From an early age I was attracted to poetry. Like most people my introduction to the art was through nursery rhymes and Edward Lear’s Limericks. At secondary school we were exposed to the Romantics, but also to Shakespeare, Dante, and even Kipling, a poet usually associated with the glories of the British Empire and one that who would not be considered appropriate in today’s schools (particularly those which have a high rate of children of Irish descent, as were the schools I attended).
Having left school, I continued to read poetry. T.S. Elliot was my first real passion but as time went on I began to discover a greater world. My interest in Beat poetry (particularly that of Ginsberg) led me to look at the wider world of American poetry. What struck me, as I got to learn more about the poetry of the USA, was the incredible diversity and invention from Walt Whitman and Emily Bishop to William Carlos Williams and John Berryman. It was during this time that I also happened upon the work of Charles Bukowski. It was like nothing I had ever come across in poetry. In fact I questioned whether it had any poetic value at all. The opening lines of a later poem of Bukowski summed up his work for me:
as the poems go into the thousands you realize that you've created very/ little.
In fact Bukowski was fairly prolific in his ‘poetic’ output. I had difficulty trying to understand his popularity amongst friends and serious poets. I, like many others, held Bukowski responsible for the deluge of bad poetry that seemed to be everywhere in the 70s onwards.1 It is only up until fairly recently that I have begun to re-evaluate my dismissive attitude towards this very influential poet and writer.
It was not through reviewing Bukowski’s poetry that led to my volte face, but through my understanding of the works of other, much earlier, poets. The great Roman poet Catullus [c. 84 B.C.-54 B.C.] was one of the earliest poets to react against the epic, that dominated the poetic narrative of ancient times right up to the Middle-ages. His poetry, occasionally, shows wild emotions the strength of his poetry, written in hendecasyllabic and elegiac couplets, illustrates a powerful and disciplined approach to the art.
The Andalusian-Jewish poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol [c. 1022 – 1059] was an outstanding figure of his day and proved to be widely influential. Perhaps his most important work is Fons Vitæ ["Fountain of Life"], which aimed to outline the doctrine of matter and form. It bears some comparison, in approach, to the Roman poet Lucretius and his famous work De rerum natura. Although a medieval poet, Gabirol’s work, especially the form in which he wrote, come across as incredibly modern 2
As with many cultures Persian poetry evolved from the epics and ballads of ancient times 3. The epic poem dominated much of Persian poetry. Sa'adi Shirazi’s epic The Bustan or The Tree Garden was published in 1257 and is a philosophical and epic poem that expresses Muslim virtues. However his other major publication, the collection of poems and prose that document his travels in poetry and prose 4 were probably the first poetic works of Persia to employ the Lyric approach especially to matters of love.
The great Persian poet Khāwaja Shamsu Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī, known by his pen name Hafiz (c. 1325–/1390), is a far more problematic poet. There is little agreement amongst critics and scholars about the nature of his work. Some see the mystical, others see the earthy lyricism. The Orientalist, W. M. Thackston, has said of Hafiz that he "sang a rare blend of human and mystic love so balanced... it is impossible to separate one from the other." This is probably the best appraisal of Hafiz’s work. We can deduce an element of earthliness in Hafiz’s poetry, especially those that are critical of the Islamic influence into Sufi and the attitudes and hypocrisy towards the drinking of wine. As he says: “"I am a lover and a rind 5 and a carousing wine-drinker, And all three offices I hold because of that enchanting beauty"6
If we were to look for an historical precedent of Bukowski’s poems, the Renaissance poet Cecco Angiolieri must surely rank as the forerunner. At some point in our lives we have come across the doggerel of teenage angst. Railing against the adult world and all the misery it brings down on the head of those who have not yet experienced anything of the real world but nevertheless produce a litany of complaints (in fact some of us might be guilty of the same practice in our younger days – or worse; are still doing so). Angiolieri must stand as the master of the whinge. That is not to say that Bukowski’s poems are simply a catalogue of moaning, but within Angiolieri’s poetry we find the spontaneous impulse that characterises Bukowski’s poems, in abundance. Angiolieri turns moaning into an art form and his sonnets are a wonderful example of how the most base poet can redeem themselves through their art. Like Bukowski, Angiolieri’s poetry is humorous, pathetic and frustrating.
I have selected these four poets because they each share one factor in their poetry. Each put the man at the centre of the poem and in doing so they allow us to gain a greater understanding of man universally and not just as an individual. Their poems may allow us to ‘relate’ to the poet’s predicament, but it is the strange function that we find in poetry that allows us to view poems written in the perspective of the first person to appeal to us on a universal plane, where as those in the perspective of second and third person seem to feel autobiographical (and, as some might argue, dishonest). It is no coincidence that the first three of these poets had an impact on the thinkers of the Renaissance, who put man at the centre of the Universe. Of course there could have been other poets that concerned themselves with similar ideas, but I selected these four because I feel that they capture a mood of the time very well and through their poetry created something timeless.
