Charles Bukowski | Critical Essay by Robert Peters

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Charles Bukowski.
This section contains 3,071 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Robert Peters

SOURCE: "Gab Poetry, or Ducks vs. Nightingale Music: Charles Bukowski," in Where the Bee Sucks: Workers, Drones, and Queens of Contemporary American Poetry, Santa Maria: Asylum Arts, 1994, pp. 56-66.

In the following essay, Peters discusses the elements of Bukowski's poetry.

I once witnessed a Charles Bukowski first: the debut of the great raunchy poet as actor. The vehicle, The Tenant, was a two character drama written by Linda King. Bukowski contributed lines of his own, better developing his own image in the play. This line was his addition, as delivered by Miss King: "You may be the greatest poet of the century, but you sure can't fuck." In a lively way The Tenant turns upon the problem of whether a super-poet should move in with his girlfriend, who would then, one would suppose, buy him his beer, give him bj's, and let him abuse her. The event was choice. An actor scheduled to read the Bukowski role was unable to show, so Buk took over.

There were twenty people in the well of the Pasadena Museum—sad, alas, because of the significance of the event. Bukowski, script in hand, trod the boards. The props were a telephone—used with nearly as much frequency as Barbara Stanwyck's in Sorry, Wrong Number; a mattress upon which King and Bukowski, scripts in hand, fell to enact their erotic comings after dismal separations. The performance, pixie-ish, included a tender moment where Bukowski acted as W.C. Fields towards a child who had a brief moment of stage glory. Needless to say, the small audience chuckled, particularly over Bukowski's Bogart-like delivery. Ms. King, with various stunning Bridget Bardot-esqueries nicely foiled the poet.

The Tenant gave Bukowski a chance, under the guise of art and aesthetic distance, to extol his stature as a poet. Buk has never been known for his reticence, and his being utterly ignored hitherto by the literary establishment hasn't affected him in the least.

I remember how zapped I was when I first read him: I was teaching at the University of California at Riverside and had been given Crucifix in a Deathhand. I carried the book to a string quartet concert, began reading it before the concert, experienced chills, elevations, charismatic flashes, barber pole exaltations, and fevers in the groin. I had not read such poems since discovering Dylan Thomas in the fifties. Here was something awe-thentic at last! I nudged my companion who thought I was crazy. Bukowski was unafraid of life's terror meat-slabs, and he made the angels sing.

I began to ask others if they had heard of Bukowski. Yes, he was living in a Hollywood dump, they said, dismissing him as a charlatan steeped in booze, flop-gutted, and rancid-breathed. I gave up trying to explain his impact on me. Moreover, I didn't care whether he rolled in his own puke, or swallowed pints of maiden juice. He was a super poet. His example loosened my own writing. Lowell, Snodgrass, Wilbur, Ashbery, and Olson were dilettantes.

One afternoon, carrying a six-pack of Coors, I beat my way to Buk's door, four or five days before Christmas. He and his daughter were trimming a tree. There weren't many ornaments—half a dozen on the low branches. Bukowski asked me in. I found a man of charm—nothing of the horrible-retchable I had been led to expect. I have been a fan ever since. He, though, remembers the visit otherwise, and wrote about it in his collection Beneath the Fortinaria.

The appearance of Burning in Water Drowning in Flame: Selected Poems 1955–1973 invites me to describe what I found so telling in his work and to point up what I find are unfortunate recent drifts. My remarks should dissolve some of the celebrity aura threatening his reputation. It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) and Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965), two Loujon Press books, are among the dozen most beautifully printed and designed books of poetry ever. Since they are out of print, and rare, it is great to have those reprinted.

"The tragedy of the leaves" propels us into Bukowski's world: hangover, desertion by his woman, the screaming landlady, and a world that's failed him utterly. Set up for the big blubbery whine of self-pity? No! He transmutes all raunchy conditions through unusual images: "I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead, / the potted plants yellow as corn…." How well dryness echoes awakened; the latter implies a grappling with the world, moving toward insight. Compression follows:

     my woman was gone
     and the empty bottles like bled corpses
     surrounded me with their uselessness….

