Monday, August 15, 2011

Revisiting Bukowski

At 20 I started reading Bukowski. Oddly, I think it was Scott Ian from Anthrax who mentioned his book Women that got me interested. Go figure. And then the Chili Peppers, who I was very much into around the Mother’s Milk era, name-checked him. So his name floated into my suburban head and I, being curious about writers not available at Waldenbooks, ventured to this exciting new store called Barnes and Nobel to see if they had Women. They did. A quick flip through the first few pages yielded the words “masturbate” and “drinking.” I knew I was in for something fun.

And that is the thing about Bukowski: he is fun. Okay, his books are very crude, definitely male-centric reads, and yeah the whole drinking-and-whoring-and-gambling thing wears on the more you read, but in recent days I have come to appreciate Buk’s clear, direct style all over again. Wading through Mayakovsky, Frank O’Hara, and Elena Shvarts made for nice weekend reading, and I like the complexity of these figures—especially the outrageous Mayakovsky—but a Sunday meeting with other poetry readers from TriQuarterly got me thinking about what matters most to me in poetry.

Let’s back up.

I spent the afternoon at the track. From there I had to haul ass back to the city to get to the bar where the poetry meeting was taking place. I mentioned to the others that I was having a Bukowski day: the track, the booze, the poetry. It fell on deaf ears, and I think that has to do with the fact that most poets I know dislike Buk. He’s as far from the MFA course as you can get. His brand of simple, uncluttered lines doesn’t appeal to those anguishing over better metaphor and smashing their lines into form. I get that and I can see why there’s no love for Hank in academia, but I always feel compelled to defend the guy, partially because he was so important to me in my early 20s, and also because of the two best lessons he taught me, lessons that I think more aspiring writers ought to remember:

1. Anyone can talk about being a writer, but it takes dedication and effort. Love or hate what he produced, Bukowski wrote nightly for years. He did not write a brilliant poem each one of those nights, but he worked at it steadily and penned many books—a few of them pretty great. He always disdained those more interested in going to readings and workshops and parties, the “gutless” academic writers who imagined they were owed something for playing it safe, and the eager young poets who felt their potential was enough. Potential and aptitude are important, but they are useless without effort. Buk knew he had to try harder and so he did.

2. Style is everything. Well, almost. But to Buk, it was the most important thing. To do something with style was more important to him than to do it according to the rules. Know the rules and break them well, he might have said. Authentic voice, or staying true to your vision, will ultimately carry one further than following trends and reducing your own ideas into facsimiles of someone else’s dull writing. Of course, the emulators are assured some recognition, but if you’re in it for recognition you have already lost.

So I keep all that in mind today, the day after I saw more than a few poems slaughtered, skipped, and dismissed. Sure, some were fair to middling, but I can’t help but think of Hank and what he might have thought about the whole affair. Anyway, his work, even the bad stuff, is enough to keep me at this ridiculous game.