I may have written once that I didn’t think Bukowski’s poetry was inherently terrible. I had read a few online or seen quotes on Tumblr and I was like, “Oh, okay. See, that’s not too bad!” And then I went about my life because in all honesty poetry isn’t my bag.
And then a friend of mine said, “I have presents for you.” First of all, you should know that 90% of simple statements by this person are jokes that are equally not funny. Second of all, he takes special pride in pissing me off. And so I have Love Is A Dog From Hell and Post Office in my house, after foisting Women off on him because I couldn’t stand to even see it on my shelves.
So this poetry. I can honestly say I read the book in one night, but not because I enjoyed it. With a book like…honestly any of the Harry Potter series, I would read as if the story was my fuel to survive. I remember waiting in line, in costume, just to be one of the very first to get my hands on a book. And then I would read it in 7 hours in a race against the sun except I was not Icarus and totally always won. #takethatloser
The reason I read through Bukowski’s poetry so quickly is simple: I love to rage read. I love it because it simply gets me from point A to point B in a rush of adrenaline and vicious page turning. As I’ve said in my previous blog, I believe it’s important to read things you hate. How do you know what’s good unless you have a clear and present case for what isn’t? If you aren’t careful, you can be blindsided by ignorance: i.e. the 2016 Election or what I like to call the realization that all my societal ideas and mores were not shared by more people than originally thought, or better yet “Goddamnit, America, y u so racist?”
To get down to it, I rage read through this collection of poetry and only liked two or three. In the effort of fairness, I’ll discuss them at the end. But for now, two very rage-worthy examples:
This poem is so frustrating in so many ways. It’s supposed to convey perhaps an inherent goodness in the subject of the poem, a “beast” of a man with a “big white belly and those hairy feet”, who has “fat hands paws like a cat” and “the biggest balls I’ve ever seen“. All that is well and good, I don’t mind the simple imagery. It’s concrete and does what it should.
Then we get to the line “you shoot sperm like a whale shoots water out of the hole in its back” and I’m like HOLD UP NOW. Why? I get the whole image whale/sperm/spermaceti thing; anyone who has even glanced at a copy of Moby Dick can get it. But this is a trend in Bukowski, that “shooting” becomes this epitome of masculinity, something that adds to the desire of a man who otherwise seems pretty “eh”. The lines after this end the poem “beast beast beast/ she kissed me,/ what do you want for/ breakfast?” I can’t tell if it’s an effort to normalize this ridiculous masculine imagery or an explanation that the central figure deserves some grub because he did what he was programmed to do with those giant balls of his.
how to be a great writer
Oh. Oh boy. Give me a second here. I’ve been thinking about how to approach this piece for weeks. There are loads of people who celebrate Bukowski as a great writer, a writer who “tells it like it is“, a writer who “doesn’t pull any punches.” Yeah, okay. Those are the same reasons we as a nation got stuck with a slimy orange popsicle as a president. So that shit doesn’t fly with me.
I think some of what Bukowski does is just lazy drunkenness. He doesn’t fully form characters, he gives quick snapshots of scenes that are often blurry or vague, and his writing about women seems severely lacking despite the fact that it seems to be his favorite subject of all.
So how does this man tell me how to be a “great” writer?
By telling me to get drunk. That’s it folks, write when you’re drunk. Like Hemmingway! Like Celine! Never mind the fact that they sucked as humans and one of them was a Nazi sympathizer. At least their art was good, eh? At least their work spoke for itself.
Now, I like to get drunk. It’s a great time. But I will never mix writing and drinking together because frankly, that’s when things get nasty. That’s when dependence begets alcoholism. And having my fair share of run-ins with alcoholics in the past, that’s the last thing I want to do while trying to be a “great” writer.
Also, “fuck a lot of women“, beautiful women, and write love poetry about it despite the fact that there’s no love there to begin with. The interesting thing about Bukowski’s way of writing that drunkenness/race tracks/women are the pinnacles of romantic idealism while being a writer is the wholly empty feeling you get out of everything. There’s no connection to something richer and darker within. Every link to a broader concept lies on the surface like oil on water.
There is a guy I’ll listen to regarding “great” writing, and you can’t argue he isn’t successful and prolific in his own way. I’d rather read an entire book on writing rather than a poem, but if you don’t have the time to check out Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir, here’s a handy article illustrating what I deem as pretty good advice. Take it from a man who’s gone through the “writing under the influence” rigamarole and come out the other side, thinking it complete bullshit.
Again, there are some poems by Bukowski I don’t out-and-out hate. You can’t hate everything a writer does because obviously there was some golden nugget in their prose or verse to warrant publishing. And Bukowski does have his golden nuggets, no matter how dusty or overlooked they may be.
This is a great example of how Bukowski can build an image, make it short and succinct, and show an entire thought process all-in-one. You start with the image of a dog that’s been hit by a car, “your body curled/ red blowing out of/ ass and mouth”. The perspective shifts to the driver, who just gives the most fantastic stream of great bullshit reasons why he can’t stop for this dog. “How would it look/for me to be holding/ a dying dog…” “blood seeping into my/ shirt and pants and/ shorts and socks and/ shoes?” “besides, I figure the 2/ horse in the first race/ and I wanted to hook/ him with the 9/ in the second” “so I had to let that/ dog die alone there/ just across from the/ shopping center/ with the ladies look-/ing for bargains/ as the first bit of/ snow fell upon the/ Sierra Madre“.
It’s so quick, so choppy. He doesn’t need to use diction that’s drastic, he can use simple words and phrases to detail this brief image in a way that I can’t quite picture in poems like you and how to be a great writer. Their phrases shock the senses rather than appeal to them.
a 56 year old poem
This is my favorite poem by Bukowski of all time. It’s the only time he gets heavily specific with his writing, and I just about die. In the scene he sets, he goes with two women to look for antique furniture. He goes in, sees everything is hella expensive, and dips out to wait for the ladies.
By the time this pair of women come out of this antique store, this guy has gone to the bar where “everybody was nervous and young/ and blonde and pale,” gone to the liquor for 4 beers, and has finished the last one in the car. “they asked me if I was all right./ I told them that every experience/ meant something/ and that they had pulled me out of/ my usual murky/ current.” One of the women buys a table for $100 bucks, and she asks the dude how he feels about it. “I said I thought it was all right,/ sometimes I lose one hundred dollars at the/ racetrack.”
But the kicker is, when they’re in bed that night, he can’t finish. “I think it was/ because I was thinking about that marble table.” He doesn’t have things like that at his place, doesn’t have any problems at his place, doesn’t understand antiques, “I’m sure it’s a giant/ con.”
Here’s what I gather from this: the subject that is obviously another fictionalized version of Bukowski tries to equate this table to the racetrack, to something he understands and seems fine with, but in the end can’t wrap his head around. He tries to be a certain way around these women and can’t pull it off, can’t understand their desires or needs. He prides himself on being cool and calm, on knowing exactly what he wants and thinks he knows what women want, but in the end he’s struck by something so inconsequential it throws him off his game. I like seeing the entirety of the scene, I like seeing the little shit that bothers this character, and I like seeing that this guy who lives and breathes toxic masculinity get so riled.
In short, Bukowski is great with clear snapshot scenes, and rather sucktastic when he’s patronizing to the masses about women and writing. The whole ARTISTIC vision of alcholism and neurosis falls flat in comparison with stark, singular moments that hold more depth than half of his continuous refrain about boozing and broads and being great just by being a bad human.