Sunday, March 09, 2008

Why Don’t I Love Bukowski Anymore?

This is a soul-searching post. I started writing it on February 26, 2008. I’m aiming to finish it by March 9, the 14th anniversary of the death of Charles Bukowski.

I first became truly aware of Bukowski in 1987, when writing for the Arts pages of the Occidental newspaper. My editor sent me to the Beverly Center in L.A. to see a Belgian film called Love is a Dog From Hell. The film has survived as Crazy Love. It was based, in part, on a Bukowski short story called “The Copulating Mermaid of Venice, California," and some biographical aspects of the writer.

I knew nothing of Bukowski prior to seeing the film, but I bought the volume of poetry Love is a Dog From Hell shortly thereafter. His poetry to me was startling, exciting, brilliant and decidedly un-academic. I became a huge fan, buying everything I could and reading it.

Bukowski died in 1994. I still recall the moment I heard the news: it was a cold dark March morning in Saugus, California. My next-door neighbor downstairs and I were driving to the Metrolink station in Valencia. The Northridge quake less than 2 months earlier had made carpooling to my job in Pasadena impossible. The radio was on and the newsman announced that Bukowski had died.

That day, I special-ordered his soon-to-be-published novel Pulp from Vroman’s Bookstore. When it arrived, it was a signed copy. I laminated Bukowski’s obit from the L.A. Times Book Review and it’s still behind my door in my office today. He was a major influence on my own poetry.

I was thrilled to hear that there was enough unpublished work to last into the 21st Century. But somewhere in the late ‘90s, early ‘00s, I stopped enjoying Hank. I bought his new books. I sighed when John Martin sold Black Sparrow Press and the Bukowski catalog went to HarperCollins/Ecco. I did go see Factotum in the theaters when it came out in 2006, and I appreciated it. But I have been selling off my Bukowski on eBay. He is still as popular as ever, but I am holding on to a few items, and that is it.

This piece was prompted by my most recent attempt to read some "new" Bukowski. I grabbed The People Look Like Flowers at Last: New Poems (Ecco: 2007) from the library. This is supposedly his final posthumous book of unreleased work. I got about a dozen poems in and gave up. I was bored. The Bukowski Formula was diluted by repeated applications. He wrote so much, so often repeating anecdotes in various forms, that there was nothing new and exciting about him to me. It makes me sad.

Then, more recently, I grabbed at the NYPL, The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 (L.A. Times review here). A greatest hits, if you will.

It opens with “the mockingbird,” one of my favorite poems, ever. Not just by Bukowski, but by anyone. I still remember reading it for the first time and putting five stars next to it in the table of contents. Here it is again:

the mockingbird

the mockingbird had been following the cat
all summer
mocking mocking mocking
teasing and cocksure;
the cat crawled under rockers on porches
tail flashing
and said something angry to the mockingbird
which I didn't understand.

yesterday the cat walked calmly up the driveway
with the mockingbird alive in its mouth,
wings fanned, beautiful wings fanned and flopping,
feathers parted like a woman's legs,
and the bird was no longer mocking,
it was asking, it was praying
but the cat
striding down through centuries
would not listen.

I saw it crawl under a yellow car
with the bird
to bargain it to another place.

summer was over.

I still get chills from that one.

So I decided to read this “greatest hits” collection. And I am going to keep this document open and add thoughts to it as I read. This will likely by a lengthy post, but it will serve as a tribute to the man who many revere as a great poet, who others dismiss as a crude drunk with a typewriter.

Five poems later, there is a revelation. “dark night poem” is listed as “uncollected”. In the manner of a band’s “Greatest Hits” compilations, we get something new. This could be good, this could be bad. I don’t want to comment on each and every poem. Some have come from the posthumous poems that left me empty. Others I recognize. Poem number 6 is another “famous” one. “The Last Days of the Suicide Kid”. Oh, the glory that is YouTube:

Of course, it takes no time (page 28) to find a great Bukowski poem (in my opinion) from the posthumous volumes. “Eulogy” from The Night Torn Mad with Footsteps; New Poems (2001) speaks to me, as it probably does to anyone who has had a loyal, faithful car that has lived a long life and then, finally, died forever:

you then had to watch it carted
hanging there
from the back of the tow truck
wheeled off
as if it had no

I wish I could link the whole poem because it is so dead on perfect.

A couple days later and I have been more selective of what I choose to praise. When I was going through the Bukowski oeuvre in the Nineties, reading everything, whenever I came across a quote I liked, a snippet of mad verse, a couplet of particular brilliance, a scribbled it on the inside cover of my journal. During that time I filled many inside covers with Bukowskian madness. On page 86, in the poem “the angel who pushed his wheelchair,” from What Matters Most is How Well You Walk through the Fire, I came across a great snippet: “all the poets wanted to get disability insurance/it was better than immortality”.

Flashing forward to March 5, and I realize the March 9 deadline is rapidly approaching, and my ambitions to finish the 548 pages of poetry may have been ambitious. Although, I am on page 126.

Now Friday, and I am plodding away, occasionally picking up the book and reading a poem or two in between banal chores. And here, we have a gem, buried in the brilliance: a sapphire that outshines the glowing stones around it, one of Buk’s best, on page 159, “The Tragedy of the Leaves,” really worth re-printing in full:

the tragedy of the leaves

I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness;
the sun was still good, though,
and my landlady's note cracked in fine and
undemanding yellowness; what was needed now
was a good comedian, andcient style, a jester
with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd
because it exists, nothing more;
I shaved carefully with an old razor
the man who had once been young and
said to have genius; but
that's the tragedy of the leaves,
the dead ferns, the dead plants;
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
and screaming
screaming for rent
because the world has failed us

A few pages later, another fine Bukowski moment, “The Genius of the Crowd

Another uncollected poem (“I am eaten by butterflies”) on page 182 ends with this statement: “my poems are only bits of scratchings/on the floor of a/cage”. There is a beautiful, sad subtlety here, his poems are not merely insignificant scratchings, but bits of scratchings.

"an empire of coins," from Betting on the Muse: Poems and Stories, has a couple more great bits that I remember from when I first read them. Bukowski is often mislabeled as a misogynist, in my opinion. He may use crude names to describe women, but he is an equal opportunity offender. It is generally the vast majority of humans that he disdains. In lines like these, he uses a crude description to mask his admiration of the power of the female:

a woman's a woman, I say, and I put my binoculars between her

kneecaps and I can see where

empires have fallen

and he later proclaims:

the way to whip life is to quietly frame the agony,

study it and out it to sleep in the abstract.

is there anything less abstract

than dying day by day?

Well, it is March 9, and I only got through 250 pages.

If you look back at the top of the post at the photo of Bukowski's grave marker, you can see what is written there: "Don't Try". Perhaps I should have heeded that advice.

I do intend to finish the post at a later date, but I'm throwing it out there today, the anniversary of his passing. I never got to page 520, where one finds one of my favorite Bukowski poems, "Dinosauria, we." We'll end here with this:

1 comment:

Dana said...

I felt the same about Kerouac yet I still can't get myself to sell his books on e-bay. A brave man you are indeed. :)