could think of
was part of me being
what ejaculated out of the
end of his
I will never forgive him
his trick that I am stuck
I find no nobility in
I say kill the Father
before he makes more
I have found reading this poetry collection to be refreshing. I suspect that he might get old quick and that I won’t be looking to supplement this volume any day soon but I can always move onto his prose. I think he’s an important poet and has things to say that people who never read poetry would appreciate and get. What he’s not, as the back of this collection says that Jean Genet said he was, is “the best poet in America,” nor was Jean Paul Sartre a fan of his work as Bukowski informed his readers. As Sounes notes in his biography:
Leading world experts on the lives and works of both Genet and Sartre have no knowledge of either writer ever having said anything about Bukowski.
In the source notes to his book (which Canongate also published) he details the lengths he went to to try and find some corroboration of these claims but none could be found and it looks like Bukowski simply made them up. So, tsk, tsk, Canongate. (Their managing editor admits that one slipped through the cracks and will be changed on the next edition.)
I should first remind the reader that he may be the best known American poet in Europe today, and for two reasons: 1) His language is simplistic; and 2) The attitude in his main body of work matches the prevailing atheistic pessimism among intellectuals on the continent. It is not Bukowski's renown I question, an unreliable indicator of quality in any case, but 1) His lack of craft; 2) His lack of transcendent values; and 3) As above, that he represents the final breakdown between life and art in poetry. – ‘The Bukowski Divide: Poetic Genius or Literary Sacrilege?’, Scottish Poetry Review
The main response I would give, without wanting to get into a fight, is: Are these necessarily bad things? For Bukowski his publisher’s teetotalism made no sense to him (what did the man do if he didn’t drink?) in just the same way that a Christian’s belief in God makes no sense to an atheist. There was a time when the atheist would have been in the minority and people would have pointed fingers at him and considered him odd but nowadays I always hear a note of surprise when someone finds out about someone being a Christian. Times change. Opinions change. Change is not a bad thing, not necessarily.
In his defence Jay Dougherty identifies trademark Bukowskian qualities:
A keen ear for the musical quality of natural, everyday speech; an ability to infuse significance into desperate, dreadful moments of his own life and those of others without becoming bathetic or sentimental; a tremendous facility of listing and juxtaposing details of everyday life with abstraction either to set a scene or to vivify a theme; an artistic distance from his subjects which allows him to find humour and nuggets of wisdom in even the most dismal scenario, his own or others. – ‘The Bukowski Divide: Poetic Genius or Literary Sacrilege?’, Scottish Poetry Review
What he has for me is the same thing that I discovered forty years ago in Larkin, that poetry can be found in the most banal of things. I have no doubt that there were many ‘Mr. Bleaney’s’ kicking ‘Toads’ around Bukowski’s neighbourhood.
Probably one of the wisest (and perhaps, safest) things ever said about Bukowski was by Jim Harrison in the New York Times:
I am not inclined to make elaborate claims for Bukowski, because there is no one to compare him to, plus or minus.
and there have been many writers and artists who that could also be said of like Cummings or Brautigan; who would you compare Jackson Pollock to or Charles Ives? Imitators of all these have appeared on the scene as you might expect but you can’t criticise the artists for inspiring people no matter how poor the imitations are.
Most of the poems in this collection are a page or two pages in length with short lines and a lot of white space so it’s a surprisingly quick read but it’s not a volume I’d recommend rushing. Having read the biography beforehand did stand me in good stead but I wouldn’t say that you need to know a great deal about him up front to enjoy these.
I’ve finished the book now and I have six bookmarks left, poems that I would really like to share with you but I’ve not got room for six so I’ve picked two, a short one and a not so short one that covers material I’ve not touched on so far. It was not an easy choice.
about the PEN conference
take a writer away from his typewriter
and all you have left
which started him
the house next door makes me
both man and wife rise early and
go to work.
they arrive home in early evening.
they have a young boy and a girl.
by 9 p.m. all the lights in the house
the next morning both man and
wife rise early again and go to
they return in early evening.
By 9 p.m. all the lights are
the house next door makes me
the people are nice people, I
but I feel them drowning.
and I can’t save them.
they are surviving.
they are not
but the price is
sometimes during the day
I will look at the house
and the house will look at
and the house will
weep, yes, it does, I
the house is sad for the people living
and I am too
and we look at each other
and cars go up and down the
boats cross the harbour
and the tall palms poke
at the sky
and tonight at 9 p.m.
the lights will go out,
and not only in this
and not only in this city.
safe lives hiding,
the breathing of
bodies and little
Needless to say a huge number of poems are available online and here is as good a place as any to start looking. There are also plenty of videos showing him reading.
If you are looking for a decent collection of Bukowski’s poems then this looks like as decent a collection as any. It was collated by his editor John Martin (who I assume is still a teetotaller) but I doubt many have read as much of Bukowski’s work as he has. It doesn’t dwell too much on any one area although dog lovers may find the number of cat poems disturbing.
The Pleasure of the Damned: Poems, 1951 – 1993 is available in the UK from Canongate Books for a not-unreasonable £14.99.