Catullus: vulgus homo?7
As God is my witness where is the difference between
the smell of Aemilius’ mouth and that of his arse?
The cleanness of one equals the filth of the other. Actually
his arse is probably the cleaner and nicest of the two:
there he’s without teeth, while the teeth in his mouth
are half a yard long, stuck in the gums like an old wagon
behind them the cleft cunt of a she-mule pissing in summer.
And this being copulates.
A fit dolt for the treadmill.
Considers himself an object of elegance.
Whatever woman handles this man is equally
capable of licking the arse-hole of a leprous hangman.
We have two men at the heart of this poem: the vile portrait of Aemilius and the moral.It is not the physical man that is the centre of the poem, but the essence of man. The man that Catullus gives us is greater than any other:
Utter indifference to you welfare, Caesar
is matched only by ignorance of who you are.
In his essay on Hafiz, Newell calls on Carl Jung and his theory of individuation in an attempt to explain the use of the first person in poetic narrative. He states:
In terms of the Sufi worldview, evident in the poetry of Hafiz, the content being integrated into consciousness can be understood at times as a personal content (when the beloved is understood as a personal, human object of affection) and at other times as being clearly archetypal (when the Beloved is understood as a symbol for the deity)8
The problem with Newell’s attempt to impose a psychological interpretation on poetry is that it ignores the very essence of poetry (and art in general): poetry is a dialogue, made abstract by the very fact that the medium through which that dialogue takes place is an artefact. Whatever the intent of Catullus - whether to brag or to shape our feelings about Aemilius or Caesar - it is irrelevant. As an audience we are strangers to the poet and our relationship can only be with the poem itself. In the absence of the poet’s intent it is for the reader to give meaning to the poem.
What is interesting to note about Catullus is that he belonged to a group of poets known as Novi Poetae, who drew their inspiration from the Greek Neotericoi (νεωτερικοί).They had deliberately turned away from the classical Homeric epic poetry.
The Novi Poetae could count Cinna, Cato, Bibaculus and Cornificius amongst their number. Their poetry was characterised by tight and disciplined form, genre, jokes and sometimes obscure allusions such as the she-mule pissing in summer, quoted above (Why pissing in summer?).
Solomon Ibn Gabirol: I am the Lord and the song is my slave.
His Answer To The Critics
Where are the men with the strength to be men?
Where are those who have eyes and can see?
Looking around, I see nothing but cowards and cynics,
And slaves, slaves to their own senses.
And every one of these poor beggars
Thinks of himself as another Aristotle.
You tell me they have written poems—
You call that poetry?
I call it the cawing of crows.
It’s time for the prophet’s anger to purify poetry,
Left too long to the fingers of aesthetes and time-wasters.
I have carved my song in the high forehead of Time.
They know it and hate it—it is too much.
(Translated by Robert Mezey)
The power of the individual rising against the lack of concern for the man in art is capture with great force in the closing two lines. There is no self-pity in this poem. What we have is the powerful voice calling for the recognition of man against the bankruptcy of a theology.
His Fons Vitæ, in which he posited the idea that all that exists is constituted of matter and form - and that applied to everything from the spiritual to the physical worlds - makes no references to the bible, nor are there any references to Rabbinical thinking. This led to suspicions of heresy. Gabirol was not denying the existence of God, but was putting man at the centre of the physical and spiritual world.
And don’t be astonished by a man whose flesh
has longed for wisdom and prevailed;
He’s soul encircling physique,
and a sphere in which all is held 9
Much as the great Renaissance thinkers would do nearly four-hundred years later, we can detect in Gabirol’s poetry the assertion of man and the seeds of Humanism.
Cecco Angiolieri: il nemico di Dante
I’ ho tutte le cose ch’io non voglio,
e non ho punto di quel che mi piace,
(That I have everything I don’t desire
And nothing that I do, there’s not a doubt)10
If poets were saints, then Cecco Angiolieri would be a frontrunner for candidate as the patron saint of angst-ridden teenagers. His 130 sonnets 11 are full of invective, tantrums and, above all, self-pity. However we potentially face a problem with Angiolieri’s poetry. There is dispute over whether we can assume his sonnets to be autobiographical.12. I would question how important this is and in the case of Angiolieri the fact that the narratives of his sonnets may be complete fabrications of events, only reflects on the genius of the poetry and the poet.
