‘At Terror Street and Agony Way’ by Charles Bukowski

When it was decided that ‘The YEAR Club’ would be reading books from 1968 I thought it would give me a chance to revisit an old favourite author of mine, Charles Bukowski. In the past I had read many of his books consisting of novels, short-stories and poems. But looking at his output from 1968 reveals only two chapbooks of poetry, both with superb titles, At Terror Street and Agony Way and Poems Writtten Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window, neither of which I had read before but both of which are relatively difficult, and therefore expensive, to buy. I did briefly consider buying a copy of ‘8 Story Window’, partly due to the cover, but my natural stinginess kicked in and I realised that most of the poems from ‘Terror Street’ were contained in the two, relatively cheap, kindle editions of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame and The Roominghouse Madrigals; so I have cheated a little bit by reading from these collections rather than the original.

For the record ‘Terror Street’ contains forty-three poems, of which twenty-eight are in ‘Burning in Water’ and another nine are in ‘Roominghouse Madrigals’. Why the collections don’t contain all the poems from the original chapbooks is not mentioned in the introductions. In Bukowski’s introduction to ‘Burning in Water’ he mentions that the only copy of the poems in ‘Terror Street’ had been thrown away after making a tape recording of them. They later had to be transcribed from the recording before being published in 1968. The poems were written between 1965 and 1968.

It is fair to say that Bukowski splits opinion; it’s true that he is coarse, sexist, brutal and many more things besides, but he’s not these things all of the time and he can, and does, share more tender, intellectual and thoughtful moments. What initially attracted me to his writing was his brutal honesty, his indifference to much of life and his ‘fuck-you’ attitude. Bukowski was of the Beat generation and became popular with the hippy generation but his attitude was probably closer, in some ways, to the punk generation; Bukowski, however, didn’t identify with any movements and was quite happy to be a loner, in fact I think he revelled in his loner status and loved to incite hatred from people, or at least some sort of reaction.

I don’t read or understand much poetry so I’m totally unaware as to how Bukowski’s poetry compares to other poems but I suspect that it’s not favourable. Although I prefer his prose, his poems have an immediacy that makes them fun to read. He would have liked us to believe that he wrote most of them whilst drunk or drinking and, knowing a little of Bukowski, I believe this is probably true, at least until his later life. His casually wanton and crude manner aligns him in some ways with the punk ethos of producing an immediate, punchy, uninhibited, low-brow art form rather than some elegantly crafted work that only a few literary professors can understand.

A lot of his poems and prose is about drinking, fighting, going to the races, having sex with prostitutes, arguing with landladies, working crappy jobs etc. But some of his poems are about everyday events such as sleeping, getting dressed, going to the shops. Here is the beginning of the poem on going out to get the mail:

the droll noon
where squadrons of worms creep up like
stripteasers
to be raped by blackbirds.
I go outside
and all up and down the street
the green armies shoot color
like an everlasting 4th of July,
and I too seem to swell inside,
a kind of unknown bursting, a
feeling, perhaps, that there isn’t any
enemy
anywhere.

The poem living covers a similar domestic event where Bukowski has spent the whole day sleeping, enjoying not having to go to work or do anything at all. Eventually, though, he has to rouse himself:

and I had to get up and go to the urinal
and I hated to get up and go to the urinal
because somebody had thrown paper, some loser had thrown paper
into the toilet again and it wouldn’t
flush, and when I came back out
everybody had nothing to do but look at my
face
and I am so tired
that they know when they see my face
that I hate
them
and then they hate me
and want to
kill me
but don’t.

Here’s a poem, called the flower lover from the collection that’s a bit different from the others, but it still contains his grim sense of humour. Bukoswski is very often quite funny. Anyway, here’s the poem in full:

in the Valkerie Mountains
among the strutting peacocks
I found a flower
as large as my
head
and when I reached in to smell
it
I lost an earlobe
part of my nose
one eye
and half a pack of
cigarettes.
I came back
the next day
to hack the damned thing
down
but found it so
beautiful I
killed a
peacock
instead.

In his work Bukowski fluctuates between arrogance and self-deprecation; here’s an example where he’s having fun with his own supposed arrogance in a poem called the difference between a bad poet and a good one is luck in which a writer tries to earn money by his writing, failing to do so he gets work on the railroads, he then ends up holed up in a small town in Texas:

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 quite wised up yet.
two weeks later they
ran me out
of town.

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11 Comments

Filed under Bukowski, Charles, poetry

11 responses to “‘At Terror Street and Agony Way’ by Charles Bukowski

  1. I’ve read a couple of Bukowski novels and they both made me laugh. Then I read a recent compilation of uncollected works and it was basically porn. Probably why it was uncollected in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Is that ‘The Bell Tolls for No One’? I have a kindle copy but haven’t read it yet. I can’t really imagine Bukowski writing decent porn as he always makes sex seem rather disgusting; in that sense I wouldn’t call his normal writing pornographic. He sometimes tried to play up to his image of a dirty old man too much and I find his work became a bit dull when he did that; ‘Women’ is a good example of that.

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  2. There are some good Bukowski poems. I remember close reading a poem of his about a bad father – can’t remember the name now. And yes, it does often feel like he plays to an audience…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I think most people could find something they’d like in his work as it’s not all about hard-living. He did like to shock people and stick his fingers up to the establishment. Some of his short stories are excellent – Hot Water Music contains some excellent stories from the ’80s.

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  3. Thank you for bringing us something different for 1968 – it’s proving to be a very fertile year. And though I don’t count myself amongst Bukowski’s fans, I do like ‘the flower lover’!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Well, given that the year was 1968 I thought I had to make sure there was something that represented the hippy/counter-culture or whatever we want to call it. I was going to do a post on Zap comix and other underground comix but that would have meant having to find them first and I’ve had a very busy period at work which sort of squashed that idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great to have some poetry included – thank you! Not sure he’s my cup of tea, but glad to have him in the 1968 club 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: #1968Club – Stuck in a Book

  6. Pingback: The 1968 Club: Come and Gone | Intermittencies of the Mind

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