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Welcome to SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY

Vol.3. No. 4. July - September 2010

 


CONTRIBUTORS

BOOK REVIEW

SECTIONS

Afam Akeh
Andy Willoughby
Claire Girvan
Christian Ward
Derek Adams
Esiaba Irobi
Hannah Lowe
Hunter Liguore
Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye
Karunamay Sinha
Kate Horsley
Laura Solomon
Lookman Sanusi
Malcolm Bray
Mark Lewis
Moa-Aaricia Lindunger
N Quentin Woolf
Nina Romano
Nnorom Azuonye
Norbert O. Eze
Olu Oguibe
Pius Adesanmi
Robert Lee Frazier
Toyin Adepoju
Uche Nduka
Wayne Scheer
Zino Asalor
 

 

Title: The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993
Author: Charles Bukowski (Edited by John Martin)
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd (14 January 2010)

Paperback: 528 pages

 

Bukowski revisited

By
Afam Akeh

Pleasures is not a ‘complete works’ collection but it does c
laim to offerreaders the definitive Bukowski… “the best of the best” of his poems. That claim invites reflection and judgement on his significance as a representative voice of 20th century poetry and poetics. For readers coming to Pleasures, already familiar with Bukowski’s work, there are clues on the covers of this paperback edition by Canongate indicating the nature of his intervention in American poetry. I intend to begin with these physical clues. This bulge of a book is a paean to excess, as was the poet in his cultivated reputation and later physical appearance. Top of the front cover is a banner quote from the New York Times Book Review introducing it as ‘The Definitive Volume of Bukowski’s Poems’. It probably is. The physical book certainly is. It is in black and white, but mostly dark. Not much range then in the colour scheme, just the basic and obvious, and in this way the presentation of the physical book unwittingly supports adverse critical reception of Bukowski’s work – the opinion that it lacks subtlety, layering or complexity. That may be true to an extent, but we are not quite done with the colour metaphor because on the cover of this book, there are also the significant grey areas, the neither-nor inference we also legitimately draw from engaging the poet of Pleasures and his work.

Let us indulge this game of interpretation further. The poet’s face is a dominant presence on the book cover, aged but younger than he looked in his last years, full silver beard and companion cigarette in view. This craggy, uneven face is scarred by its history of ungoverned moments. His face and name compete for space on the front cover with the book title, suggesting the kind of poetry to be found in the book. Bukowski is without apology all about Bukowski. The poetry is contemporary, with the centred presence of the poet as protagonist in his uneven, rawhide chronicle of the damned human way. This is poetry distanced from the studied impersonality and formalism of the leading modernists. If Ezra Pound and his modernist collaborators were obsessed with ‘making it new’, contemporary poetry has been about ‘keeping it real’. Bukowski took this further, not only keeping his poetry real but also making it street. And very personal. But Bukowski’s confessionals bear little similarity with the dedicated self-surgeries of the school of Lowell and Plath. These two were tortured aesthetes still influenced by formal traditions, whose deep sorrow was always going to kill them, and their poems represented that. Bukowski was perhaps just as scarred, tortured and suicidal but it is also evident from his poems that for much of his life he was too drunk on ‘wine’ and women, too much the celebrant of experience, too focused on earning as a writer, and much too rational about those social and creative pressures which felled Lowell and Plath, to let himself be overwhelmed.

Canongate’s Pleasures also seems to reflect Bukowski’s preference for familiar and informal usages with its choice of cover print types. His name and book title are rendered in a seemingly inexpert scrawl, as if some mischief-maker, graffiti artist or rights protester happened upon rarefied space, perhaps a government building, and with unsteady hands painted subversive information on it. This would agree with Bukowski’s attempted assault on the edifice of American poetry. This ‘scrawled’ type on the front cover prepares readers for those poems in which Bukowski’s rebellion is most evident. Still studying the cover, we find his craggy, triangular face staring into the distance, as if to unravel some unstated mystery, looking very much like the prophet some admirers of his work think he was. This leads to the question: What kind of ‘prophet’ was Bukowski? Again the physical book supplies the answer – on its back cover, where there are several laudatory comments on his work and worth. Leonard Cohen, the poet and lyricist, is quoted on Bukowski: “He brought everything down to earth, even the angels.” TIME magazine lauds him as “A laureate of American low life”. So, we do know from the cover of Pleasures what kind of prophet we meet in the poetry of Bukowski. There is reported uncertainty about the sources for one or more of these acclamations his publishers have used, and that too is woven into the fabric of the Bukowskian legend. It seems wasteful seeking verification for what he claims happened in his poems and storytelling, or what others are supposed to have said about him. Did he or did he not? Did they or did they not? Does it really matter? In the legend of Bukowski, as indeed his poetics, it would seem that nothing is inviolable, every real or imagined human experience open to recording, and re-interpretation, as art.

‘Come on in’, the title of a poem in this omnibus collection and also title-poem of an earlier publication, seems to say it well:

welcome to my wormy hell.
the music grinds offkey.
fish eyes watch from the wall.
………………………………….
hello. hello there. come in, come on in!
plenty of room here for us all,
sucker.
………………………………….
it’s half-past
nowhere
everywhere.