The long vowel sounds are well-spaced, and Bukowski, sensing the positive, remarks on the sunlight brightening the landlady's note in its "fine and / undemanding yellowness." The occasion, he observes, demands "a good comedian, ancient style, a jester/ with jokes upon absurd pain." There's wisdom here: "pain is absurd / because it exists, nothing more." He believes that as a poet he is stagnant: "that's the tragedy of the dead plants." In this concluding passage note the effective slant rhymes more and razor and the repeated dead, dead, dark, and stood accompanying some monosyllabic tough nouns, Execrating, waving, and screaming, mesh, as hall, final, hell, and failed weave subtle echoes. Here he manages to be tender towards a harsh landlady:

    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 had failed us
    both.

Empathy is present in other poems. "For marilyn m." avoids sentimentality through a diction suited to the fey person Monroe was:

     … and we will forget you, somewhat
     and it is not kind
     but real bodies are nearer
     and as the worms pant for your bones,
     I would so like to tell you
     that this happens to bears and elephants
     to tyrants and heroes and ants
     and frogs,
     still, you brought us something,
     some type of small victory,
     and for this I say: good
     and let us grieve no more….

"The life of Borodin," grandly empathetic, is effective reportage on the miserable composer's life. Wife-hounded, he slept by placing a dark cloth over his eyes. His wife lined cat boxes and covered jars of sour milk with his compositions. Nothing is overstated in this taut free-verse poem. The parallels between Bukowski's life and Borodin's are implicit.

"The twins" evokes another tremulous situation, one that a lesser poet might easily have wrecked. Here Bukowski confronts his hatred of his father, immediately after the father's death: "A father is always your master even when he's gone." To cope, the poet moves through the house stunned, then proceeds outside where he picks an orange and peels it. Common day noises of dogs and neighbors bespeak sanity. Back inside, the poet dons one of his father's suits:

     I try on a light blue suit
     much better than anything I have ever worn
     and I flap the arms like a scarecrow in the wind
     but it's no good;
     I can't keep him alive
     no matter how much we hated each other.
 
     we looked exactly alike, we could have been twins
     the old man and I: that's what they
     said. he had his bulbs on the screen
     ready for planting
     while I was lying with a whore from 3rd street.
 
     very well. grant us this moment: standing before a mirror
     in my dead father's suit
     waiting also
     to die.

The event is stark. To wear another person's clothes is, in a sense, to become that person. Bukowski's mimicry of death as scarecrow is macabre. Despite the hate, the survivor can't bring the dead man back to life.

"Old poet" treats Bukowski's distaste for aging (forty-two at the time) without a public to love his work. Finding his sexual energies diminished, he's reduced to pawing dirty pictures. He's had too much beer and has heard too much Shostakovitch. He swats "a razzing fly" and "ho, I fall heavy as thunder …" The downstairs tenants will assume "he's either drunk or dying." Despite his depression, every morning he packs off envelopes of poems, hoping to place them in magazines. Rejection slips annoy him briefly; but soon he's back at his typewriter:

     the editors wish to thank you for
     submitting but
     regret …
     down
 
              down
 
                          down
 
                                  the dark hall
     into a womanless hall
     to peel a last egg
     and sit down to the keys:
     click click a click,
     over the television sounds
     over the sounds of springs,
     click click a click:
     another old poet
     going off.

"View from the screen" might easily have dissolved into narcissism; it has all the accoutrements. It shouldn't work, but it does. The death-whispers of the heron and the bone-thoughts of sea creatures dominate his universe as the poet crosses the room:

     to the last wall
     the last window
     the last pink sun
     with its arms around the world
     with its arms around me….

The sun is benign. Its pinkness produces the pig-image, an unusual trope and one that eschews turning maudlin. The Platonic cave motif is obvious:

     I hear the death-whisper of the heron
     the bone-thoughts of sea-things
     that are almost rock;
     this screen caved like a soul
     and scrawled with flies,
     my tensions and damnations
     are those of a pig,
     pink sun pink sun
     I hate your holiness
     crawling your gilded cross of life
     as my fingers and feet and face
     come down to this….

Writing, for Bukowski, is for getting "feelings down." Now, that may sound like warmed-over Shelley. Bukowski's urge to write, prompted by a mix of sardonicism and angst, is as natural as defecation. An image allows him to translate pain into a testimony for his spirit, one fraught with "madness and terror" along "agony way." There's a time-bomb inside his chest, and if it doesn't go off as a poem it will explode in drunkenness, despair, vomiting, or rage. As long as he writes he leashes terror. "Beans with garlic" is about this. A terrific idea—beans as lovers! Beans as your words! Stirring them is like writing poems:

     but now
     there's a ticking under your shirt
     and you whirl the beans with a spoon,
     one love dead, one love departed
     another love …
     ah! as many loves as beans
     yes, count them now
     sad, sad
     your feelings boiling over flame,
     get this down.