There are three things that give me great delight
And none of them come at a handy price:
Women, the tavern and a game of dice;
And these alone can make my heart feel light.
But yet it seems I rarely have the right
To make good use of them, because my purse
Gives me the lie; the memory makes me curse
To think how money puts my joys to flight.
Therefore I say: “Go prod him with a lance!”
Meaning my father, who keeps me so lean
That I’d return without a lure from France.
The neediest suppliant could not obtain
Pennies at Easter from a man so mean:
You’ll sooner see a buzzard kill a crane.
What is interesting here is the use of the ‘tavern’ to suggest debauchery. In much medieval European comic writing, the tavern was seen as the antithesis of the church. Writers used the image of the tavern to present themselves as sinners and foolish knaves.13 The effect of this was to make the poet persona unreliable: we take what they say with a grain of salt.
But we can immediately find familiarity in this poem and recognise universal truths. Western culture is strewn with the non-conformist: the lovable rogues; the Romantic bohemians and also the villains. And, until fairly recently, any female in a tavern was a woman of ill repute. The tavern was an escape from the piety of society’s morality.
But there is another trend that runs through the sonnet’s narrative: a sense of entitlement: complaining about his poverty, the poet blames his father, just as we could imagine the modern, sulking teenager, blaming their parents because life is “not fair!”
I think that the wonder of Angiolieri’s poems is that they are so timeless, and this is a trait that the poems share with those of Catullus. There is a rawness about them. Stripped of mythology and mystery, we are given a glimpse of life as it seen through the naked eye, unveiled by the theology of Gabirol and Hafiz.
Hafiz: “ . . . dissolute old Hafiz”14
As with Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the poet Hafiz also met with hostility from the religious leaders of his day. Much of this is expressed in his poetry. The problem with translations of Hafiz is that his work borders on the mystic, yet it is bound to the everyday existence: Interpreted as “the embodiment of sensuality and free thinking on the one hand and of the highest mystical enthusiasm on the other”15 Or as the 19th Century Austrian Orientalist, Joseph von Hammer put it: “For badly did he [Hafiz] beacon as a sun, and his tongue translated only the doctrines of sensual pleasure and not the mysteries of divine love”.16
You could take any of the hundreds of Ghazal written by Hafiz and be met with a narrative that weaves the mystical with the earthly. I have chosen Number 26 because I feel that it captures the approach of this great, though frustrating, poet well. The translation may be the nearest that one gets to the original Farsi. As a poem it does not meet the richness of Gertrude Bell's translations, however I think that Shahriari allows us to hear Hafiz to a greater degree than other translators as well as keeping to the structure of the poetic form.
Disheveled hair, sweaty, smiling, drunken, and
With a torn shirt, singing, the jug in hand
Narcissus loudly laments, on his lips, alas, alas!
Last night at midnight, came and sat right by my bed-stand
Brought his head next to my ears, with a sad song
Said, O my old lover, you are still in dreamland
The lover who drinks this nocturnal brew
Infidel, if not worships the wine's command
Go away O hermit, fault not the drunk
Our Divine gift from the day that God made sea and land
Whatever He poured for us in our cup, we just drank
If it was a cheap wine or heavenly brand
The smile on the cup's face and Beloved's hair strand
Break many who may repent, just as Hafiz falsely planned.
(Translation Shahriar Shahriari, Los Angeles, Ca)
Immediately we are confronted with a rather hedonist image. And this is Narcissus, not the beautiful and vain young man of the Caravaggio painting, but a drunken, hung-over letch. There really is no mysticism within this poem. It seems that the image of heaven is brought in to simply mock it or to suggest that heaven is on earth (Whatever He poured for us in our cup, we just drank/If it was a cheap wine or heavenly brand) and the man: the poet; situates himself within the closing line of the poem. This is something that occurs in nearly all the Ghazals of Hafiz. And I think that this is a very important device that Hafiz employs. For once we have taken in the degeneracy of the scene, we are rudely brought up to the reminder that this is not a report we are reading but a poem. This creates an ambiguity with the closing five words: are we being told that the event has not worked out as it should have or are we to believe that this is pure invention by the poet?
As with nearly all the Ghazals, the poem concerns itself very much with earthly existence and that the poet is at the centre of the poem -not as a poet but as a man. Hafez’s work had a great influence on the Romantic movement, which found some of the answers to the existential angst in the mysticism of his work. Goethe was to say of the great poet: “In his poetry Hafiz has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly ... Hafiz has no peer!” And in mid-19th century America the Transcendentalist movement also found inspiration (Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Hafiz defies you to show him or put him in a condition inopportune or ignoble ... He fears nothing. He sees too far; he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to see or be”).
