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Sunday, 26 June 2011

He brought everybody down to earth, even the angels.

The title for this blog is a quote attributed to Leonard Cohen in reference to Charles Bukowski. Of course, this entire entry could focus on Cohen's melancholic and deeply felt poetry and the humanism found pulsing between every line, but in this humble narrator's opinion, Bukowski reigns as the poet who injects his writing with the essence of human experience; with a soul.

Soul is not a word I like to use very often, but stripped of its religious connotations, it's timelessness in heaven, I feel that soulful is the only adequate description of Bukowski's body of work.

Charles Bukowski lived a life. A difficult life, no question, but no more difficult than most. He was haunted by booze and women, had his share of ups and downs, of wives and lovers, and stumbled upon fame relatively late in life (He dedicated himself to full time writing when he was 49 years old). He worked as a file clerk, he worked in a pickle factory, he worked as a postman. He survived a near fatal bleeding ulcer and died of leukemia in 1994 at the age of 73. A life no more noteworthy than a neighbor's or a friend's. But Bukowski did not go gentle into that good night, accepting his fate and succumbing accordingly. Instead, he wrote.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed. -- Ernest Hemingway

Bukowski bled. His poetry touches on his own life as much as the lives of the vagrants, the whores, and the lovers who orbited him. In 1962, Bukowski lost who he considered the greatest love of his life, Jane Baker. Following her death, he wrote a series of heartfelt, painful poems venting his anger, frustration and sadness, culminating in his poem notice:

the swans drown in bilge water,
take down the signs,
test the poisons,
barricade the cow
from the bull.
the peony from the sun,
take the lavender kisses from my night,
put the symphonies on the streets
like beggars,
get the nails ready,
flog the backs of the saints,
stun frogs and mice for the cat,
burn the enthralling paintings,
piss on the dawn,
my love
is dead.

It is difficult not to be moved by such naked rage and despair. The progression of apocalyptic imagery, separating lovers and destroying beauty, climaxing with the four words: my love/ is dead as the simple (and selfish) reason, rings true to me. True to human nature. True to the soul.

I shall not write out any more of Bukowski's poetry, asking instead that the reader seek it out on his or her own terms. I can, however, recommend a few poems that affect me the deepest.

Girl on the escalator

Bukowski dissects romantic love with a scalpel, reassuring the man in front of him on an escalator that he is not admiring his girlfriend's behind. In fact, why would he want to? This girl, while very attractive, has rude relatives, bad taste in TV shows, snores, and is often cold in bed. Lotsa luck, he intones to the man at the end of the poem.

Dinosauria, we

A poem that affected me so much I had it's first two lines tattooed on my arm. Apocalyptic in every sense, Dinosauria, we is a mad primal scream at every injustice in the world, from overpriced hospitals to a dispassionate and inactive God.

spring swan

Bukowski manages to find humility in a dead swan he happens upon floating in a river. The fact that it is Springtime, a time for rebirth and rejuvenation, and there lies the very symbol of grace and elegance, surrounded by laughing picnickers, makes him feel ashamed and embarrassed.

There is nothing tragic in the death of an old man. Charles Bukowski lived a life filled with gratitude and heartbreak and filtered it through the soul of a poet, exposing fresh wounds and old scars. He took the mirror of his art and reflected each of our faces in it, at once pityingly and lovingly. He cut through the artifice of the human condition like a laser through smoke.

Truly he was the poet laureate of the streets. And I for one am proud to walk those streets with him.

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