"A nice day" deals with a knife the speaker carries inside him. Bukowski can't feel doom, so he goes outside "to absolutely nothing / a square round of orange zero." A woman says good morning, thereby twisting the knife:

     I do notice though the sun is shining
     that the flowers are pulled up on
     their strings
     and I on mine:
     belly, bellybutton, buttocks, bukowski
     waving walking
     teeth of ice with the taste of tar
     tear ducts propagandized
     shoes acting like shoes
     I arrive on time
     in the blazing midday
     of mourning.

The concluding pun is effective, and the lines are original. Bukowski produces (invents) his rhetoric, and this sometimes betrays him. Often, his latest voice, in the gab barfly manner, sounds like imitation Bukowski. His best poems discharge energy. We are touched by a vital creative mind prizing the creative act. Nothing, not even bad booze, can diminish it. Call this originality; for, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot on Tennyson, Bukowski has originality in abundance.

In At Terror Street and Agony Way (1968) there is evidence of deterioration. Bukowski's paranoia intensifies. He's nastier than he's hitherto been. His sympathies are with outrageous, destructive folks: the guy who emasculates himself with a tin can; "the nice guy" who cuts up a woman and sends the parts to people. Bukowski senses that a sycophantic public expects outrageous cartwheels and titillations, and he obliges. There is a discernible drifting off from the earlier tender humanity. And there is a troublesome loquaciousness; the honed work of the early manner is usurped by rambling, grotty passages of prose masquerading (chopped into lengths) as poetry. And he is vicious to other poets, as he is in a parody of Michael McClure and in a tasteless piece on Jack Hirschman as narcissist Victor Vania.

"Sunday before noon," though it concludes with a funny piece of hysteria, reflects Bukowski's current narcissism:

     going down
     are the clocks cocks roosters?
     the roosters stand on the fence
     the roosters are peanutbutter crowing,
     the FLAME will be high, the flame will be big,
     kiss kiss kiss
     everything away,
     I hope it rains today, I hope
     the jets die, I hope
     the kitten finds a mouse, I hope
     I don't see it, I hope
     it rains, I hope
     anything away from here,
     I hope a bridge, a fish, a cactus somewhere
     strutting whiskers to the noon,
     I dream flowers and horses
     the branches break the birds fall the buildings
     burn, my whore walks across the room and
     smiles at me.

There's evidence of the old originality here in the juxtaposition of peanut butter and roosters, and in the branches and birds, and in the buildings that open the poem and close it. But the stance, the narcissism of "going down," the wish to be wiped out, and to wipe out, is dull. There isn't much in life now (petulance) worth grappling for. There's a nagging tone as Bukowski slips towards the next binge:

     and I got out of bed and yawned and scratched my belly
     and knew that soon very soon I would have to get
     very drunk again.

Isolating soon and again with extra spaces emphasizes the sterility of the writing. Ditto for the repetition of very. Bukowski now cracks wise with editors who reject his poems. He becomes a rhino-skinned poet s. o. b.:

     when a chicken
     catches its worm
     the chicken gets through
     and when the worm
     catches you
     (dead or alive)
     I'd have to say,
     … that it enjoys
     it.
 
     it's like when you
     send this poem
     back
     I'll figure
     it just didn't get
     through.
 
     either there were
     fatter worms or the chicken
     couldn't see.
 
     the next time
     I break an egg
     I'll think of
     you.
     scramble with
     fork
 
     and then turn up
     the flame
     if I
     have
     one.

This poem has an attractive petulance, and the motif of chicken, worm, egg, is original. Also the minimalist lines work well. Yet, Bukowski drifts into cuteness; the starch in the initial images is smothered under narcissism.