Charles Bukowski: Ecce Homo.
“. . . So these are my readers, you see? They buy my books—the defeated, the demented and the damned—and I am proud of it.”
(Bukowski in an interview in 1981)
The works of Charles Bukowski, especially the poetry, is so much the man. In most of his works he glorifies that which ‘decent’ people would find repulsive: Misogyny, misanthropy; all in all a hatred for everything and everybody that did not serve his needs. It is virtually impossible to separate the man from the poetry and as Adam Kirsch suggests the poetry is a continuation of the poet’s life;
Bukowski’s poems are best appreciated not as individual verbal artefacts but as on-going instalments in the tale of his true adventures, like a comic book or a movie serial. They are strongly narrative, drawing from an endless supply of anecdotes that typically involve a bar, a skid-row hotel, a horse race, a girlfriend, or any permutation thereof.17
Bukowski took great pleasure in flouting literary skill. His works were spontaneous and never worked upon. Needless to say much of his work could be dismissed as garbage, if it wasn't for the fact of his popularity. When he died in 1994 he left thousands of poems and other scraps of writing. There has been twelve volumes of his ’unpublished’ poems since and they have sold in the hundreds of thousands, and translated into nine languages. Clearly his work speaks to an audience.
The statement by Bukowski above suggests that his audience are people who have seen something of life and have suffered defeat (the self-pity that we can find in Angiolieri), but he had a wide readership and the fact that many bookshops had to put signs up in their store demanding that people stop stealing Bukowski’s books 18 suggest that young people may form a significant section of that readership. Certainly when you read reviews on, say, Amazon, you are met with such infantile remarks such as “Bukowski changed my life!” or even pretentiousness such as “Loneliness was his throne - from it he fed millions. I am one such”.
Bukowski is the ultimate example of the man, not just central to the poetry, but actually greater than it. There is really nothing poetic in his work, yet it is the flouting of the rules, the (pretended?) contempt for established and canonical poetry that speaks to the nihilist in us: the Rebels Without A Clue. In a world where poetry is the least appreciative of the arts, it is not surprising that a poet who seems ignorant of the most basic rules of the art, should be seen almost as a messiah. In fact Bukowski could well be seen as an Anti-Poet.19
A perfect example of this can be found in the posthumously published poem darlings of the word:20
2 poets from San Francisco (one
quite famous) are down here
and she’s gone out to hear
at the moment
I don’t have to
I never typed this
to get up and
read it to
I used to read for the
it got the rent and the
but when I hear of the
famous and the well-fed
still doing it
I marvel with
it has always seemed
curious to me
the poets were
they love to
get up and
I once asked a
poet about this
and he told me:
“it’s an old art-
form. poets throughout
the centuries past
used to walk up and
down the streets
singing their works,
their madrigals. poetry
belongs to the people.”
“I don’t know about that”
I said, “but I guess even
writing for the printed
page is a form of
“poetry belongs to the
people,” he repeated.
“all right,” I said,
“forget it.” . . . . .
if I had wanted to be
I would have gone
the first act is
in the typing
and all that follows
will match what
began it . . .
2 poets from San
The first thing that is striking about this poem is that it captures the same feeling of contempt that we find in Angiolieri’s Sonnet CII, addressed to Dante, which ends in these two line:
Dante Alighier, i' t'averò a stancare,
ch'eo so lo pungiglion, e tu se' 'l bue.
(Dante, I’ll wear you down; just understand
That I’m the gadfly now and you’re the ox)22
We can also get a feeling of indignation that runs through Solomon Ibn Gabirol’s His Answer To The Critics, in particular the lines: Looking around, I see nothing but cowards and cynics,/And slaves, slaves to their own senses.
The erratic use of punctuation and the overall structure of the piece, brings to mind E.E. Cummings, which lends the poem an air of pretentiousness and thus, I feel, manages to create a distance between the reader and the poet. But it is difficult not to read the piece without acknowledging Bukowski and his petty jealousy (and sometimes a sense of entitlement that we find in the Angiolieri poem above), that runs throughout. The poem was written in 1982 when Bukowski’s material poverty was behind him and he was earning money from his writing. Yet the bitterness in this poem suggests that he really yearned to be amongst the serious poets he affected so much to despise.
