Charles Bukowski, the uncrowned poet laureate of Los Angeles, was famous for living hard. "Getting drunk was good," Bukowski wrote of himself in his autobiographical novel, "Ham on Rye." "I decided that I would always like getting drunk." Even so, he managed to find the time, energy and brain cells to write and publish nearly 50 works of poetry and prose by the time of his death a decade ago at the age of 73. Most remarkable of all is the fact that he left behind enough unpublished poetry to fill what is projected to be five posthumous volumes, the second of which is "The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain."
In a poem titled "my doom smiles at me --," Bukowski writes, "there's no other way: 8 or ten poems a / night."
This latest collection is published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, but the editor is John Martin, founder of the late and lamented Black Sparrow Press of Santa Barbara and the man who published most of Bukowski's work during the poet's lifetime. Frankly, I would have appreciated a word or two from Martin, one of the great figures in American letters, but the poems, nearly 150 in all, are unaccompanied by introductory or explanatory words of any kind.
The frequent moments of clamor and squalor in "The Flash of Lightning" will not surprise Bukowski's devoted readers. Among the works collected here, for example, are poems titled "gas" and "poop" and "floss-job." The poem titled "card girls" reduces the beautiful women on display at a prize fight to "a bundle of intestine and / other sundry parts." And Bukowski readily confesses to the excesses that marked him as the wild man of American poetry: "parties at my place were / always marred by / violence: / mine," he writes in "the end of an era." "it was what / attracted / them: the / would-be / writers / and the / would-be / women."
Bukowski's in-your-face verse-making is characterized by raw comedy, razor-sharp irony and a stubborn refusal to clean up his act even after having been elevated to the Norton Anthology. In "an unliterary afternoon," for example, he recalls a visit by an earnest English professor ("with his well-trimmed beard and puffing his little pipe") who tries to engage Bukowski in sherry hour chit-chat ("did you know that Celine and Hemingway died on the same day?" / "no, I didn't know that") but is distracted by the woman who has passed out on the bed in the next room. And the good professor feels at liberty to slip into bed next to her, apparently figuring that neither a libertine like Bukowski nor any woman who would hang out with him would mind if a casual visitor indulged his sexual impulses.
"I don't know where you get your ... friends," Gerda
"neither do I," I replied.
Bukowski disdains the pretension that he perceives in the work of poets more refined than himself. In "the poetry game," he complains about "the boys / ... putting down / meaningless lines / and / passing them off as art / again." And in "reading little poems in little magazines," he employs some of his favorite imagery to dismiss the efforts of poets who may have been more warmly welcomed in certain literary circles than Bukowski.
the personal would be all right if it was
but all these little poems
are just like listening to
somebody blowing wind your way
from the next
But Bukowski protests a bit too much. He is perfectly capable of crafting poems that fairly shimmer with artful language and haunting imagery. The poem titled "the birds," for example, is a meditation on a failed marriage -- "sour love / and yesterday's desire" -- and the poet conveys his heartbreak in words and phrases far more elegant and exalted than those in "gas" or "poop."
the acute and terrible air hangs with murder
as summer birds mingle in the branches
and mystify the clamour of the mind;
an old parrot
who never talks,
sits thinking in a Chinese laundry,
there is red on his wing
where there should be green,
and between us
the recognition of
an immense and wasted life.
Bukowski appears to concede the point in "a visitor complains," a poem in which he is scolded by a disappointed reader who insists that "I liked your poems better when you were / puking and living with whores and hitting the bar and ending / up in the drunk tank and getting into alley / fights." To which he replies: "as for Van Gogh, Mozart, Dostoevsky, etc. / I say that they did neither choose nor welcome their / pain and suffering." What every poet seeks, Bukowski seems to say, is redemption -- and that's what Bukowski ultimately found.
"I run with the hunted and / if I'm not the happiest / man on earth," writes Bukowski in another poem, "I'm surely the / luckiest man / alive."
Bukowski would be pleased to know that his unpublished work, like that of Isaac Bashevis Singer, would continue to appear in fresh editions so long after his death. During his lifetime, after all, some critics openly questioned whether his work deserved to be called poetry at all. "There is no argument by which one can defend a poem," George Orwell once wrote. "It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible." By that benchmark, Bukowski's poetry needs no defense.