Why I love Bukowski

I know I’ve expressed this opinion before to the surprise of some of my readers (and dismay) but I really do think Bukowski was a greater poet than the current establishment favorites, and by establishment I refer to those publications like The Library of America, who have anointed the likes of John Ashbery and W.S. Merwin—having dedicated whole books to their collected works. For the record, I find Merwin ineffably dull—the consummate writer of the generic—always poetic, but rarely writing poetry. Every last poem by Ashbery is written in the same key. That is, if you’ve read his best poems, then you’ve read Ashbery. I suspect that Ashbery represents the consummate ideal of the latter twentieth century—the pursuit of originality as the consummate artistic accomplishment; and in that sense, he deserves recognition. No other poet was as distinctively original as Ashbery; and yet, ironically, Ashbery was also his generation’s most derivative poet. As William Logan said of Ashbery: “A poet who will do anything to avoid repeating himself must, at last, repeat himself all the time.”

Bukowski would seem to be the antithesis of everything I enjoy in poetry, but not wholly so. I would put it this way: I don’t go to Bukowski for his way with language. Bukowski writes lineated prose, but so do the vast majority of contemporary poets. What I love about Bukowski is that he has something to say and he’s a story teller. He’s a narrative poet in a sea of poets whose poems are the poems of affect—having neither narrative nor having anything to say. As an example of affect, I just tabbed over to Poetry Foundation and randomly chose a poem by Merwin:

The Animals
By W. S. Merwin

All these years behind windows
With blind crosses sweeping the tables

And myself tracking over empty ground
Animals I never saw

I with no voice

Remembering names to invent for them
Will any come back will one

Saying yes

Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again

There’s neither a narrative nor argument. Merwin’s poem is the poetry of affect—defined as “Affection; inclination; passion; feeling; disposition.” The poem is nothing if not a feeling or disposition—a momentary and ill-defined passion; so much so and so generic that one isn’t really sure what Merwin is even talking about. He just leaves you with the feeling that you ought to be feeling something. I’m guessing that one might successfully argue that this kind of poetry is a subset of confessional poetry (that burst onto the scene in the 50s and 60s and was internalized by almost every poet that followed). One could assert, for example, that Merwin was confessing his feelings. But poetry like this mostly puts me to sleep, and there’s so much of it (which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes enjoy such poetry or that I haven’t written the same myself). After Merwin’s poem, I returned to Poetry Foundation and randomly picked a poet I had never read. I found Heid E. Erdrich’s poem Last Snow. As in most such poems, Erdrich creates a landscape (which could be literal or figurative) meant to be evocative and emotive, and ends the poem with a kind of affective sigh. “Stubborn calendar of bone. Last snow. Now it must always be so,” the poet writes. If I were asked to describe what happened in the poem, I’d have to answer: Nothing at all. Some snow fell. And it was sort of melting and sort of not. If I were asked to describe what the poet was trying to say, I’d answer: He feels like this or like that. In fairness to Erdrich, the poem is well written (in the sense that it would do nicely as a paragraph in a novel, let’s say); but as a poem I get awfully bored reading stuff like this. My mind wanders.

Not Bukowski.

I can read Bukowski the way I read a short story or a novel. Inasmuch as his poetry also arouses feelings, he does so through story telling and by having something to say. This isn’t to say there aren’t real duds among Bukowski’s poems (and among my own) but by in large, if you give the average person a poem by Bukowski and ask them what happened and what Bukowski was trying to say, they’ll tell you. Though the stylistic and linguistic gifts of a Robert Frost (or Eliot or Keats for that matter) far, far exceeded Bukowski’s, they nevertheless all have storytelling in common. And so, despite the plain prose of Bukowski’s poetry, I would say he has much more in common with traditional poets of the 19th century (and earlier) than, probably, the vast majority of contemporary poets. Contemporary traditional poets, who write accomplished meter and rhyme rarely, to my knowledge, write narrative poetry or, it seems, have something to say. They write poems of affect like their contemporaries.

Tom O’Bedlam reading Bluebird

When I was offering my novel to friends, I’d tell them: All I’d like to know is if the story makes you want to turn the page. In some ways I’m more of a story teller than a poet (though I’ve only shared a handful of my short stories here). I’ve written hundreds. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve really come to value a good story, or at least a good narrative, in both poetry and fiction. Bukowski makes me want to turn the page. I finish reading a poem by Bukowski and I say to myself: I’ve had it in mind to say the same god-damn thing. I like that about Bukowski and realize that I like that in poetry.

upinVermont | April 11 2021

8 responses

  1. Amazing how a man who drank as much as he did never lost his creative powers—no cirrhosis, no pickled brain, no delirium tremens—and wrote to the end. The beer and wine swilling can get kind of shtickish though. I tried giving Erdrich’s poem “Last Snow” the Bukowski treatment. Sound about right?

    Last
    Snow give yourself to the
    Sun

    Mush
    Dry out

    Bloom
    Buttercup

    Like

    • I recall reading once how the heavy, drinking college-aged idolized him and were always thinking Bukowski would want nothing more than to kick back with a six-pack and talk about booze and women—and that was about the last thing Bukowski wanted to do. He got irritated by that stereotype.

      You need more narrative in your homage to Bukowski, and a point. :)

      Like

  2. When interviewed he comes across as entirely without pretense. He quit the post office at 50 to write full time. Before that just underground stuff—but enough to get him an FBI file. I actually filched one of his underground titles for the title to one of my poems: “Dirty Old Man.”

    The warm/cold vicissitudes are really jerking my chain and left me a little mindless. For example:

    Bukowski Aubade

    Last
    Snow give yourself to sun

    Murk
    Dry out

    Bloom
    Buttercup

    Baby
    Pick my brain

    Yeah….

    Like

  3. Btw, does it this latest rendition—“Bukowski Aubade”—fulfill your inputs to some degree? Keep in mind he’s just waking up.

    Like

    • Can’t say as it does. It’s still more a poem of affect and Bukowski, to my knowledge, would never prune his syntax the way you do — but then some of this depends on whether you want to sound vaguely influenced by Bukowski or like Bukowski. I could never imagine him saying “Yeah…” That makes him sound like a hipster and he was never a hipster. Not remotely.

      Like

  4. My last doodle on this. A little lazy, mindless fun. Forgivable?

    Aubade

    Last
    Snow give yourself to sun

    Murk
    Dry out

    Bloom
    Buttercup

    Baby
    Pick my brain

    Tell
    Dr. Phil

    Tell
    Oprah

    It’s ok

    Like

  5. Pingback: Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out- « PoemShape

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