Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), Essential Bukowski: Poetry, Fourth Estate, paperback, 218pp, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 00 822515 5 (British edition; US edition also available)
“To the whore who took my poems” opens:
some say we should keep personal remorse from the poem,
stay abstract, and there is some reason in this,
12 poems gone and I don’t keep carbons and you have my
paintings too, my best ones; it’s stifling:
are you trying to crush me out like the rest of them?
Bukowski was a vastly prolific poet, far too prolific for the good of his reputation and for his readers’ patience, but writing was a lifeline for Bukowski. It made sense of a crazy world and a crazy life. It was a way of fending off despair and madness and anger that would have turned his heart black. He wrote more than he needed to and more than any half-critical reader would have wanted him to. He wrote because he had to. When his publisher John Martin restricted publishing his collections of poetry to a volume a year (when Bukowski produced enough material for three collections a year), Bukowski claimed he was being suffocated. Bukowski had a point but Martin also had one. One volume a year was commercially viable and kept the cream of the recent years’ production circulating, though Bukowski claimed some of his best material was never collected. Besides, Bukowski published prodigiously in fanzines and obscure journals. The real issue was not about making work available but control of the poet’s reputation. For a man who had deep-seated resentment towards his authoritarian father, any constriction on the publication of his writing might have felt to Bukowski like a constriction on his windpipe.
Anyone facing the task of selecting the best of Bukowski’s poetry has questions to answer to his own satisfaction: What is most characteristic of the poet? Of the many repetitions of a theme, which version is better to select: the grandly sweeping or the concisely understated? Do popular favourites select themselves or should I exclude poems that fans might expect to encounter? Beyond these questions is the sheer effort of reading and digesting thousands of poems in an analytical frame of mind. The editor also has to decide how to balance the expectations of long-time fans with neophytes who may never have read more than snippets. Every selection of highlights such as this volume has also to be an introduction to the poetry, in this case the work of a poet very diverse in range, tone and subject. Almost the only constants are the use of free-verse form and lack of meter and rhyme.
Editor Abel Debritto points out in his introduction to this new selection, that these 92 poems represent 2% of Bukowski’s surviving output. Almost all of the poems (dating from the late 1950s up to 1994, the year of Bukowski’s death) are in chronological order, allowing us to see Bukowski develop as a poet and a thinker. This is – if needed – final proof that in old age Bukowski never went soft or sold out and never lost his talent. If anything, the late poems are even crisper and drier than the early works. I’ll confess my favourite poem, “no. 6”, a lovely poem about watching horses at the track, made the selection and I’m happy for it.
In Essential Bukowski we encounter the poet as a raging juvenile, a street-preaching philosopher who does not believe in philosophy, a son in revolt, a cynical lover, a furious and bereft widower, an American citizen living through a supercharged global stalemate, a writer passing judgement on art, an old sick man staring death in the face. We get poems as vulgar, desperate, funny, exciting, beautiful and incomprehensible as the world itself. The only significant aspect of Bukowski missing here is the poet as father; instead we have Bukowski as poet paternally admonishing the young, all the time his raddled face creased with a half-smile.
Bukowski writes of cats and men that survived impossible odds and stories of people driven mad by the accumulated infringements upon logic, dignity and humanity. We get stories. We get aphorisms. We get – paraphrased – the letters of fans, lectures of girlfriends and the homilies of teachers. There’s no fat and no repetition. It is a curious fact that although Bukowski wrote a fair number of wholly redundant poems, he never wrote a redundant line, barely even a misjudged word.
So much of Bukowski’s poetry is personal (even internal) that it comes as a relief when we see others in his verse. He writes of the poor. “if I suffer at this / typewriter / think how I’d feel / among the lettuce- / pickers / of Salinas” and the bums in a downtown homeless shelter. When we think of Bukowski we might picture him in a wide-collared shirt in a 1970s’ poetry reading or being interviewed on French television ten years later; it is easy to overlook the poet’s Depression-era childhood. “we ain’t got no money, honey, but we got rain” is a poetic recollection of Bukowski’s past, shot through with threads of cynicism, sadness and painful beauty.
Although Bukowski is considered a poet of the underworld, an inveterate drinker, brawler and womaniser, any reader of one or two books by him will tell you he was also a great reader. He grieved at the burning of the public library where he educated himself. It is fitting that almost the longest poem in the book is a hymn to the time he spent in that library and the writing he encountered there.
Among the best-known poems here are “the genius of the crowd”, “the bluebird”, “Dinosauria, we.”, “one for the shoeshine man” and “the shower”. The selection is very good and the length of the collection is right. The poems are all effective and assured. Beyond that the collection itself is well-paced, balancing shorter and longer pieces, biographical and general, humorous and grave. That is a tribute to the editor’s skill. A collection based purely on popularity or the editor’s own taste would probably not have worked as well as this selection. There’s not a poem here that does not, having read it, make you feel more alive and more human. For sheer reading pleasure and consistent quality of content, Essential Bukowski really is the best Bukowski book published.
Edit: It has come to my attention that the American version has 95 poems, not the 92 in the British edition. One of the poems dropped is about Marina, Bukowski’s daughter, hence the peculiar omission of that aspect of Bukowski’s poetry and life in the collection I reviewed. Nonetheless, the British edition is still a fine collection and thoroughly recommended.
18 November 2016
My other Bukowski reviews
Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/