Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Word, the Look, the Way: Another Side of Charles Bukowski

by John Carroll

It's difficult to gauge how long the reputation of a writer like Charles Bukowski will endure. However, it's more than likely that as long as it does, he will be known as the raw, cynical, pockmarked poet who favours the disenfranchised, the down-and-out, the loser and the misfit. He is pictured as the gruff wincing mug, beer bottle clasped in his meaty fist, eyes fixed on the seamy underbelly of Americana, the world that he lived in and knew so well until fame bought him some relief. This is a reputation that he earned-to some extent, a persona that he put on, but in many ways a true part of his nature. He was a man uncomfortable with life, especially the way others lived it.

The publication that first brought him some notice was Post Office (1970), a novel about his experiences in a job he worked at for eleven years. Readers were attracted by the stark prose and the attention to unsightly details of a world where the souls of men dried up and died. He was seen as perhaps a latter day B. Traven, but his narrative voice no longer expressed the hope of an uncovered treasure. In Bukowski's world there was little hope left, except the prospect of simply enduring and keeping one's soul, no matter how many others fell by the wayside. His attraction was then like the grotesquery of the side show. And if the public was drawn to him, it was only to be insulted, and have its nose rubbed a little in the dirt; afterward, it could retreat to safe lodgings and a Mr. Clean existence.

I became enamoured with Bukowski's demotic style when I was in my twenties and happened to purchase a copy of his Drowning in Fire, Burning in Flame. What appealed to me was the directness of tone, and the vision of American life that seemed like a New World version of Hieronymus Bosch, or maybe a verbal version of Diane Arbus photos. I had other heroes, ones who wrote more recognizably in the tradition of Western poetry, and who were more prone to employ chiasmus, synecdoche, zeugma and so on. (My worship of Dylan Thomas, for example, took me all the way to Wales where, buoyed by Guinness, a friend and I broke into his boathouse, lit candles and sat at his writing desk hoping to feed our inspiration on his spirit.) But I, like many others, was attracted to Bukowski's apparent simplicity of style, his broad palette when it came to subject matter, his uncensored diction, and his unfiltered visions of the materialist dream deferred.

I know that not everyone has felt this complimentary about his work, and many of us who loved him when we were younger have suffered over the years an entropy of regard, as we have become comfortable, cynical, or resigned. His rawness has become crudity. His simplicity, simplistic. His subjects, mundane. His narratives, flat. His philosophy, rancid. And his commitment to it, flaccid. In short, to some, the chronographer of the underclass has become the pornographer with no class. Why bother with a man who obviously had so much trouble with life, who seemed to go out of his way to insult or impress others with his drunkenness and bravado? Why look to a poet who treats the world, and his readers, with such disdain?

Recently, I discovered several posthumous collections of Bukowski's poems, all published fairly recently-Open All Night (Black Sparrow Press); Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way; The Night Torn with Mad Footsteps; The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain; and What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (HarperCollins). I hadn't even thought about Bukowski for decades, but I found myself reading him with the same exhilaration I had experienced years ago. This time around, however, I found something that I had not noticed before: Bukowski is often a lyric poet of exquisite sensibility. The tactics he uses in his writing now seem subtler and more thought-through than I originally gave him credit for. I'd like to suggest to others who have lost their taste for him, or to those who never found him to their liking, that he is a major poet worth reading,

To begin with, the standard image of Bukowski as the hard cynic and drunken nihilist is belied by certain pieces. The poem "unblinking grief", a requiem for a dead lover, is an example:

the last cigarettes are smoked, the loaves are sliced,
and lest this be taken for wry sorrow,
drown the spider in wine.

you are much more than simply dead:
I am a dish for your ashes,
I am a fist for your vanished air.

the most terrible thing about life
is finding it gone.

Bukowski's childhood, at least the part of it that he reveals in his poems, was anything but carefree. His relationship with his father was founded in fear and violence. I'm inspired to speculate, in my amateur psychiatrist way, that all the cynicism, all the nihilism, all the unflinching visions of a heartless and godless world spring from the depths of a damaged child. And there are some pretty harsh judgments of his father in many of his poems, which do reveal the darker side of the poet's nature. But "unblinking grief" exposes another side, one of vitality and passion. It is a concise and eloquent affirmation of life in the face of life's denial.

Bukowski's power as a writer is most often at its height when he memorializes or anticipates a loss, as in "1966 Volkswagen minivan." The poet is waiting for his lover to return home, and to soothe his anxiety, he is listening to Bach. Still, his imagination won't allow him any peace. He prays, "please let me die/first because/I am older/much older." Finally, he addresses the spirit of Bach: "I want you to/tell me that everything is all/right/and that her red and gold hair will be/spread/upon my pillow again." In contrast to his many poems about drunken arguments with his many women, he ends this one with an agonized attempt to hold back the inevitable cruelties of the human condition; his final image suggests peace, comfort, and the magic of love.

