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

The Piety of Formalism?

Way back in 2008 I reviewed one of Dana Gioia’s books. I just edited it. (My writing was a bit more straight-laced back then—and wordier.) And that was because, while noodling around The American Conservative (the closest I get to visiting an alien planet and/or parallel universe) I discovered a new article about Dana Gioia. The article was — odd. Like a couple articles I’ve read there, it managed to make the article’s ostensible subject matter yet another opportunity to piously reflect on the “The Church” (to be fair, the conservative site doesn’t hesitate to lay into conservative commentators). They’re not solely a right wing propaganda outlet.

But back to Dana Gioia. Schmitz, the writer of the article, Dana Gioia’s Timeless Piety, likes him because:

Gioia’s characteristic virtue, like that of Aeneas, is piety. (….) The pious man worships God, serves his country, and honors his mother and father. He remembers the dead. “To name is to know and remember,” Gioia writes in one of his finest poems, and here he repeats the refrain: “Oblivion can do its work elsewhere. Remembrance is our métier. After all, our Muse is the daughter of Memory.”

I’m not sure whether Gioia would necessarily go along with that interpretation, but it suits Schmitz’s narrative. And then Schmitz makes the assertion that has done more to ruin traditional poetry (let alone classical music) than any critique that I know of:

His unpolemical formalism is in part a way of keeping faith with the literary traditions that have shaped and sustained the West, expressed in their highest forms by Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Gioia is Latin not just as an ethnic matter, but in his commitment to an ancient civilization. He is a faithful steward of what Pope Benedict XVI describes as “the treasures of worship and culture … accumulated by the Romans.”

He enlists “Formalism”, or the formalist writer, into the conservative cause. But the more one drills down into this belief, the more insubstantial it becomes. George Gordon Lord Byron had nothing good to say about the the church or its pieties—and he was a blue-blooded formalist. Keats was more a Deist than a Theist (some say a pantheist) and detested the clanging of church bells. Milton is the only poet one could call pious, and Milton rejected the strict formalism (the closed heroic couplets) considered (by conservative Restoration poets) the true analog to the great poetry of classical Greece and Rome. He wrote blank verse instead. No one really knows where Shakespeare came down (some speculate he was Catholic) but he too paid no mind to the classical obsessions of his peer, Ben Jonson, who insisted plays be written according to the “Classical Unities” (and huffed and puffed when bored audiences didn’t appreciate the effort). So if, anything, the great formalist of the past weren’t exactly faithful stewards of worship and culture.

But Schmitz has this to say about piety: “Today the word “piety” is used to describe hollow and sentimental shows of belief. In its ancient and proper sense, however, piety is a noble thing, a disposition of reverence toward those to whom we owe gratitude.”

And this is how literature gets dragged into the mud pit of identity politics—both on the left and the right. The “left” by asserting that a given work’s “canonical status” is primarily a reflection of the author’s gender, skin and entrenched social hierarchies (that art has no intrinsic claim to greatness beyond this); and the “right” by identifying the formal structures in “canonical literature” as intrinsic to great art and as the embodiment of the social hierarchies (formal “structures” in politics and religion) they wish to preserve and reinforce. And then there are the politicized poets and authors who reinforce these associations insofar as it benefits them.

All I can say is: Good grief.

eYe by Howard Fine

Howard Fine, a reader of my blog, sent me one of his books of poetry to review and I have to say, aesthetically, it’s one of the most beautiful I’ve gotten. Each page is a handwritten facsimile. I myself wouldn’t possibly have the patience for this sort of effort. My mind wanders. I would absent-mindedly misspell a word and have to start all over again. I would probably end up writing the book ten times over just to get one printable version. So I admire Fine’s effort, his handwriting, and the neatness and readability of it. This book is a labor of love.

But what are the poems like?

Fine gives meter and rhyme a go and for that I’m grateful, but the end-result is a superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson. Similar to Dickinson’s manner of writing, Fine dispenses with grammatical connectives, omitting definite articles, pronouns and propositions in the name of meter. Fine’s poetry often feels like its made from the limbs and shoots of a grammar tree, held together only by a poem’s thematic material. So you get stanzas like this:

was poor chronicler's lament
is our mere finite sphere
shall far sparkling firmament
may be forever near

labor least to reinvent
worn world as it wanes here
but by conjure and consent
drown known orb in own globed tear
coax Other to appear

What makes me guess this isn’t a peculiarity of Fine’s voice but a concession made to rhyme and meter is that in those poems where there’s neither rhyme nor meter, his grammar and syntax are perfectly normal (less the omission of punctuation):

we brought a box of chocolates
we would have brought flowers
but all the florists were closed

oh what good are flowers?
they only fade

flowers are good
because they fade

Much to my enjoyment, he also wrote a couple poems in German:

aus dem trauern flog ein r
und wohnt der wunde bei
ein ich fragt    was es sei?
sagt ein engel  es war Er!

