It’s often thought that to become a poet, it helps to be a little gonzo. As the 16-year-old Arthur Rimbaud famously put it, “The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses” — a description that, but for the careful inclusion of “rational,” makes poetry seem less a craft than an extreme lifestyle choice. As for Rimbaud it frequently was; his flailing misadventures with his lover Paul Verlaine are a case study in knives, bullets, profanity, theft and dubious personal hygiene. The idea behind this outré behavior was that “deranging the senses” doesn’t simply mean sitting at your desk having especially unusual thoughts; it means actively surrendering to your own unconscious and often unconventional desires. The poet’s sense of self becomes like a medieval tapestry obscuring a secret passage; it must be torn aside so that what waits in the darkness — monster or treasure — can be discovered.
This way of thinking has two notable consequences. The first is that it puts an emphasis on who a poet is (“a seer”) rather than on what he creates (poems). The second is that it leads easily to the assumption that booze and drugs aren’t merely a poet’s occasional companions, but his indispensable partners. After all, if the goal is to transcend yourself and cross boundaries, few things will help you on your way as speedily as Old Overholt. The drunken poet, according to this view, isn’t merely drunk in the way a lawyer might be drunk, or an orthopedic surgeon, or even just a sad, anxious person. No, the poet has made a sacrifice. He is drunk for art.
Which brings us to Charles Bukowski’s latest book, ON DRINKING (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.99). At this point, new books by Bukowski tend to be pretty old. Bukowski’s publisher has issued something like 20 volumes from “Buk” since the writer’s death in 1994, frequently with large chunks of them scavenged from previously published writing. The many recycled poems, letters and prose fragments in “On Drinking” follow previous collections including “On Cats” and “On Love” and “On Writing,” with “On Cats Who Love Drinking and Writing” presumably waiting in the wings. Indeed, one way to measure Bukowski’s distance from the usual confines of the American poetry world is to consider that when Elizabeth Bishop’s publisher released a single, meticulously edited volume of uncollected material, it resulted in a minor scandal, whereas Bukowski’s current editors could probably trot out a book of his selected bodega receipts (“On Fritos”?) and no one would bat an eye.
If Bukowski were alive, that would probably be fine with him too. Bukowski relished his image as a swaggering outsider, the kind of man who, having consented to read his poetry at a college, “put down my poems and asked if anybody wanted to arm wrestle.” (Someone did; naturally Bukowski won.) In “On Drinking,” his escapades are entirely typical and roughly as follows: He goes to, copes with or barely avoids jail. He mouths off to cops. He gets into unprovoked fistfights that take three pages to describe and that involve dozens of barehanded punches to the head. He offers to clean a bar’s dirty blinds for money and whiskey, and then, Tom Sawyer-style, persuades the other patrons to do the job for him. He is coated in vomit and/or blood with the regularity of an E.R. nurse. He pleasures, or fails to pleasure, scores of women, none of whom are dissuaded by the foregoing vomit or blood. And he wants nothing to do with modern writers who “lecture at universities / in tie and suit, / the little boys soberly studious, / the little girls with glazed eyes.”
This boozy, cartoon machismo has generally served Bukowski well, in the sense that 25 years after his death he still has a sizable audience by the standards of a fiction writer and a colossal audience by the standards of a poet. As you might expect, that readership is not there for displays of technical prowess. The poems in “On Drinking” are distinguishable from the prose mostly by virtue of line breaks that are inserted in why-not fashion; as in, “once in Paris / drunk on national TV / before 50 million Frenchmen / I began babbling vulgar thoughts / and when the host put his hand over my / mouth / I leaped up from the round table …” There’s basically no difference between these lines and the prose narrative that precedes them, except that the prose involves an extended brawl while the poem includes Bukowski pulling a knife on some French security guards.
But to say that Bukowski doesn’t care about technique is not to say that his work is uncalculated. His relentlessly autobiographical approach leads to a dilemma that American poets in particular have been familiar with for well over half a century. This is the fact that, as the poet and critic Donald Davie once put it, a writer who trades on the raw facts of a rough life often “confesses to discreditable sentiments or behavior, but in doing so he demands credit for having the courage or the honesty of his shamelessness.” Or in Elizabeth Bishop’s slightly tarter formulation, such a writer is constantly saying, “I do all these awful things — but don’t you really think I’m awfully nice?”
And Bukowski does want to seem awfully nice — very much so. It’s interesting to go through “On Drinking” and note the many things that Bukowski either omits or wants the reader to avoid thinking about. Consider “night school,” which is set in “the drinking driver improvement school” and involves “the test / to see if we have been listening / to the instructor.” During a break, Bukowski naturally goes to get a beer, and later discovers he’s the only person to have gotten all the test questions right, making him, the poem wryly concludes, “the class / intellectual.” But why is he in the class? Because he was driving around drunk. Did he hurt anyone? Did he kill anyone? This is one of several times in “On Drinking” that Bukowski talks about plowing around hammered in a car, yet every episode carefully avoids any sense of the possible horrific consequences for other people and returns us instead to the comfortable presence of that charming rogue, Charles Bukowski. He’s so funny, so honest. You want to hang out with him, maybe have a few cold ones.
But this artfully contrived camaraderie is fragile. When a writer focuses more on forming a community with his readers than conveying the fact of an experience, he can be left high and dry when the assumptions undergirding that community change. People think about drunken driving much differently in 2019 than in 1981, when “night school” was published. They also think differently about gender — and the women in “On Drinking” only occasionally get names, although they do sometimes get ages. In a poem titled “who in the hell is Tom Jones?,” we’re told that Bukowski was “shacked / with a 24-year-old / girl from New York / City” when suddenly “this 34-year-old / woman / arrived,” after which there was naturally a “whirling of wildcats” that is delightful to Bukowski, because “it’s not often at the / age of 55 / that such splendid / action occurs.” Readers in 2019 may well be blinded by the force of their eye roll.
What is strangest about “On Drinking,” though, is its lack of strangeness. Bukowski wasn’t a casual drinker, he was a lifelong alcoholic. And addiction is bizarre, though perhaps a better word would be “grotesque” in its original sense (“of a cave”), in that addiction plunges people into a subterranean space that separates them not only from their friends and family, but from their ability to feel family as family, rather than as vehicles for the fulfillment of a craving. This is not “awfully nice,” and there is no real sense of it in “On Drinking”; rather we get a parade of small evasions and tall tales: “I swung right to miss hitting the curb / and found myself driving straight into traffic / … the first car to go past me / (in the opposite direction) / was a police car / and for some reason I / waved at the officer.” Bukowski unquestionably lived a life much darker and hungrier and more desperate than that of most writers. But in his writing he paused at the black threshold and backed away. He was probably wise.