There is that seeming absence of filters and drainage, his perpetually open door to whatever others may choose to exclude or deny from their own lives or work or memory. Come in, come on in! The invitation seems open-ended, but, as he readily warns in that poem, there is no real refuge or deliverance offered when a seeker does come into the ‘truth’ and world of the seer Bukowski. His open door may in fact be a trap door to hell – an entrance into some kind of den or web. All functionally similar metaphors apply – the boudoir, for example. You enter at your risk, as ‘suckers’, he playfully suggests, to get laid or be eaten or corrupted in some way. You enter as one of the damned. There is fellow-feeling in this invitation, this offer of a shared space, but it is a service being offered by a prophet of the damned to fellow travellers, and no altruism is promised. Nothing is taken off the table. You trust and enter at your peril. It is a hard and painful life and shit happens, so, buyer beware, he takes care to warn. In this poem and others by Bukowski, there is apparent indignation at social and existential injustice but it is rooted in the moral code of canines. The Bukowski dog will eat and expects that it may be eaten by other dogs. He does not offer the missionary or transformative rage of the Beat poets, those radical ideologues and contemporaries with whom he was sometimes compared. His is a survivalist’s instinctive sensitivity to existential denial and personal rights. It is also a gut rejection of the routine – and, to Bukowski, incomplete – middle class life (‘Safe’ and ‘My Friend William’). Anti-establishment or counter-cultural rebellion in the Beats was educated and organised away from its more visceral representation in Bukowski, who remained a loner, close to his angry streets. He considered Ginsberg and his fellow Beats to be establishment types, too ‘unreal’, and did not really care to associate with them much. He did not seek organised channels for venting the rage of the streets. His restricted himself to modelling that rage in his work and life.

There is evidence in his diaries, letters and responses to interviewers that Bukowski, just like Hunter J. Thompson, may have been overly conscious of his reputation as a wild-living, non-conforming type, aware that this reputation was part of his brand, and so felt pressured to continuously live up to and exploit it in his writing. Therefore it may be overstretching the evidence, as some do, to imagine or invent Bukowski as some determined class warrior challenging unjust corporate and establishment representations of the American dream. There is certainly in his work, mostly in the fiction but also in some poems, what can be identified as a political Bukowski. It is not certain, however, that his cultivated rebellion from a lifetime of exposure to challenges, including work-family difficulties, can be constructed as a sustained critical and creative power confrontation with oppressive agencies and systems.

It is also uncertain what to make of Bukowski’s continuing rebellion even in his distinguished last years, and that image he created and continued to nurture of himself as a loser. These later Bukowskian years had their history of ill health and that may explain the continued emblematic use of suffering and denial in his work. But for Bukowski, this world of the later twentieth century had also changed in other ways. He was no longer an unknown struggling writer and the world in which he would die was not quite the ‘black or white’ world of his beginnings. By the 1980s and ‘90s, the splintered representations and other ambiguities of postmodern realism had complicated rebellion’s moral code, and its sense of identity and entitlement to difference. Under challenge were the conflicted sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, true and false, and other similar binaries evident in Bukowski’s poetry and in the post-war and mid-century cultural life of his formative years as a writer. Even the later years of his productive life were driven by cultural uncertainty. Globalisation, transnationality and hybridity became the operative words.

By those later years of the twentieth century, the ideological and culture wars, profoundly influential on the thought of Bukowski’s literary generation, had lost their early intensity, affected by the extremism of some activists and the revisionism or disillusionment of others. Fatalities and other adverse consequences from the revolutionary cocktail of angst, separatism and excess had become an issue. The resulting contrition and related effects of aging was settling the footloose. By those later decades of the twentieth century, the romance or myth of the poet as perpetual outsider, given mid-century literary currency by the Beats and Bukowski, had lost many believers. The major poets increasingly settled in respectable academic careers as many still do. If by these final decades of his career, contemporary life was not so ‘black and white’, not so innocent or hopeful, no longer given to the moral certitude and revolutionary fervour of earlier years, how did Bukowski sustain his visionary rage in life and art? He remained remarkably productive on those terms well into the 1990s, dashing off new poems like signatures, many to be published posthumously, though he did also become differently concerned with the matter of his mortality in these last poems of his twilight moments.

Could it be that Bukowski simply ‘carried on’ with his much advertised rage even when the period rebellion of his poetry constituency was losing whatever influence it may have had on American poetry and poetics? It appears that he did. Some of his more implacable critics are that way because there is also a part of the Bukowski story that is inclined to myth-making. In Bukowski, or our reception of his work and life, the bullshit has been inseparable from the real deal. The poet, his primary publisher and an army of loyal fans have all been contributors in the creation of his larger than life poetic persona. In one moment during the 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine (‘The Pock-Marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski’, by Glenn Esterly), Bukowski attempted to charm his interviewer with stories intended to progress some popular understanding about him, including the myth that he was some kind of ‘sex god’. This attempt at influencing or reinforcing public opinion he considered favourable failed because his interviewer had earlier spoken to Linda, the woman who would become the poet’s second wife, and she had volunteered the information that she was really the teacher in her sexual partnership with Bukowski. During the same interview, the poet takes a phone call from Linda and jokes that he is feeding lies to a reporter who happens to be lapping it all up. A joke, yes, but how many of these ‘jokes’ or imagined realities (fictions) in the work and life of Bukowski were believed or misunderstood as true or real experiences? In the poem, ‘A Great Writer’, he observes how the fans of some unnamed reclusive writer were desperately trying to see or contact the man after he had dramatically withdrawn from public life. The poem concludes with the poet rather taken by the idea of being wanted by so many and yet being so eminently unavailable.

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Afam Akeh currently at Oxford Brookes University, in Oxford, UK, is a poet-journalist and former pastor. He is the Founding Editor of African Writingand author of Stolen Moments (Lagos: Malthouse, 1988). A second collection of poems, Letter Home and Other Poems is forthcoming.

 

Grab your copy of The Pleasures of the Damned.

(A great way of supporting SLQ)

 

 

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