Yet Bukowski proved that he could also tread the path of the transmundane and produce a poem that, as with Gabirol and Hafiz, takes the reader into an almost metaphysical world. One of the most moving poems that I know of Bukowski is "a poem is a city":
a poem is a city filled with streets and sewers
filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen,
filled with banality and booze,
filled with rain and thunder and periods of
drought, a poem is a city at war,
a poem is a city asking a clock why,
a poem is a city burning,
a poem is a city under guns
its barbershops filled with cynical drunks,
a poem is a city where God rides naked
through the streets like Lady Godiva,
where dogs bark at night, and chase away
the flag; a poem is a city of poets,
most of them quite similar
and envious and bitter …
a poem is this city now,
50 miles from nowhere,
9:09 in the morning,
the taste of liquor and cigarettes,
no police, no lovers, walking the streets,
this poem, this city, closing its doors,
barricaded, almost empty,
mournful without tears, aging without pity,
the hardrock mountains,
the ocean like a lavender flame,
a moon destitute of greatness,
a small music from broken windows …
a poem is a city, a poem is a nation,
a poem is the world …
and now I stick this under glass
for the mad editor’s scrutiny,
and night is elsewhere
and faint gray ladies stand in line,
dog follows dog to estuary,
the trumpets bring on gallows
as small men rant at things
they cannot do.
"a poem is a city” is one of Bukowski’s earlier poems. It is obviously derivative, capturing a sense of urgency that runs through much of the Beat writings. The repetitions is a device that was used by Ginsberg to great effect and is used here in order to capture the madness of the City. It is the nearest that Bukowski came to a piece that can only be described as ‘performance poetry.
Whilst it seems rooted in real life it does this by conjuring up images of otherworldliness: ‘saints’; ‘God’; ‘Lady Godiva’; ‘the hardrock mountains’; ‘ocean like a lavender flame’, the imagery may appear clichéd but no more so than that of the earlier, mystic poets mentioned. We can feel the nightmare of Hafiz In the poem quoted above. Bukowski’s poem concerns itself with the subject: the city. And so the line that reminds us of the man (and now I stick this under glass) has a greater impact because we are suddenly reminded of the poet. The poem is one that is exceptional amongst Bukowski’s poetic works in that we lose sight of the man until the last stanza and then we are given only a glimpse.
“. . .hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State"
(Plato. The Republic. Book X)
The earliest forms of poetry in Europe and the Middle East were orally composed and performed. Surviving only in textual form are epics such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyana, the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Persian Šāhnāmeh and the Anglo Saxon Beowulf. 23
Lyric poetry was also common in Ancient Greece and especially the Elegy. It is worth pointing out that although the term ‘elegy’ has rather mournful connotations for modern audiences, in ancient Greece the elegy was a work that praised a certain individual or group of individuals. The two great elegists were Callinus and Tyrtaeus. Both were composers of the ‘martial exhortation elegy’.
Exhortation To Battle
How long will ye slumber? when will ye take heart
And fear the reproach of your neighbour’s at hand?
Fie! comrades, to think ye have peace for your part,
Whilst the sword and the arrow are wasting our land!
Shame! grasp the shield close! cover well the bold breast!
Aloft raise the spear as ye march on your foe!
With no thought of retreat, with no terror confessed,
Hurl your last dart in dying, or strike your last blow.
Oh, 't is noble and glorious to fight for our all,--
For our country, our children, the wife of our love!
Death comes not the sooner; no soldier shall fall,
Ere his thread is spun out by the sisters above.
Once to die is man's doom; rush, rush to the fight!
He cannot escape, though his blood were Jove's own.
For a while let him cheat the shrill arrow by flight;
Fate will catch him at last in his chamber alone.
Unlamented he dies; -- unregretted. Not so,
When, the tower of his country, in death falls the brave;
Thrice hallowed his name amongst all, high or low,
As with blessings alive, so with tears in the grave.25
And this by Tyrtaeus:
They heard the voice of Phoebus and brought home from Pytho oracles of the God and words of sure fulfilment; for thus the Lord of the Silver Bow, Far-Shooting Apollo of the Golden Hair, gave answer from out his rich sanctuary: The beginning of counsel shall belong to the God-honoured Kings whose care is the delightsome city of Sparta, and to the men of elder birth; after them shall the commons, answering them back with forthright ordinances,16 both say things honourable and do all that is right, nor give the city any crooked counsel; so shall the common people have victory and might; for this hath Phoebus declared unto their city in these matters.26
For Plato poetry, and the arts in general, had an instrumental role to play in instructing the young in the values and morals that would be expected of them.
Archilochus of Paros, one of the main centres of Demeter, the goddess of fertility, the culture of which brought out “scurrilous and erotic recitations and songs”27 is the kind of poetry that Plato would have disapproved of as having a corrupting effect on young men.
