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
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
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
and I am so tired
that they know when they see my face
that I hate
and then they hate me
and want to
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
and when I reached in to smell
I lost an earlobe
part of my nose
and half a pack of
I came back
the next day
to hack the damned thing
but found it so
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