Poetry: Serious. Not That Serious.

20 September 2012 on Blog, Poetry: Serious. Not That Serious.   Tags:


I've been reading Run with the Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader. It's a compilation of Bukowski's best—heavily autobiographical stories, novels, and poems—moving through his life chronologically, not by original publication dates, but by the period in Bukowski's life that each entry covers.

Bukowski is a contradiction in terms. Plainspoken”¦and musical. Sad”¦and I've found myself laughing out loud. It's what the old winehound at the end of the bar would sound like if he also had a beyond-reproach background in Keats, Neitzsche, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, the works. Bukowski is, above all, painfully self-aware. The work seems totally effortless”¦and is so well-composed, you know it's anything but. You, me, or that guy could all tell stories, write poems, about a bender or a heartbreak or a beating, but only a writer of Bukowski's caliber can use these narratives to depict a relatable power struggle: between him and family, him and home, him and women, him and alcohol, him and himself.

1. “The first thing I remember is being under something.”

This is the first line in the Reader, an excerpt from the book Ham On Rye describing Bukowski's first memories and impressions of his family. Things like “My spoon was bent so that if I wanted to eat I had to pick the spoon up with my right hand. If I picked it up with my left hand, the spoon bent away from my mouth. I wanted to pick the spoon up with my left hand.” Young Bukowski, already stubbornly insistent. Also, already heavy with the weight of a family at once violent and distant. Bukowski's grandma says re: the YB (Young Bukowski), “That boy”¦when I tried to pick him up out of the cradle to kiss him, he reached up and hit me on the nose!” Get out from under it. If you have to hurt people to do so, it doesn't matter. Your life, your decisions. Punch your way out if you have to.

2. Bukowski is never shy about his endless contretemps with his father. The two, to put it mildly, did not get along. Not best buds. Father's Day probably not a memorable Bukowski family holiday (unless it ended in fistfights/death threats). In his poem “my old man,” Bukowski addresses the issue head on. He writes about his father finding his stories and going apeshit over what were probably not super fond portrayals of him. Old Bukowski did, however, love a particular short story Young Bukowski wrote. And Bukowski ends the poem this way:


the story held
meaning for him
when I had written it
I had no idea
of what I was writing about.

so I told him,
“o.k., old man, you can
have it.”

and he took it
and walked out
and closed the door.

I guess that's as close
as we ever got.”

I am obsessed with how the closing of the physical door is simultaneous with the opening/shutting of the father-son's relationship—that their one moment of closeness amidst the wreckage of their perpetual power struggle lasts as long as a door opening and shutting. For some reason, the sequence of events doesn't feel obvious and ham-handed. I'm not like, Gimme a break, B-Dawg. How does he do that? Bukowski was influenced by a lot of ancient Chinese poets, and I honestly think this comes through here, in the simplicity of language and the way a physical action mirrors an internal state. Anyway, lesson wise? A tender moment doesn't necessarily become a relationship changer. A moment of appreciation-connection doesn't necessarily become a pattern of appreciation-connection. A moment is just a moment in your life that you experience. Also: you have to be tough to survive, but the truth is you'll still feel sad when family dynamics are less than ideal.

3. “a free 25 page booklet” is probably my favorite Bukowski poem. It begins:

“dying for a beer dying
for and of life
on a windy afternoon in Hollywood
listening to symphony music from my little red radio
on the floor.”

and it ends:

“the siren fades into the cardboard mountains
and I look out the window again as the clasped fist of
boiling cloud comes down—the wind shakes the plants outside
I wait for evening I wait for night I wait sitting in a chair
by the window—
the cook drops in the live
red-pink salty
rough-tit crab and
the game works
come get me.”

This is a poem about wanting someone (anyone!) to pick you up off the floor, dust you off, and bring you somewhere safe. Life has become untenable, overwhelming. You are afraid of where you're going and where you've been. To quote Neil Young, you are “helpless, helpless, helpless.” You, as Bukowski says at another point in this poem, have hit rock bottom—“ah, the bravado is gone/the big run through center is gone”¦” In fact, the “message” of this poem (though I hate to oversimplify this way) comes smack dab in the middle of it:


I am too sick to lay down
the sidewalks frighten me
the whole damned city frightens me,
what I will become
what I have become
frightens me.


If I were a therapist, I would say that Bukowski is saying it's o.k. to acknowledge your fear. Which he is, in a way, but with less emphasis on healing and more emphasis on needing to be heard: If you've got it, acknowledge it. Make people listen to it. Whatever “it” may be to you and yours. Powerful advice, especially for you creative types.

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