Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way by Charles Bukowski

“I do my job each day
empties crushed and fired away
and there is nothing worse than
an undetermined person
can I amuse you please
with my subspace biographies?”
— Robert Pollard, “Subspace Biographies”

During high school in Virginia Beach, I drank up the Beats, especially the East Coast “genesis” of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso. I read constantly, tearing through anything I could get my hands on, and writing in their veins just as much. Their work was fuel, and by God, I was gonna drive.

I idolized their individualism, their fringe-dwelling, their suffering, weakness, sincerity, energy, their essential self-education (so that every book and every experience seems necessary and natural — not formalized, but literally INforming), their hilarious and horrific writing. Above all, I cherished the eerily ecstatic moments when a Ginsberg image-phrase or a Kerouac sentiment-sprawl would seem to correspond precisely to the phrases on the tip of my mind’s tongue, things I’d seen all my life in Virginia, or swells in my heart that I couldn’t understand, only observe and wonder at. I loved that they seemed to go against the mass preconceptions of what literature should be; I loved that they corresponded to and inspired what mine were becoming.

So if I’d read Charles Bukowski when I was sixteen, I’m pretty sure he’d be part of my fire department.

Except for 2002, every year since his 1994 death has seen a posthumous collection of poems, stories, or letters published. Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way is the first of five posthumous collections of poetry to be published by Ecco Press. According to Ecco’s Daniel Halpern, “The poems that comprise these books were selected by the author himself from earlier collections; he would check the poems he liked best and John Martin would file them away for the posthumous books — so in effect, these final five volumes contain what the author considered to be his finest writing.”

The Los Angeles Times Book Review has rightly noted “Wordsworth, Whitman, William Carlos Williams and the Beats in their respective generations moved poetry toward a more natural language. Bukowski moved it a little farther.” This movement almost single-handedly accounts for Bukowski’s popularity as well as his infamy. While any of the above poets broke important ground and deserve to be read and studied, I have heard more than one writer-professor lament that Williams and Ginsberg — by tearing down the ivory tower and celebrating “real people’s” language — are responsible for a disgusting amount of the lazy-minded writers we have today (but this is more the fault of the successors than the earlier poets).

And there are no doubt plenty of Bukowski imitators. But his natural language certainly makes him a quick and easy read, in terms of “literariness.” While I’d argue that there are levels and a subtlety to the best of his poems, there is always a readily apparent surface to his work — you don’t have to frown to simply read them and follow what’s going on. Poetry is an art still fraught with misconceptions, stacked decks, elitist politics in the guise of compassion, intentional obscurity in the name of being “new” or “different,” sloppy self-indulgence in the name of edgy confessionalism, students who think every word is a symbol, readers who think interpretation is an act akin to disfiguration, and poets who are equally indifferent to both language and life. In a sense, one of Bukowski’s achievements is how he forces us to take the poems literally, directly, straight-up.

We can “run” with Bukowski’s poems. There are sideline implications (the plangent undercurrent to the comical rage of “this dog”), and his work may not always be only what is on the surface, but for once we’re faced with a writer who seems intent on writing “straightly,” without any cute literary tricks. This is not to say that he’s without talent or craft, that experience is secondary, nor is it to advocate amateur writers who have next to no knowledge of literary history. It’s to say that, at least in Bukowski’s work, authenticity — so easy to recognize, but so rare to find — is the spine.

Sifting begins with “so you want to be a writer?”, a kind of open epistle which predominantly seems aimed at preventing the proliferation of writers who write for the wrong reasons (fame, sex, money, imitation) and ends up as a kind of solemn celebration of writing for the only true reason — because you have to, because “the sun inside you is/burning your gut.”

Bukowski gives at least four other poems to this mission and calling: “neither Shakespeare nor Mickey Spillane,” “the interview,” “the horse player,” and “a sickness.” With varying degrees of success, these three target the tameness of the American literary scene, which typically publishes and rewards “clever careful crap.” And of course he backs his rage up in the writing, famous for tales of drinking, poverty, promiscuity, violence, arguments, profanity, gambling, defiance — and this collection is no exception. But the question I then ask has to do with what is daring (and meaningfully so, not merely an exercise or a performance), especially these days, and especially in this art? It should go without saying that just because writing is rough doesn’t mean it’s strong, and unintelligibility is not automatically revolutionary. Bukowski writes in “burning, burning”:

there are no daring lives anymore,
none at all.
the only daring activity left is when
we kill.
and I’m not preaching or suggesting.
I’m simply telling you how
it is.

He may be partly addressing his own maverick celebrity, and the last two lines are a comment on all of his work, but it still raises the question of risk, and ultimately the results of risk.

It’s not a perfect measure, but the simplest response to this question goes back to the issue of necessity: the style of the life is reflected in the style of the writing. And the book does follow a life: there are memories of self-entertaining childhood fantasies (“my secret life”), a dramatic monologue (“this dog”), an everyday browsing with the wife (“straw hats”), a colonoscopy narrative (“the longest snake in the world”) that freeloads on the ha-ha nature of its subject matter, the obligatory-but-engaging story of two drunk lovers (“empties” — a wonderful, subtle, colloquial, everyday pun), a few impressively straight and succinct political poems (“riots,” “Venice Beach,” “the con job”), poems about traffic and the gods (“my big night on the town,” “Los Angeles”), a recurrence of cats, a narrative critique of the American economy (“commerce”) that ends “shit on the world,” the catalog of a father’s favorite sayings with a vicious ending (“in one ear and out the other”), and several moving meditations on death. “unclassical symphony” has an Imagist economy and suddenness:

the cat murdered
in the middle of the street


now it is nothing

and neither are


Like any prolific writer such as Whitman or Ginsberg (Bukowski is easier to read than either one), there are plenty of weak spots, some almost shruggish efforts. Stanzas like “real/loneliness/is not/necessarily/limited to/when/you are/alone” and “we were made to accomplish the easy/things/and made to live through the things that are/hard”? Sure, sturdy truths, but yeah, yeah, essentially recycled proverbs. I am absolutely awed by the first two-thirds of “heads without faces, seen in all the places” with its Drummond de Andrade- like balance of hope, horror, self-reflection, and observation (“November creeps on all fours/like a leper”), and then falls limp into flat expository distinctions (“it’s not the waiting/it’s the waste…one who thus believes,/concedes”). There is also a tendency for what I can only call flaccid, almost arbitrary endings that seem to be casual epiphanies, but lack the resonance of a bruise that are in my favorite poems.

But take a quick look at “re-union”:

when you left I thought you’d never
return and finally I got to feeling good
about that.

now it’s starting all over

right here
right now.

I watch
the pyramids stand by quietly as the monkey eats his

once again
we seem to be as
content as a package of

bleached by the sun
and then

caught like
ringing bell.

I bet the line breaks here give some craft-fetishizers fits (I’d grant them that the third stanza may be a bit tiresome), but I can’t help marvel at the word choice, the shifts of imagery, tone, and scene. This strange love song with pyramids and peanuts — come on, it’s a beauty.

“Regular people” can read and appreciate Bukowski. I doubt scholars will find a distinct identity in each successive volume of his posthumous work, but that doesn’t seem terribly unusual to me. Ecco’s commitment and Buk’s prolific publication from the afterlife certainly seem to be signs of either a giant literary figure or, ok I’ll say it, a money-making literary pulper. He’s made it into established anthologies of college poetry, but I can’t say that’s an automatic granting of some laurel to the barfly. All I can say is this: if a product of both construction work and graduate school like me finds so much to like — despite the definite lapses — then something must be up.