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Monday, March 20, 2006

Back in high school, when I first started reading contemporary poetry, the three who most interested me were Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Bukowski. I still read (some) Levertov with a great deal of pleasure, and because I still remember some of his poems—"I Know a Man" is the smallest masterpiece I know—I just recently replaced the Collected Creeley that I think left with my first wife. Bukowski though, is another story. I was a grad student in English from the late 70s to the mid 80s, and Charles Bukowski just wasn't done. He wrote stories for Hustler, for crying out loud, which is perhaps one reason that despite being one of the most prolific and bestselling American poets of the last century, he isn't in any of the Norton anthologies. And what, in that era, could you say about him or his poetry in a lecture, except perhaps as an official bogeyman in a Women's Studies class? No doubt his very popularity had something to do with it as well.

In any case, until recently I hadn't read any Bukowski for at least 15 years. I've been writing sonnets and triolets and rondeax: What could he teach me? For that matter, what could I have to say about him? I'm glad that someone at HarperCollins did think I might have something to say and sent me a review copy of Come On In!, because as it turns out I think he taught me quite a lot early on—and because the book is an ample illustration of Auden's maxim that none are unjustly remembered.

Bukowski died in 1994, and these poems, edited by John Martin, are "part of an archive of unpublished work that Charles Bukowski left to be published after his death." There are few surprises in terms of subject matter: drinking, making poems, being sick after drinking, trouble with women, hypocrisy, trouble with landlords, his status as a poet, how tough he'd like to be, contempt for Official Verse Culture (which for Bukowski would surely have included Charles Bernstein), the horses. But that's a longish list, longer than one could make for, say, Housman, and few surprises is not no surprises. "old poem" begins by acknowledging almost everything that's been said against him:

what an old poem this is
from an old guy.

you've heard it many times
before:

me sitting here
sotted
again.

ashtray full.

bottles about.

poems scattered on the
floor.

But after drinking more, burning his nose lighting a cigarette butt, and returning to the typewriter:

as I hear a voice
rising from the
neighborhood:
"FUCK YOU AND THAT
MACHINE!"

ah, they've been very
patient: it's 3:45
a.m.

And Li Po sits in the middle of the poem, drinking too. That's not such a surprise, but the bemused tenderness of the address is:

hello, Li Po, you old
juicehead, the world is still
full of
rancor and
regret.

(I don't write free verse any more, I've forgotten how if I ever knew, but it seems to me there's 3 really good linebreaks in those 5 lines.)

The poems in which his wife appears are also surprisingly tender, and Bukowski (whether actually Bukowski or the character he's invented) is very aware of the burden she carries, both at home:

and my wife says Brock, for
Christ's sake,
the typewriter all night,
how can I sleep? and I crawl quickly
into bed and
kiss her hair and say
sorry sorry sorry


(from "a real thing, a good woman")

and on the road:

you're just a drunk who writes, said his wife.

that's better than a drunk who just drinks,
said the writer.

his wife sighed.
well, do you want to go back to the room or to another cafe?


(from "Paris in the spring")

There are frequent references to "the poem machine," including one where his wife's gift of a computer means it's become so easy to make the things that she doesn't see him as much, and I won't pretend that there isn't filler here. As he writes in "this machine is a fountain,"

my system is always the same:
keep it loose
write a great number of
poems
try with all your
heart
and don't worry about the
bad
ones.

(I'm not so fond of those linebreaks.)

But the saying is that you need to write a hundred songs before you're ready to write a song (is that in the book, too?), and all that writing writing writing from time to time pays off magnificently. I said at the outset that I had learned things from him long ago, and the most important of those things was an understanding that a poem must have a narrative core. Many of his poems do more than that—they tell the whole story with astonishing compression. One result is that they don't sample well, so let me finish with one complete poem, "scrambled legs," the one that made me think about my own conversation sonnets and where they came from:

we were having lunch
at Hal's diner.
"you know," he told me, "after we made love
the last time
she lay in my arms and cried, she said,
'oh my god, I miss him so!'
she was talking about you, Hank."

"that's just the way it is, Jack, with all
my women: while I'm with them they hate
me but after I leave them they love
me.
I'm never tempted to go back to them, however, I don't even
consider it."

"you don't mind that I slept with her,
Hank?"

"did she cook you a good breakfast afterwards,
Jack?"

"I don't remember."

"well, I'll tell you: she didn't."

"is that the reason you left her:
because she couldn't cook
a good breakfast?"

"I never eat breakfast, Jack."

"then what happened?"

"too often, after we made love, she
began crying in my arms about how she
missed some other guy."

"well," he said, "I'll be a son-of-a-bitch."

"don't be," I said. "just pass the salt and
pepper."


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