I was wondering if it should read ein(e)r? or if this was a kind of visual pun (the small ‘r’ corrected to the divine and capitalized ‘Er’)? — but anyways, what’s interesting is that Fine writes the same way in German as in English, the same sort of piecemeal grammar. I’m guessing most readers will simply accept this as a facet of his style. Since it’s something that I pay (possibly too much) attention to, I’m also probably going to be more critical than others. Even so, the downside is that it risks making the poetry feel altogether rhyme-driven and line-driven (the poem as a collection of lines rather than a whole). It risks trading the musicality of idiomatic English for something that sometimes sounds less playful than juvenile.

now west heeds east
by eremite's beach
here sweet tears teach
why best needs least

come share my tent
in neither nor
on this spare shore
from came to went

Or later, he will write a line like “and wonder what this life be worth”. I’m not sure what Fine gains by using “be” instead of “is”. Is it a feint at poetic depth? Is this meant to make us treat the narrator as a pretentious poseur? As it was, I was suddenly finishing the poem in the voice of Hector Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean.

and wonder what this life be worth

the dog returning brought for me
a stag's domed skull    laid at my heel
she knows     thought i    memento mori
though risen now     there yet i kneel

It’s a trade off and a conscious one. Either the reader accepts the stilted syntax or one wishes he had simply written free verse. I personally find myself sometimes, it has to be said, spending more time trying to piece together his grammatical jigsaw puzzles than enjoying the poetry.

why try? could court worse failures
draw blood? no more touch knife
assailed by fear's familiars
jailed   in   contracted life

grow bold! quit taboo's ambit
breathe freely  having fled
cold cell of concrete habit
enforced by bar of dread

Compare this to one of Dickinson’s many inscrutable poems:

Reverse cannot befall
That find Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior
As soon — Adversity

A Diamond — overtake
In far — Bolivian Ground —
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it — if it found —

Emily Dickinson's Poems: As She Preserved Them p. 287

If one is going to be influenced by Dickinson (not just in grammar but hymn meter too) then I’m not sure poems like these represent Dickinson at her best. When Dickinson is read and remembered, and appreciated for her genius, it’s for the poetry that speaks to us in familiar ways and of a world that is not so synechdochic as to be indecipherable.

But enough of that. What about the content of Fine’s poetry? Once you get past the (probably too) seriousness with which I read poetry, one can also read his poems as playful, inventive and enthusiastic—in short, as light verse. The reader seeking traditional poetry that aims for any sort of sublimity won’t find it here. There’s lots of winking, nudging, coy question marks and exclamation points. And not all his poems have that expediently truncated feel to them. You get a little charmer like this:

a natural cat knows how to purr
how to groom her winter fur
how to choose the cutest mice
and skate soft-shoe across new ice

how to scratch      how to sleep
wholeheartedly     but not too deep
and when she meows her ninth goodbye
a natural cat     knows   how to die.

But then at other times his humor can feel a little smug, like someone who laughs at his own joke a little too much and too long:

i knelt by a jamb
that hung no door
felt swung   i am   ajar

got sung till i crossed
through thought and ought
at last   past sense   commence

It’s a mixed bag. Not only is Fine writing to entertain but also, it has to be said, show off. One does get the sense that he wishes to impress with cleverness—a cleverness that sometimes implodes in it’s own too much:

lose ego   lose me    lose smartphone
what's dark   what's whole   what's hominid's?
re-inspire spark     runic sorcery
impish futhork    lyrical surge

sanity enjoyed   small's great while hearts turn
be peace vaporize into outto blackwhite lighght

Writing humor isn’t easy. It’s a curious thing, for example, that Steve Martin, one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, has little talent for writing humor. Comedic timing means something completely different on the page than on the stage and I’m not sure that Fine altogether succeeds as a humorist or writer of light verse, but his poems do communicate a good-natured and engaging enthusiasm. Fine himself closes the book by writing:

my script now nears its end
i'd love to ad-lib more

And that’s probably the spirit in which to read these poems—as ad-libbing. They’re high-spirited, and never longer than a page. There’s a touch of love and spirituality among them, but Fine doesn’t let either break the overall mood—a sort of pranksterish extroversion. In the end, I think he’d like to leave the reader as light-hearted as his poetry. That’s a wonderful thing, but there’s a serious art that underlies the art of light-heartedness. I think the reader is going to have to be a little indulgent with Fine to fully enjoy him, but I would discourage no one from giving his collection a try.