Particularly off-putting is Bukowski's obsession with fame. In "The difference between a bad poet and a good one is luck," he regales us with his life in Philadelphia when he was broke, trying to write, and waiting for the ultimate handout to enable him to sit around "drinking wine on credit and watching the hot pigeons suffer and fuck." He hops a train to Texas, and busted for vagrancy, is dumped off in the next town where he meets a woman who gives him so many teeth marks he thinks he'll get cancer. In prime macho fashion, he greets a bunch of his mistress' cowboy friends:

     I had on a pair of old bluejeans, and they said
     oh, you're a writer, eh?
     and I said: well, some think so.
     and some still think so …
     others, of course, haven't wised up yet.
     two weeks later they
     ran me out
     of town.

He seems wistfully amused that trash men busy about their work don't know that he, Great Poet, is alive—a thought held, I would guess, by all great men who snicker in their martinis: "Oh, if they only knew how near to greatness they are banging those trash cans down there …" In "Lost" Bukowski waxes philosophical in the manner of a hip-Merwin. The Big Conclusion? "We can't win it." Who's surprised? "Just for awhile," folks, "we thought we could." This Life Significance Statement serves up duck-music as distinct from nightingale music. The loquaciousness is typical of his recent poetry. I call it gab poetry. The gab poem is related to Chaucer's fabliaux. Obscenities are sexual: a husband shoves a hot iron rod up his wife's lover's anus whilst the lover is taking a crap out her boudoir window; an old husband's young wife is being swyved in a tree just out of eyeshot of the old fart, standing amidst the flowers.

"Hot" is a good example of gab poetry. The speaker's been working at the post office, see, on a night pickup run. He knows Miriam the delicious whore is at home waiting for him, deadline 8 p.m. At the last pickup the truck stalls. Miriam is waiting. Speaker arrives late to find Miriam gone. She's left a note propped against his pillow, addressed to "son of bitch." The note is held in place by a purple teddy bear. Speaker gives the bear (heh heh) a drink and has one himself, the poem is prose cut up into boozy breath-groups. Nothing much poetically catches the ear—this is in a sense a one-shot (as in bourbon) piece.

Some poems, like "Burn and burn and burn," set in bars, exude an easy cynicism. Petulance accompanies the "vomiting into plugged toilets / in rented rooms full of roaches and mice":

     well, I suppose the days were made
     to be wasted
     the years and the loves were made
     to be wasted

Instead of the Victorian Ernest Dowson's roses and lilies of rapture (and vice), vomit and plugged toilets cram Buk's wasted days.

Perhaps, if we persist, we'll find the secret of life tucked inside a plastic envelope inside a box of Bukowski Creepy-Crawly, Vomit, Crunch Cereal. Jesus Christ, says Buk, "should have laughed on the cross." There's a secret here somewhere. When Bukowski equates himself with Christ, he's maudlin:

     out of the arms of one love
     and into the arms of another
     I have been saved from dying on the cross
     by a lady who smokes pot
     writes songs and stories.
     and is much kinder than the last,
     much much kinder,
     and the sex is just as good or better.
     it isn't pleasant to be put on the cross and left
     there,
     it is much more pleasant to forget a love which
     didn't
     work
     as all love
     finally
     doesn't work….

Beautiful people, says Bukowski, "don't make it … they die in flame … they commit suicide …" They "are found at the edge of a room / crumpled into spiders and needles and silence." They "die young / and leave the ugly to their ugly lives …"

One superb new poem, "the catch," is as good as any Bukowski has written. Guesses are that a strange fish is a Hollow-Back June whale, a Billow-Wind sand-groper, or a Fandango Espadrille with stripes. Folks don't agree. They examine the creature; it's "grey and covered with hair / and fat." It stinks like "old socks." Joyously, the creature promenades along the pier chomping hot dogs, riding the merry-go-round, and hopping a pony. It falls into the dust. "Grop, grop," it goes. Followed by a crowd, it returns to the pier where it falls backwards and thrashes about. Somebody pours beer over its head. "Grop, grop." It dies, and people roll it into the ocean and argue further over its name.

Charles Bukowski is an easy poet to love, fear, and hate. He develops personal legends as dude, boozer, and womanizer. And he can be winsome, almost childlike. By stressing his personality I perhaps short change his poetry. It shouldn't matter that he vomits a lot, gets laid less often than he'd like, that seventy-seven new poems appeared in little magazines this year, or that he's Black Sparrow's leading commodity. Many readers prefer his fiction to his verse. The latter, I think, even with the flaws, remains a more durable art than his prose.

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