Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Reader's Diary #266- Charles Bukowski: Slouching Toward Nirvana (FINISHED)

Anyone can write a poem. Write down the ingredients to a chicken casserole, send an email warning about the dangers of using your microwave to reheat coffee, write "Emo Sucks" on the side of a dumpster, etc. Now simply declare that what you have written is a poem, get just one person to trust you, and voila!

Believe it or not, I'm not being facetious or cynical. I truly think (feel free to disagree) that is all it takes. I am not talking about quality. Sure "1 cup of chopped cooked chicken" can be the opening line of a poem, that doesn't mean it's a good poem. But in my opinion, the poem is born not when it is written, but when someone thinks of it as a poem. I guess you could say that the reader is the parent, the poet is the midwife. Still, without the midwife holding it up and declaring "Congratulations, it's a poem!" the words would just be taken at face value.

It's the awesome life- the power- that the word "poem" has. Suddenly the reader is looking deeper into the words. Now s/he looks for alternate meanings, the poet's intent, devices and so forth. Cup, chopped, cooked, chicken all start with "c", what does that mean? Chopped and cooked- a little violent don't you think?

And this is not to say that poetry readers are gullible. Sometimes- perhaps more often than not- poets actually do have a reason for the alliteration, the imagery, and so on. Regardless, if the words cause the reader to think critically and personally about language, there's a value. If the reader actually connects, there's an even greater value- but that's where quality comes in.

Sorry about the essay. However, these thoughts have been plaguing me a lot lately and the Bukowski book has brought it to the forefront.

Apparently, Bukowski's headstone reads "Don't try." And while I was reading his poems, those words transformed from a bit of flippant, pessimistic advice to Bukowski's own motto, perhaps the secret to his success. I admit, one collection of poems is not enough to know the man or his motivations, but it certainly seems to fit.

One of my first impressions of his poems were how easily they flowed, how loose in construction they were, and how much they seemed like first drafts. But oddly, that almost conversational tone was appealing, refreshing. Perhaps Bukowski knew that if had had tried too hard, he'd risk losing his appeal. Reading Bukowski is like listening to my grandfather tell stories. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the show; sip your rum and smile at the amusement he draws from his own life. And if you are so inclined, you can look for -and usually find- pearls of wisdom and wit within his words. In my grandfather's case, these are just by-products; his sole intent was to entertain. In Bukowski's case, I get the feeling that wisdom and wit are also by-products, but, for the sake of his career, they were essential. Bukowski seemed quite aware that's how people assigned value to his work, how his money was made. But would we have bothered looking had someone not declared his work "poetry?" I'm not sure. I do know that anything that reminds me of my grandfather is a good thing. We need more down-to-earth humanity.

well, you fat fool, I asked, have you
tricked them all, including yourself?
aren't you ashamed?

no, I replied, I did nothing

- from "top gun," Charles Bukowski


Allison said...

I enjoyed your essay, actually :)

I've been reading a lot of poetry lately, Margret Atwood mainly. Still haven't cracked Animal Farm though. I will get on that soon, as it looks nice and succinct.

John Mutford said...

Allison: Glad you enjoyed it. What Atwood are you reading? Asides from reading a few of her poems here and there in anthologies, the only collection I've read of hers is Selected Poems II, some of which I really enjoyed, like "The Bus to Alliston, Ontario" and others I wasn't so keen on. Can't wait to hear your thoughts! For Animal Farm, too.