What I hope to have shown is how the poets that reacted against this tradition did so by drawing poetry away from its social instrumentation and adopting a humanist approach that put the poet (man) at the centre of the work. Showing him in all his glory and his disgrace. These were not the only poets of their time pushing at the restrictions of tradition, but I think they are the greatest exemplifiers
The introduction of the first person tense into poetry saw the ‘I’ no longer indicating autobiography but suggesting that we, the reader, were to take on the identity, not as an individuals but as an abstract human being. The poetry of Walt Whitman is a perfect example of this. The opening lines of Song of Myself, for instance: I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/And what I assume you shall assume; seems narcissistic with the first line but he is not talking about Walt Whitman he is illustrating the link between mankind: the things that make us human.
Poetry evolved from something intended to instruct man on the path of righteousness, to such a sophisticated level where we, the audience, could look at a work and discover our own meaning: it shifted from telling us what we should be to what we could be. Poetry, no longer a method of instruction, became what we intended for it.
Charles Bukowski took this along another, much less Humanist, path. His self-aggrandisement, his braggardery, his utter contempt for nearly everyone, including his readers, opened the door to every whinger, self-promoter and grudge-bearer to pour their heart and their bile onto the printed page and call it poetry.
Sharon Olds, a poet who embraced the confessional poetry genre, at least allowed the reader some room to appreciate her work from an objective point of view, but Stag's Leap, her T.S. Elliot prize winner, suggests a low point, not just in her life but in her poetry. These opening lines from the poem Material Ode are simply an excruciatingly bad (as well as embarrassing) reflection on this:
O tulle, O taffeta, O grosgrain—
I call upon you now, girls,
of fabrics and the woman I sing. My husband
had said he was probably going to leave me . . .
Maybe Olds was being ironic with the opening line, which suggests that all women are concerned with is how they look and how they dress (which is the sort of thing men would be accused of ‘sexism’ if they made the same inference – ironically or not). But is this the image that women are proud to have: Whining self-indulgent little girls? Hardly surprising then that this poem featured on Oprah Winfrey's site as a Winter Read. This need to expose one’s self to the public, to tell the world your most intimate life story borders on pornography and it is something that runs through the work of Bukowski. But Bukowski, as in the judgement of Nick Cave, was ‘a jerk’ but he was happy being a jerk. The Observer called The Stag’s Leap a "calendar of pain". Well they got that right.
But Olds work isn't new. Anne Sexton’s poetry is littered with tales of menstruation, abortion, masturbation, and adultery. And it’s not just women. Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell’s poetry can sometimes read like the transcript of a psychiatric patient’s session on the couch. But what these poets did have, and that is missing from Bukowski’s work, is an understanding of the discipline of poetry. Their poems were obviously works; crafted; based on a poetic tradition, as opposed to spontaneous rants that seem to define Bukowski’s poems.
The popularity and influence of Bukowski can be seen at many poetry open-mic sessions, where Oxfam-fashioned nobodies get their couple of minutes of glory, shouting out (even though they have a microphone)how much they hate bankers, industrialists, slags and chavs: How wrong everyone else is and how right they are.
And we can find this arrogance in established poets. Poet laureate, Carol Anne Duffy is not averse to getting on her high-horse to show the world how morally righteous she is.28 And this, from Sean O’Brien, in response to the latest phase of conflict between Israel and Hamas, is another telling example of such haughtiness:
Arrow of fire:
Kingdom Come, is it
Below or above?
Choked in a tunnel
With morphine and bread,
Or charred in the wreck
Of an olive grove?
Spear of desire,
Are there green pastures,
A brave desert rose,
Or must it be prison
With pillars of flame?
A grave, or a rose?
God only knows.
Katyusha is a rocket originally part of the Soviet arsenal. If we look at this piece we are not faced with anything that can be described as poetry. There is no relation between the words. It is simply a collection of po-faced clichés that have no connection other than they follow on from the previous statement. In much the same way that Bukowski’s work is simply a spewing out of his prejudices and anger, this is even worse, because we are expected to take this to be serious poetry, when it patently isn't.
What Bukowski affected was a feeling that anything goes. But he had a view of what poetry was. How ever bad you think his work is it is still poetry. Bukowski was upfront about his work. He boasted that he never redrafted his poems. One cannot escape the narcissistic tone that runs through his poetry and one cannot escape the fact that he displayed the worst elements of the egotist. We know this because he tells us in his poetry. But there is one claim that Bukowski never made and that was that his poetry could save the world or even that his poetry had anything to say.
The more I hear about the social value of poetry and how poetry is everywhere around us 29 the more positive I feel about Charles Bukowski. I’ll never like anything more than a couple of his pieces, simply because I could never like the man he is. But the best I can say about him is he was honest. And isn't that what we crave in poetry?