up in Vermont | March 31 2021

Blackbirds

‘Don’t make him go.’
                ‘I’m not.’
                                ‘He’s only just now
Come in to play.’
                ‘He’d rather be outside, ’
Said the boy’s father. ‘Let him go outside.
He’s old enough to want to help.’
                                ‘Then next year,’
Said the boy’s mother. ‘Let him set the table
That’s more a help than outside splitting wood.’
‘Let Mary,’ said the father.
                                ‘Mary? Set
The table? Let her help with splitting wood!'
The mother countered. ‘After all, she’s older.
Why can’t your daughter?’
                                ‘She hasn’t asked me, has she?’
‘And does she need to?’
                 ‘Jack did.’
                                ‘Why not ask her?’
‘For God’s sake, let them both go,’ said their father.
‘They’re old enough.’
                Just then the boy walked in
Still in boots and a hooded jacket—somehow
Nonetheless guessing at the argument.
His glance raced from father to mother. ‘Can I?’
He asked.
                His mother paused. She’d carried in
The plates and silverware and had begun
To set them.
                ‘If you’re asking me, then no,’
She said. ‘You’re father thinks you’re old enough;
I don’t.’
                ‘I’m old enough,’ argued the boy.
‘Then go straight to Grandpa if you want to help
And do exactly what he tells you. No hospitals
Today. No little boys who’ve chopped their hands off.’
‘Then I’ll tell Mary,’ said the father.
                                                The boy
Ran out the door but never having seen
His father run to do a chore, stopped, walked,
Assumed an air of purpose. Snow was falling
And had already fallen, not in gales
But in that way November snowfalls shroud
The yellowed grass and drape the Queen Anne’s lace
Anew with shawls. The maple in the dooryard,
Its leaves let down, let down no shadows, evening
Descending overall but for the dooryard
And lighted house behind the boy. The path
To where the wood was split went first before
The shed-roofed bays then out behind the barn where
The log length wood was piled. 
                                The closest bay
Stored their discarded toys. Among them were
A tricycle, its rims half buried in
The dirt floor’s ruin and the runner sleds
That just a year ago already would have
Skated November’s early snow—the lettering
Faded and flaking from their slatted backs.
The boy might yet have pulled them out but for
A baby gate that sometime during the summer
Was forced into the only narrow entry
(As if to bar a child’s going in
Or toys from coming out again). The snow
Curled over the metal lip of roof
Above the shed-bay’s open mouth and faded
Into a ghostly exhalation.
                                Drawing
His hood tight as he walked, the boy half stumbled—
A knee to snow. The middle bay was where
His brother stored his car on blocks. The right
Front block had sunk into the dirt so that
The grill’s off-kilter grin would chase the boy
In nightmares. The car still needed work—
And every day less likely to be done.
The doors, fenders and hood were primed
With spray paint (underneath the priming gray
The paint’s original red) but here and there
The rust was rusting through. But mostly when
His brother visited the car he’d take
A girl along. The boy would want to follow
But every time he’d asked them what they planned
His brother laughed. ‘We’re going out to play
A little hide & seek,’ he’d say. ‘You’re not
Invited.’ Then the boy, being troubled by
What kind of hide & seek there was to play
Inside a car, made plans some night to follow
And spy; and meant to soon. Sometimes they’d stay
For just a little while and sometimes late
Into the night. Returning then they’d kiss
And laugh as though in seeking they had found
A thousand hiding places. 
                                Another gust
Of snow. The shrunken spines of black-eyed Susans—
Their desiccated eyes were motionless
And blind to what remained of autumn’s twilight 
Or the boy passing by.
                                The furthest bay
Was where his father kept the tractor—lights
Lifted like attentive ears, hood tarped
And cutter bar drawn up. Some days in summer
The boy’s father might leave the tractor out
Midfield, dusted with chaff. The boy might climb
Into the seat as though he could ignite
The tractor’s heart and bring the gulping lungs
To life again. The metal’s heavy odor
Of grease and oil clung to his clothes like
The scissored grasses. He hardly knew the work
Of tractors other than they worked the fields;
And where he would have traveled had it rumbled
To life meant less to him than understanding
What force of architecture moved the steel,
What housed explosions turned the giant wheels
Imprinting the earth. ‘The cruel machine,’ 
His mother’d say, ‘That cuts the summer’s bloom—
Too much to call it hate—but let the field
For once run riot. We’ve no use for hay,
And have no livestock. Let it go uncut
Or cut it late and let the wildflowers route
The grasses.’ ‘It’s for love of place I mow it,’
His father’d answer. ‘When has autumn ever spared
A meadow? And there are other reasons
Besides.’ If afterward he’d never give them
He’d nonetheless bring back a mason jar
So clumsily full of flowers they’d sometimes topple
