I read somewhere that Bukowski never wrote a great poem but rather numerous good ones. I’d agree, but argue that he wrote a glut of bad ones too. He wasn’t an “artist” or “craftsman” but that doesn’t mean his work doesn’t have its place in the poetry arena. His poems appeal and belong to the downtrodden and demoralized, or those interested in such exiles. Those caught in the fierce whirlwind of youth also adore him. I loved his work in my early twenties, and still like to dip into his work on occasion, though now I often find myself annoyed by some of his work.
The academy, however, despises his work since it is so far from cerebral in its content and so unsophisticated in form. Bukowski probably took being scorned by literary elites as a sort of gold star, although I guarantee he hoped to sell more. His best work is visceral, like an unexpected shot to the gut, and he excelled at eviscerating the delicacies of life while somehow balancing the humanity among the ooze. When the poet Anne Sexton wrote, “Man is evil. Man is a flower that should be burnt,” Bukowski knew what she was talking about. In one of the many documentaries about Bukowski, one of his friends recalls him saying, “If your parents begin to like your work, it’s getting bad. If the cops are around something good must be going down.” I think that quote encapsulates both his life and work rather well.
I find many of his poetry book titles, by the way, wonderful in and of themselves. Here are a few: Burning in Water Drowning in Flame, Love is a Dog from Hell, War All the Time, You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense, What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, Night Torn Mad With Footsteps, and The People Look Like Flowers at Last.
Here is Bukowski’s poem “ice for eagles”, which appears in The Days Runs Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, yet another stunning title. I love how the poem demonstrates that wild animals can also be paragons of tenderness, perhaps in contrast to supposedly civilized humans who often destroy one another. The last two lines, “those red tongues slobbering / out their souls” creates quite the concluding image.
ice for eagles
I keep remembering the horses
under the moon
I keep remembering feeding the horses
white oblongs of sugar
more like ice,
and they had heads like
bald heads that could bite and
The horses were more real than
more real than God
and they could have stepped on my
feet but they didn’t
they could have done all kinds of horrors
but they didn’t.
I was almost 5 but I have not forgotten yet;
O my god they were strong and good
those red tongues slobbering
out their souls.
– from The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills by Charles Bukowski, published by Ecco Press, 1969.