A cursory reading of Bukowski might reveal only his dark side; he has little religion and it's not often that he can look past the palpable images of despair and disappointment that surround him. At times, in his blackest moments, he arrives at the conclusion that has haunted the last hundred years or so of Western culture: life and its attendant suffering have no inherent meaning. But if the poet can honestly say he finds no purpose in suffering-"even your suffering is a mirage"-or if he sees most of us as broken spirits trapped in automaton bodies-"he was like a /slab of/meat/in a/butcher shop"-he also finds dignity in the human ability to suffer and endure. Unlike the characters populating Becket's universe, Bukowski's are often ennobled by their stoical endurance, as is the jockey in "a happening" whose wife has committed suicide and who now rides like "a tiger in the/sun":

he's each one of us
fiercely ignoring

I hear an echo of Aeschylus in these lines.

In other words, it is entirely wrong to assume that his machismo, pose or not, crowds out compassion. By all accounts, Bukowski could be difficult; he was not one to observe social niceties. He tended to be reclusive, and his early years of drink, drugs, and violence are well-documented although there is some question about how much of himself Bukowski hid behind a carefully calculated persona (a.k.a. Henry Chinaski). Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of Bukowski's sentimental side, as much as he might try to veil it, as well as a genuine strain of empathy for others.

Take for example his poem "her only son." This piece offers an exquisite paradigm of the poet's ability to feel his way inside the life of another. Returning from the funeral of his lover, the poet listens as her son tells him how much money he is making at his current job, ignoring the fact of his mother's "neglected and lonely / adult life." The poet takes this as a sign that the son has not in fact "endured" as he might believe. In truth, he has become one of those walking dead, a category to which Bukowski assigns most of us. And in a poignant final stanza, the sorrow expands to include his dead lover:

and to think
she used to
talk about
him lovingly
almost / every night
before we

Some critics have complained about how in a Bukowski poem we often get what appear to be unshaped narratives that come to no definite conclusion. I have often felt the same way. Coupled with bland diction and no metaphorical or adjectival embellishment, these "faults" led me to the conclusion that Bukowski was lazy in his technique and that he sometimes lacked imaginative engagement with his subject. But after spending more time familiarizing myself with the poet's huge opus, I've come around. Now, on the contrary, I would argue that most of his narrative poems are carefully constructed, with the clear intent "to make as real as possible / the word on the page." There is a conscious aversion to psychology and to movement of the poem toward explanation, as well as a clear preference for objects rather than subjects, and event rather than commentary. As Russell Harrison puts it: "In Bukowski, the refusal to psychologize is closely connected to the preference for metonymy, for things, rather than explanation" (Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski).

Also, if anyone doubts how effective this kind of narrative poem can be, I suggest teaching his poems, as I have done, to a class of students not enamoured by poetry. They are taken by the clarity of his images and by the utter lack of pretension, yet they have no difficulty finding more complex implications behind the simple statements And, equally important: they respond well to his wry humour which is a frequent presence in his work.

One other point on this topic needs mentioning. The unresolved endings of many of his poems result from a purposeful evasion of the typical resonant ending. Instead he leaves the reader with something like, "She liked sweets and she was / from Pennsylvania," or "she went to the bathroom / while I kicked back and / popped a bottle of Hvemeyer / Bernkastel Riesling." In part, these endings also suggest that the poet never took himself too seriously-as if once the poem was finished, his connection with it was no longer important to him. This attitude has much to do with his poetics.

If there is any doubt about Bukowski's sincerity, reference to a poem like "notes on some poetry" can offer reassurance. At the core of his poetics is the conviction that faking emotion can be left to the academics or the dilettantes; for an artist, untruthfulness is unforgivable. All his life, Bukowski fought against becoming too comfortable, even after he had become famous and could finally afford to live in something more than a dingy one room apartment. True artists never

forget what we are really about
and the more we forget this
the less we are able to write a
poem that
stands and screams and laughs on
the page.

Bukowski stated jokingly that he believed in "keeping the / bowels loose"; but he is at his most serious when discussing the essence of his ars poetica. Truth first, and the most direct route to that is through simplicity.

the word should be like butter or avocados or
steak or hot biscuits, or onion rings or
whatever is really needed. it should be almost
as if you could pick up the words and
eat them

In the end, however, true poems come into being like forces of nature, unasked for and unstoppable. In his advice to writers ("so you want to be a writer?"), Bukowski puts it this way:

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder, don't do it

Bukowski did it and he often did it well. Many of his poems exist like rockets on the page, ready to tear at our emotions, or lunge at our preconceptions of a sterile world, with the passion and ferocity of a truth made known.

John Carroll lives in Abbotsford, BC. He has worked as an actor, director, writer, and educator. He is working on a series of vignettes called Falling.