Over the kitchen table just as if
A scythe had lain them down again.
                                The boy hewed
Close by the barn where jimsonweed had grown.
He stepped over burst thorn-apples—their rictus
Of seed and snow; and passing by he snagged
The others in his mittens—thorny bulbs
Still topping branches; tendrils spiraling upwards
As if they were a final parting breath—
The smoke of humid summer days turned brittle
And motionless.
                Any other day
He’d have taken the shortcut through the barn,
A storehouse of forgotten generations
Who owned the property a hundred years
And more before the boy’s own family.
Sometimes he’d spend the hours picking through
The slow haphazard regolith of mice
And straw to find a broken tool half buried:
Old bottles, cut nails, rusted pliers, saw-blades
And hammers missing handles; these he’d stockpile
In crates he made himself—half a dozen
He’d cobbled out of scavenged lumber ridden
With nail holes. The boy had found foundations
Grown through with ironwood—remains of buildings
A farmer might take lumber from. He’d wonder
What ghosts still searched the leaf-strewn cellar holes
Looking for the long forgotten button 
That once had rolled between the rough-sawn floorboards—
Themselves long since dissolved; and then he’d flee
The ironwood thicket. If there’d ever been
More than the lumber worth saving then either
That too was lost or in the barn—the lumber,
The tools, the parts (their use gone out of memory),
And the machinery still following
The beasts that drew them, wooden ligaments
Consumed, their frames corroded and collapsing
Into the sediment. And yet the boy
Will mend their failing joints, imagines them—
Painted and metal polished—renewed
Behind a tractor’s thumping pulse. If not
A tractor then he’d clear the cobwebbed arteries
From the barn and there stable either ox
Or horse; he’d load the hayloft with fresh hay
And breathe the fumes of life into the farmyard
Or so, at least, the boy imagined doing
And more.
                He followed round the barn’s far corner,
The muddy yard where log-length firewood
Was piled—the time of year the yard
Rolled seamlessly into the neighboring fields,
Their hollow ribs no taller than the yard’s
Own trampled grasses. Distantly, the ridge
Of field that overlooked the barn and farmhouse
Grew light with snow and darkened with the shadow
Of early winter.
                The boy had often
Come out this far and been distracted by
The sloping fields, wondering at the world
Beyond the world he saw. He dreamt an ocean
Lay just beyond the distant ridge, and beds
Of incandescent sands and whirlpools
Of liquid vertebrae. He dreamt of whales
Who glimmered with the giant eyes of angels;
And waters trembling over them like outspread wings.
Their contemplation wakened him; he feared
The dark that sank his bed into their mystery;
The turmoil of their wake. And though some nights,
In a half-forgotten sleep, he rode
The ocean’s slippery back from shore to shore,
He’d waken to horizons nothing more
Than his own room, the bed, the sheets wound round him, 
A cluttered floor.
                The path veered left between
The logs and barn. The boy tugged at his hood
As wind once more drew down a shroud of snow,
Thrown from the metal roof. He dug his hands
Into his jacket, hunched, and kept his eyes
Half shut until the gust rose over top
The roof again as though the barn itself
Breathed forth the ghostly apparition, vanishing
As fleetingly as it appeared. 
                                The boy
Stopped. The steel of the splitting maul
Gleamed in the icy mud; just by the maul
A split wedge wedged in the wood. The boy’s grandfather
Lay on his side, eyes open, the splitting maul’s handle
Loosely in his hand. The old man’s scarf
Rose up, half lifted by a sudden gust,
Then fell again. The boy stepped backwards, stumbled,
Stepped back again. A little further on
The cattails in the farmyard’s pond had blown—
And silence where the redwing blackbirds shrilled
Before they’d flown. He gave a startled cry.
His sister lightly cupped his shoulder,
Then she stepped past him kneeling by their grandfather.
She turned him gently to his back. She leaned
As if unsure; then being sure, she closed
His eyes. She gazed at him and neither she
Nor the boy moved.
                'Okay,' she finally said.
She stood, went to the boy, and took his hand.
'Come on,' she said. And then said nothing more.
Blackbirds By me, Patrick Gillespie | March 27, 2021
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Great Minds

I was just reading an article in Quanta Magazine and lo and behold there’s an evolutionary biologist, Arik Kershenbaum, who speculates, as I do (and did in my poem Bicycles) that alien life is probably going to look a lot like life on earth. You can read the article here. Not only that, but Kershenbaum has written a book on the subject, the Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I guess Bicycles was too late to make it into the forward.

I’m going to be buying this book for both my twin daughters, both of whom are majoring in earth sciences with an interest in exobiology.

Crabs rule the universe. I tell you that now. Don’t be shocked in the years to come. You heard it here.