At age 33, I’m a relative newcomer to reading poetry. In high school, the standard stuff they foisted on us — Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Keats, Byron, Shelley, and so on — struck me as dull, dated, and often incomprehensible. In fact, like so much of the literature I remember reading in English classes, many of the poems we were assigned felt like they were written solely to make teenagers hate reading.
Then a few years ago, I stumbled across a few poems by the late Larry Levis in an issue of The San Diego Reader. Something was different about Levis’s poems. They were written in English as we speak it today. They were set in the modern world. Their subject matter was somber, their voice brooding.
I was blown away. The poems moved me. I ran out and picked up a Levis collection called “Elegy,” and read it with delight. I began to realize that the world of poetry offers much more than “My little horse must think it queer / to stop without a farmhouse near.”
Today, I’m still a newbie who has barely scratched the surface when it comes to all the great poetry out there. But I’m slowly making progress. For example, this week, I introduced myself to Charles Bukowski via “The Continual Condition,” which contains more than 60 previously uncollected poems. The book was published in 2009, 15 years after the legend from Los Angeles passed away.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably familiar with Bukowski. The jacket of “The Continual Condition” calls him “America’s most imitated and influential poet,” an evaluation that surprised me, given the apparent gap between Bukowksi’s gritty, often depressing subject matter and the prim, positive posture so many Americans maintain, at least in public. Then again, our culture’s tremendous appetite for Bukowski’s favorite vices — sex, booze, and gambling — suggests his take on the human experience resonates with more of us than a Norman Rockwell painting might imply.
Practically all of the poems in “The Continual Condition” are built on a foundation of malaise. An excerpt from “listening to the radio at 1:35 a.m.” captures this neatly:
somewhere else / there are nice homes / on the ocean shore / where you can / take your drink / out on the veranda / and / stand at ease and / watch the waves / listen to the waves / crashing in the dark / and yet / at the same time / you can feel crappy there / too
According to Wikipedia, Bukowski had an “epiphany” when he was in his teens and he discovered alcohol. Heavy drinking became a way of life for Bukowski. He seemed to embrace his chronic alcoholism without apology, seeing drinking as “a method he could utilise to come to more amicable terms with his own life.”
I drink alone now. / I drink with myself and for myself. / I drink to my life and to my death. / my thirst is still not satisfied. / I light another cigarette, turn the / bottle slowly, admire its gorgeous / color. / a fine companion.
Wagering on race horses, apparently another favorite activity of Bukowski’s, also surfaces repeatedly in this collection of poems. The racetrack is the setting for “faux pas,” in which Bukowski impatiently berates a man who is taking too long at the betting window as post time is rapidly approaching:
he was fumbling / awkwardly / so I hollered at / him: / “COME ON! COME ON! PICK UP YOUR FUCKING / TICKETS!” / the people in the / other lines / looked at us. / “COME ON! PICK ‘EM UP, / BUDDY!” / then the fellow / turned. / he had / no hands. / yes, I got my bet down. / and / my horse ran / last.
In “never,” Bukowski seems to be in a philosophical mood. He drops thought-provoking one-liners such as “in all things / the ideal is a gentle / consistency” and “contentment between agonies is the elixir / of existence.” In “my art form,” he laments the harsh nature of life on planet Earth:
I think I would like a little more kindness / in the structure / but the nature of things has a way of not / listening
Many of the poems in “The Continual Condition” draw on Bukowski’s encounters with prostitutes, whom he seems to hold in no higher or lower regard than any other working people. Work itself is the subject of other poems. In “thanks for the luck,” Bukowski beautifully describes the sense of cautious and perhaps unconscious gratitude shared by people lucky enough to be born with marketable talent:
I don’t mind the plane flights back / with the businessmen / all of us drinking doubles / and looking out past the wing / trying to relax / grateful that we were not on skid row / knowing we had certain abilities / (so far) / which have saved us from that.
Readers who fancy themselves writers will likely be tickled by Bukowski’s commentary on poetry and writing in general. He poses pointed questions about the value of poets and other writers in “the wasted profession,” and “before the 7th race” extends the discussion to include writer’s block:
have carried this notebook around / all day / at the racetrack and / have written down / nothing. / am now on the 2nd floor of / the Pavilion, / in the / men’s crapper, sitting / here / within these cool / gray walls / I find solace / in a common / function: / something / at last / to put / to / paper.
Overall, “The Continual Condition” is a small but satisfying sampling of poems from Charles Bukowski, who sugar-coats nothing as he shares observations from his booze-soaked, anxiety-addled perspective. The collection was my first taste of his poetry, and I’ll be back for more. Bukowksi’s storytelling is dirty and depressing but also riveting and real. Somehow, as in “I saw a tramp last night,” he shines a light into dark corners and finds beauty in his beam:
the way the old dog walked / with dotted, tired fur / down nobody’s alley / being nobody’s dog… / past the empty vodka bottles / past the peanut butter jars, / with wires full of electricity / and the birds asleep somewhere, / down the alley he went– / nobody’s dog / moving through it all / brave as any army.