Postscript: the alienation of the poet
In darlings of the word Bukowski makes an interesting point about ‘people’s poetry’. He rightly sees this as the vanity of the poet, and this assumption of what drives the poet, is one that is highly popular. The American poet June Jordan was one of the better known champions of the idea that poetry belongs to the people. Her ‘Revolutionary Blueprint ‘30 is one of the more better known publications on the topic. But there are many others. Some patronisingly promote poetry that can be easily understood by popular readers 31. The idea is popular amongst ‘left’ leaning commentators 32 who even casually claim some poets as ‘The People’s Poet’33. Few socialists or ‘Marxists’ thinkers seem to have little understanding of poetry or art in general. Leon Trotsky, in his polemic against Formalism, appreciated the essence of poetry when he said:
from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian. It finds the necessary rhythm of words for dark and vague moods, it brings thought and feeling closer or contrasts them with one another it enriches the spiritual experience of the individual and of the community, it refines feeling, makes it more flexible, more responsive, it enlarges the volume of thought in advance and not through the personal method of accumulated experience . . .34
and he understood that "Bourgeois poetry, of course, does not exist, because poetry is a free art and not a service to class" 35 but he also ascribed to poetry a ‘educative’ role, which many instrumentalist and left leaning thinkers have now fetishised into a holy tenet.
This overlooks the unique role of the artist in society. Many who talk of the alienation of the artist do so from the view of the artist as an outsider: a rebel who stands outside of society in the physical and sensual meaning. And whilst this is true there is another, more important dynamic in play.
In the early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Karl Marx observes that the “worker puts his life into the object and this means that it no longer belongs to him but to the object.”36 (Marx would go on to elaborate on the theory of Entfremdung in Chapter 6, Volume 1 of Das Kapital). A similar course occurs in the creative process, but the artist is no wage labourer.
The artist owns and controls the ‘means of production’, but those means are not simply the physical and material means. Central to the production of art is creativity, and this resides in the mind of the individual just as much as it resides in the skills handed down to the artist.
The work that the artist produces has neither a use value 37 nor exchange value. No matter how much physical and mental labour has been expended on a poem or a musical composition or a painting, if there are no readers, listeners or viewers, then the work may as well not exist.
However, once a poem, or any work of art, has entered the public domain its worthiness as a contribution to a dialogue is realised, though this does not mean that it has any use value. We can see the use value of, say, a chair: it is to sit upon; but a poem has no such definite use and its ‘meaning’ is whatever we, the audience, impose on it.
And neither does a work have any exchange value. Irrespective of how much a buyer is willing to pay for a piece or a publisher’s decision to include a work in their magazine, that price can never be realised socially. A buyer or a publisher may obtain a work for a number of reasons: fashion; personal taste; an investment or they may just feel sorry for the artist.
Whereas the economy is based upon the social value of goods and services, realised in monetary terms, the worth of an artefact is a far more intimate relationship. We may apply objective standards to a poem or any art, as Tiffany Jenkins points out 38, but to say how much we value a work of art is very much a personal appreciation that cannot be simply dismissed as choice: as if we were discussing a particular brand of shampoo, for instance.
So my (lack of) appreciation for the works of Charles Bukowski should not be interpreted as a belief that his work has no worth; it obviously does, as his audience is greater than, perhaps, any poet since the 19th century. It could be argued, using the objective standards that Jenkins speaks of, that his work has no canonical worth (a view I would share) and that his audience are not an audience that would normally appreciate poetry - as in its established discernment. But that does not mean that his contemporary audience are wrong, nor does it mean that future generations will view Bukowski’s poetry as having no poetic worth. Art is meaningless if it cannot find a voice within the universal dialogue, Bukowski obviously has, but I, and I'm sure many others, do not hear it.
1/ A good review of Bukowski’s posthumous poetry collection, The People Look Like Flowers At Last, tackles this attitude very well: ‘Don't blame Bukowski for bad poetry’
2/ I rely here on the excellent translations, from the Hebrew, by Peter Cole in my assessment of Gabirol’s poetry. (Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Princeton University Press. 2001]
3/ Jackson, A. V. Williams, the American specialist on Indo-Iranian languages (1862 –1937)published Early Persian poetry from the beginnings down to the time of Firdausi, Macmillan Company, New York 1920. P.2
4/ Japanese poets were also known to compose travel pieces in prose and poetry (haibun) of which Oku no Hosomichi by Matsuo Bashō is a much later, but famous example and was probably introduced to Japan from China.
5/ Rind is a Persian noun that generally refers to a person of questionable character.
