Showing posts with label Bukowski. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bukowski. Show all posts

Thursday, June 8, 2017

stray notes: Mumbling small talk at the wall

Charles Bukowski is one whom very little of his work goes a very long way. I admire the absence of unneeded images and place them somewhere in the Hemingway league as a writer who can be spare without being chintzy. That said, his minimalism gets monotonous after a while. His lonely-drunk persona, grousing continually to speak for the dispossessed and the marginal, becomes its own sort of sentimentality: the fact that Bukowski became aware, early on, that his constituency expected certain types of poems from him forced him, I think, to stylize himself into a corner he never managed to get out of. Not availing himself of different kinds of writing made him, finally, a bore. The truth of his loneliness, of his drunkenness, made him into a patsy for an audience that was too young, by and large, to have enough life to write their own stories. Bukowski became a one-trick pony: his best material is his earliest, like Henry Miller, and like Miller as well, became a self-parody without knowing it.

Ezra Pound is out of fashion these days, but I enjoy his adaptations (translations are too generous a word) of different oriental writers. In fact, I think that before Pound's adaptations, oriental poets and poetic forms were largely unknown in the West. I know it's an anthology warhorse, but I love "The River Merchant's Wife." I just find the way her feelings change towards her husband throughout the poem so touching--first, they're childhood playmates, then she's a frightened, ignorant bride, then she falls so deeply in love with him that she longs for her dust to be mingled with his forever. I also get a kick out of the line, "The monkeys make sorrowful music overhead." The bar is almost comic to us, but obviously, monkeys had very different connotations for the Chinese at that time. An interesting example of cultural differences. Ezra is someone who has given me eyestrain and headaches in college, something I can't forgive him for. He didn't give me anything remotely connected to the idiomatic language he idealized, the truly modern voice that was to be of its own time, a period sans history. It's a totalitarian impulse to try to live outside history or to lay claim to its reducible meaning, both matters Pound thought he adequately limned. Still, the problem was that his verse is leaden, dressed up in frankly prissy notions of what The Ancients had been up to aesthetically. The effect was perhaps a million dollars of rhetoric lavished on ten cents of inspiration. I didn't like him, I'm afraid. 

Unlike Frank O'Hara, dead too young, but with such a large and full body of brilliant--yes, brilliant--lyric poetry left in his wake. O'Hara, influenced by some ideas of modernists, got what Pound tried to do exactly right: he mixed the dictions of High and Low culture in the same stanzas with an ease that seemed seamless, he juggled references of Art, TV, movies, jazz, theater along with the zanily euphemized gossip of his love life, and was able to render complex responses to irresolvable pains of the heart--and heartbreak is always close kin to his rapture--in lines that were swimming in irony, melancholy, crazy humor. This is a poet as eroticized intelligence.

If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them to work, fine, that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet). 

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. Eliot's poems also stand up well enough without his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might otherwise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he was trying to live up to the bright ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire to be a genius.

Monday, May 25, 2009

An exchange on Bukowski and Eliot

Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of ...Some remarks from Barry Alfonso, writer, scholar, college chum, in parentheses. He was responding to an earlier post, The Tedium of Bukowski.Barry is, I need to say, one of the smartest scribes on matters of literature, culture and music, and that world needs more of his brand of nuanced clarity:

BA:Mostly, Charles Bukowski must stand guilty of the primary charges you level against him. I would question whether he truly prostituted his talents – there is something obsessive and nearly pathological about his concentration upon his themes and (I suspect) widening his subject matter would’ve been the true act of selling out. On his spoken word album Hostage, you can hear him snapping back at his bum-bating audience in an act of both self-exaltation and self-abasement. He allowed himself to be everyone’s pet wino and rages at his captors even as he allows them to pet and tease him.

TB:Vincent Canby once described Heaven's Gate as being, to paraphrase, a forced tour of your own living room, and in that vein I think that after we've gotten well acquainted with the contents and results of Bukowski's chosen life and have gone through our phases of admiration and praise for his integrity, we have the author continuing to go on and on further still about his drinking, his hangovers, his loses at the break, his broken heart, his bittersweet take on the daily grind. His poems are in a minor key. It's ironic that a writer who projected the air of wanting to have nothing to do with people couldn't help but fulfill audience expectations.

BA:But what I REALLY want to remark about here is your comment that young people continue to love Bukowski for his near-total nihilism. Complete negation of all values except grim survival and base self-indulgence is one way to term his philosophy. But I would also say there is an astringent quality to his work, an attempt to scrub away things false and unnecessary, akin to the Clorox used to bleach out piss and vomit stains from a skid row hotel.

