Charles BUKOWSKI may be a Los Angeles icon, but reading "The Pleasures of the Damned" -- the new volume of his selected poetry edited by John Martin, his longtime benefactor at Black Sparrow Press -- it's impossible not to ask some hard questions about his status and whether it is deserved. I've often thought his place in this city's literary pantheon was more a matter of opportunity than of talent; when he started writing full-bore, in the mid-1950s, few people were creating an authentic local literature, which, for better or worse, is what he did.
Back then, most L.A. writing was the work of outsiders, with a small indigenous poetry scene, leftist and oddly formal in its aesthetics, centered around such journals as Coastlines and the California Quarterly. Although Bukowski published in such venues, he stood against all that; a loner, avowedly apolitical, he focused on the small degradations of daily life. "there is a loneliness in this world so great / that you can see it in the slow movement of / the hands of a clock," he wrote in "The Crunch," describing "the terror of one person / aching in one place / alone / untouched / unspoken to / watering a plant." He was trying to articulate a vision of Los Angeles as an urban landscape, not exotic but mundane, where we not so much reinvent ourselves as remain unreconciled.
And yet Bukowski was hardly the first writer to look at L.A. through this filter. One thinks of his great hero John Fante, whose superlative 1939 novel, "Ask the Dust," evokes the city in similarly existential terms. It's no coincidence that decades later, Bukowski was the one who brought Fante's work to the attention of Martin, or that when Black Sparrow reissued the then-long-out-of-print "Ask the Dust" in 1980, he would write the preface. "Yes, Fante had a mighty effect upon me," he wrote. "Not long after reading [his] books I began living with a woman. She was a worse drunk than I was and we had some violent arguments, and often I would scream at her, . . . 'I am Bandini, Arturo Bandini!' "
Fante makes an appearance about three-quarters of the way through "The Pleasures of the Damned" in a pair of poems inspired by his death in 1983. "the writing of some / men / is like a vast bridge / that carries you / over / the many things / that claw and tear," Bukowski writes about his mentor in "The Wine of Forever," but the bulk of this 500-plus page collection highlights the fact that his own work is not up to such a standard -- not even close. Rather, the 274 poems here affirm a sense of the author as a hit-or-miss talent, capable of his own brand of small epiphany but often stultifyingly banal.
" . . . when I opened the / newspaper / and read of the fire / which / destroyed the / library and most of / its contents," he writes in a poem about the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library, "I said to my / wife: 'I used to spend my / time / there . . . ' " The library fire becomes a metaphor for loss, for aging, for the slow closing of possibility, but the poem has no real payoff. Then there's this, about the aftermath of lovemaking, from a poem called "Like a Flower in the Rain":
later we joked about the lotion
and the cigarette and the apple.
then I went out and got some chicken
and shrimp and french fries and buns
and mashed potatoes and gravy and
cole slaw, and we ate. She told me
how good she felt and I told her
how good I felt and we ate
the chicken and the shrimp and the
french fries and the buns and the
mashed potatoes and the gravy and
the cole slaw too.
Here, Bukowski means to tell us about the solace of simple pleasures -- sex, food, companionship -- but he ends up with uninspired details, a disconnected litany.
Part of the problem is the Bukowski persona: the dirty old man, the drunk, the layabout. For a lot of readers, especially younger ones, this is the draw -- the idea of the artist as outsider, unbound by social stricture and thus available to tell the truth. To be sure, it's an attractive image, but Bukowski is no Louis-Ferdinand Celine, to cite another of his role models, which means that often what emerges is empty posturing.
"THE Pleasures of the Damned" includes poems about failure, about drinking beer in the afternoon, about lust and bodily functions and going to the track. It also features other, later poems about "being" Bukowski -- not songs of experience but something much more contrived. In "Gold in Your Eye," he describes driving his BMW to the bank to "pick up my American Express Gold Card"; what might have been an interesting meditation on money and how it does (or doesn't) change us becomes, instead, a taunt at those who expect him to live a particular way. "Poetry" relies on the tired homily that "it / takes / a lot of / desperation / dissatisfaction / and / disillusion / to / write / a / few / good/ poems."