6/ Quoted in The Wisdom of Intoxication: Love and Madness in the Poetry of Hafiz of Shiraz by James R. Newell. In Creativity, Madness and Civilisation. Richard Pine (ed.) Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2007. p. 209
7/ I have chosen to use the translations of Catullus by Peter Whigham (Penguin Classics, 1966) as these are, I believe, the most satisfactory. The bilingual edition with translations by Peter Green( University of California Press. 2005) is useful for the Latin text, but I feel Green is more interested in sensationalising Catullus at the expense of the flow of the poetry. Whigham avoids the Anglo-Saxon unless there is no other alternative.
8/ Creativity, Madness and Civilisation, op. cited. P. 208
9/ Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Peter Cole (trans) op cited. P.99. Cole makes an interesting point (p.25) about the English metaphysical poets, that suggests that Gabirol’s influence extended far. John Donne’s poem Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward opens with the lines: Let man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,/ Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is ; that recalls Gabirol’s And don’t be astonished.
10/ Sonnet 34. Sonnets. Cecco Angiolieri ; translated by C.H. Scott and Anthony Mortimer. Richmond : Oneworld Classics. 2008. (Bilingual edition) An invaluable addition to the poetry of the Renaissance and an outstanding translation of these great works, that capture the humour of the pieces so well. P.68
11/ There are some sonnets attributed to Angiolieri, that have debatable origin
12/ See Cecco Angiolieri and the Vocabulary of Courtly Love. Peter E, Bondenella. Studies in Philology. Vol. 69, No. 1, Jan., 1972. p. 55
13/ One Year, or Two Decades, of Drunkenness? Cecco Angiolieri and the Udine 10 Codex. Fabian Alfie. Italica. Vol. 78, No. 1 (Spring, 2001) p. 20
14/ Engels To Marx. Manchester, 6 June 1853, Marx-Engels Correspondence
15/ Hāfiz and his critics. Annemarie Schimmel. Studies in Islam 1979 p. 255
16/ Quoted in Schimmel (ibid) p.267
17/ Smashed. Adam Kirsch. The New Yorker. March 14, 2005
19/ Angiolieri, Dante and Petrarch can also be seen as anti-poets who had decided to compose poetry in the vernacular rather than Latin. Anti-poetry found its way throughout Europe (see, for example, Poetry and Paternity in Renaissance England: Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne and Jonson. Tom MacFaul. Cambridge University Press. 2012. P. 90 – 93). It would require no stretch of the imagination to place Catullus, Gabirol and Hafiz in the category of anti-poets. Their work could easily be seen as a reaction against that which was seen as poetry in its day.
20/ The only publication of this poem that I could find is in The Reater, Issue 2. Wrecking Ball Press. 1998
21/ This is taken from the original draft of the poem. See: http://authenticbukowski.com/manuscripts/display_man_search.php?show=poem1982-02-28-darlings_of_the_word.jpg
22/ Sonnets. Cecco Angiolieri (op. cited. ) p. 205
23/ The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Roland Greene, editor in chief; Stephen Cushman, general editor. Princeton University Press; 4 edition. 2012. p. 979.
24 There is very little of the poet’s works available. Greek Lyric Poetry: Introduction and translations By M. L. West . Oxford Paperbacks. 1999. Is an excellent overview. Unfortunately there are very little complete poems available.
25/ Exhortation To Battle was translated by the nephew of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was an admirer and editor of his uncle’s works. The poem has that feel that we find, later in the verses of Rudyard Kipling and other Victorian balladeers in that it dealt with the virtues that the British establishment wished to promote amongst it middle and upper-class young men, destined for military service.
26/ Elegy and Iambus. with an English Translation. J. M. Edmonds. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1931. Vol 1 p.76
27/ M. L. West. op.cited. p. x
28/ See: Denis Joe. Carol Anne Duffy and the Poetic Equivalent of Ambulance Chasing.
29/ see Carolyn Ziel . Changing Politics One Poem at a Time.
30/ June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint. Routledge. 1995
31/ see: Lev Grossman,Poems for the People. Time. June 7, 2007.
32/ e.g.:‘People are discussing politics and poetry’
Alison Thorne. Rebel poets: Shaking up the status quo.
33/ Colin Fox. The People’s Poet: Robert Burns-1759-1796
34/ Chapter 5: "The Formalist School Of Poetry And Marxism". Literature and Revolution. Russell & Russell, p. 70
35/ ibid. p.
36? Karl Marx: Selected Writings. David McLellen (ed). Oxford University Press. 1977 p. 79.
37/ Though instrumentalist thinkers and policy makers would have us believe that art can make us feel better about ourselves. That it has therapeutic usage, or educational value. But this does not reflect any real value in the substance of a work, it only reflects the arrogance and lack of appreciation by those who would use art in this way.
38/ How to judge art: a beginner’s guide. Spiked. 4 February 2013.