The novelist and poet Jim Harrison, who reviews a new collection of Charles Bukowski’s poems in this issue, has been treated pretty well by critics over the course of his more than 40-year career. Some of Harrison’s early novels, though, were attacked for featuring characters who were perhaps on the far side of macho.
Harrison’s response to those critics, published in Esquire in 1983, is still a funny and instructive blast of pique: “Reviewers think there is a basic uniformity of behavior in America. They believe this because they have told each other so, over and over, from their vantage points on America’s dreamcoasts. … Macho is a woe-begotten word. Actual macho is biting off your sleeping mother’s toe, throwing a rattlesnake into a baby’s carriage, murdering a virgin with a swan. I prefer the word nacho, that delicious little tidbit, to describe my behavior.” (Let us be the first to say it, then: Jim Harrison has always been American literature’s most nacho writer.)
Harrison does not review books often, and we are always happy to have him. “I write reviews only rarely when a book actually intrigues me and a book is offered to me,” he told us by e-mail. At the moment he’s finishing work on a new novel, “The English Major,” that will appear next spring.
Poetry shouldn’t tell us what we already know, though of course it can revive what we think we know. A durable poet, the rarest of all birds, has a unique point of view and the gift of language to express it. The unique point of view can often come from a mental or physical deformity. Deep within us, but also on the surface, is the wounded ugly boy who has never caught an acceptable angle of himself in the mirror. A poet can have a deep sense of himself as a Quasimodo in a world without bells, or as the fine poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
Charles Bukowski was a monstrously homely man because of a severe case of acne vulgaris when he was young. Along the way he also had bleeding ulcers, tuberculosis and cataracts; he attempted suicide; and only while suffering from leukemia in the last year of his life did he manage to quit drinking. Bukowski was a major-league tosspot, occasionally brutish but far less so than the mean-minded Hemingway, who drank himself into suicide. Both men created public masks for themselves, not a rare thing in a writer’s paper sack of baubles, but the masks were held in place for so long that they could not be taken off except in the work.
Throughout his life, Bukowski held a series of low-paying jobs so dismal that they are unbearable to list, though he did keep a position as a mail carrier for many years. Early on he was a library hound, and there are a surprising number of literary references in his work. (Quite by accident while I was writing this, the French critic Alexandre Thiltges paid a visit. He confirmed my suspicion that Bukowski had closely read Céline.) Even more surprising in this large collection are the number of poems characterized by fragility and delicacy; I’ve been reading Bukowski occasionally for 50 years and had not noted this before, which means I was most likely listening too closely to his critics. Our perceptions of Bukowski, like our perceptions of Kerouac, are muddied by the fact that many of his most ardent fans are nitwits who love him to the exclusion of any of his contemporaries. I would suggest you can appreciate Bukowski with the same brain that loves Wallace Stegner and Gary Snyder.
It is uncomfortable to realize that I have been monitoring American poetry for 50 years and am now even a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which a friend refers to as “The Dead Man’s Club.” All the scaffolding around the five-story building of this poetry is actually a confusing blemish and should be ignored in favor of the building itself, but this is probably impossible until a date in the future far beyond our concern. Time constructs the true canon, not critics contemporaneous to the work, whether they are the Vendlerites of the Boston area, the Bloombadgers of New Haven or the Goodyear Tires of New York City.
Bukowski was a solo act, though his lineage is fairly obvious. You detect Whitman, Bierce, Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Patchen, William Carlos Williams, perhaps Villon and Genet and strongly Céline. He loved classical music, and there is an amusing poem in which he feels for Bruckner because he wasn’t a better composer. He despised Fitzgerald because to a man from the lower depths, Fitzgerald seemed sensitive only to the sufferings within the upper class. Bukowski seemed far more worried about his cats’ health than his own. One had been shot and run over but survived, though its front legs didn’t coordinate with the back, a metaphor of something, probably Bukowski’s life. He observed birds, but one cannot imagine anyone less a nature poet, if you discount the infield of a racetrack, where you could see him in the long line at the $2 window. He was deeply enthused about bars and keeping company with whores, and seemed to like the spavined landscapes of the nether regions of Los Angeles, which I myself used to visit. They are so resolutely charmless compared with the slums of New York I knew in the late ’50s, which I visited because I was advised not to.
I have wondered, when asked about Bukowski in Brazil and France, if that’s not why so many foreigners admire him: he’s simply the American of their imagination, a low-level gangster as poet. Some are Abel poets and some are Cain poets, and Bukowski is clearly the latter (there are those who think of themselves as Cain poets but shift to Abel when they get a job in academia). It is clear in reading him that Bukowski didn’t live in a gated community, whether academic or economic. His was the hard-found music of the streets.
But then, fuimus fumus — it all drifts away in smoke. It is not poetry that lasts but good poems, a critical difference. An attractive idea is that the test of poetry should be the same as Henry James’s dictum for the novel, that it be interesting. Pasternak said that despite all appearances, it takes a lot of volume to fill a life. Bukowski’s strength is in the sheer bulk of his contents, the virulent anecdotal sprawl, the melodic spleen without the fetor of the parlor or the classroom, as if he were writing while straddling a cement wall or sitting on a bar stool, the seat of which is made of thorns. He never made that disastrous poet’s act of asking permission for his irascible voice.
It is hard to quote Bukowski because there are virtually none of those short lyrics with bow ties of closure that are so pleasant for a reviewer to quote. I will excerpt a poem evidently written quite near the end of his life:
it bothers the young most, I think:
an unviolent slow death.
still it makes any man dream;
you wish for an old sailing ship,
the white salt-crusted sail
and the sea shaking out hints of immortality
sea in the nosesea in the hair
sea in the marrow, in the eyes
and yes, there in the chest.
will we miss
the love of a woman or music or food
or the gambol of the great mad muscled
horse, kicking clods and destinies
high and away
in just one moment of the sun coming down?
I am not inclined to make elaborate claims for Bukowski, because there is no one to compare him to, plus or minus. He wrote in the language of his class as surely as Wallace Stevens wrote in the language of his own. This book offers you a fair chance to make up your own mind on this quarrelsome monster. It is ironical that those who man the gates of the canon will rarely if ever make it inside themselves. Bukowski came in a secret back door.
THE PLEASURES OF THE DAMNED
By Charles Bukowski.
Edited by John Martin.
556 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.95.