TB:I'd say that "astringent quality" and the principled refusal to buy into a Big Lie are best evidenced in is novels, like "Ham and Rye" and "Hollywood", where there is less chance to sneak out of a scene on the slippery ellipsis his sort of free-verse poems provide him. Biographical detail and a sure eye and ear for making something artful, humorous and moving from a life of squalid fact forces him to finish a scene and develop a story. It's his poetry that presents the problem, mostly because it's these things by which his reputation is made and through which his readers, old and more recent , know and remember him: a one and half dimensional character who reiterates variations of the same monologue. You can make the case that his poems are appealing because of their bare-light bulb nakedness--a harsh light thrown on the tawdry, tacky, pathetic skid row of emotion that lurks in the looming shadow of corporate versions of American prosperity--but by my thinking Bukowski's repetitive themes and outcomes constructed another sort of false front, albeit one less crushing than the weight of a collapsed financial system. He goes on as the fatalist, on and on about how he cannot escape basic intractable facts, but he made a reasonable amount of money from his writing and could well afford to do something things other than exist at a minimal level and continue to wallow in a misery he nurtured as though it were a prized animal.I wouldn't say that he was dishonest--that's too harsh--but I think he lacked a courage to try something different as he aged. He suffered the consequences for his failure to change; he became predictable and without a fresh insight , the feeling he might have surprised himself.

BA:I will go a step further and assert that this commitment to the absolute minimum of what it means to be human is far, far more moral than, say, the philosophic assertions in the work of T. S. Eliot. Eliot used his erudition and great stylistic gifts to support a world-view of sweepingly negative and unwholesome dimensions. By mocking modernity and extolling an imaginary idealized past, this para-fascist did far more damage to the values embraced by the literary-minded than anything Bukowski could ever hope to do.
Eliot is frequently condemned as an anti-Semite (which he appears to have been), but his even greater crime is to slash away at the values of democracy and individualism in the service of submission to empty authoritarian symbols. In one of his critical pieces, Eliot condemned “the myth of human goodness which for liberal thought replaces the belief in Divine Grace.” This is not nihilism – it is worse than that. The fact that this arch reactionary used the techniques of modernity against modern society itself makes him all the more destructive and, in a real sense, hypocritical. By celebrating a pseudo-theocratic Shangri-La, he set up High Church so lofty as to make aspirations to progress and social improvement by mere humans seem futile. Bukowski’s bleakness is something for the reader to internalize and pass through – it can be recognized for the street-level, hard-knocks musing that it is. Eliot – the high brow snob who probably never puked on his shoes in his life – dishes out something that sticks in the mind far more insidiously.

TB:Eliot is one of the less-appealing poets I can think, in terms of what I can draw from his personality, and his antisemitism is a loathsome thing one cannot ignore, but we're confronted with a nest of conservative, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic vileness as regards the generation of poets he came up with , so one go to the work itself and find what there is in it that transcends (ugh, what an awful and nearly bankrupt word) their worst habits of mind and stands out as something that assigns a clarity to those unnameable shifts in mood and tone that would characterize a historical moment. Eliot, I think, does this well enough and gets across the pervasive soul sickness and profoundly alienated response resulting from the accelerated expansion of technology into economics, the home, the fighting of war, matters that those philosophers from the right and left were attempting to comprehend and do something about. Eliot the critic has been a hodgepodge of notions that argued quite against his own innovations--he longed for an orderly world where everyone simply did as they were told in their assigned life stations while they blessed and brilliant left to do their bit unfettered and undeterred—and it's noteworthy that he couldn't quite come up with a theory of literature or culture that could sustain itself beyond its parochial set of assumptions about The Fall of Man from Grace.He wants to lay the blame on democratic institutions and longed for a charismatic personality in politics to assume the force of Christ, less for salvation than to enforce an order on a chaotic planet.

He was a pruned up little fuck of a human being, of course, but in his poems, not his theories, we get his genius in full play, where he vents an honest vision of the disconnected and splintered feeling Modern Times forced on bulging populations. His poems were subjective, yes, but this was an element that had been ignored and overlooked or otherwise discounted as indulgent by many a poet taster of the time, and it was Eliot's general intent to give voice to the "rhythmic grumbling" , a voice that struck a wide cord of recognition among a growing body of readers. So that's his worth, found in the poems, "The Waste Land", "Ash Wednsday", "The Love Song of J.Arthur Prufrock", and so on. It gets said at times that if one talks long enough , they will happen upon some language that's free of an unmentioned agenda and express something resembling actual speaking truth to power. That is what Bukowski and Eliot have in common, having a body of work that contained the stuff from which a reader can know something about a world that will not conform to their expectations. My basic point is that Eliot had the larger gift and less in his actual poetic work that betrayed itself.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Tedium of Bukowski

Writer Charles Bukowski spent several decades writing about three or four things, which were drinking, staying drunk, screwing drunk women, playing the horses, and drinking. His was not a large world, and after reading a raft of short stories,three novels and five of his plenitude of poetry collections, it's safe to say that he'd run out of things to say about the redundant activities of his life. Hence,his redundant themes and the waning energy of his work as his life wore on, with he waiting for it all to be over with. Young people love him because Bukowski is as close to an actual nihilist any of them are likely to encounter in American fiction and poetry. His principle failing is his unwillingness to think harder or differently about the world of drink, cigarettes, whores,race tracks and flop houses and bad sex. This poem, as it goes, goes through the typical moves and ends on some winsome sigh about lost opportunity, faded youth, mauling over of some psychic pain that is somehow aimed at making us understand why he is such a luckless asshole. Ironically, few writers have been as lucky as this guy, lucky in that the game he ran on us held up all these years, and that it still has enough allure to sucker yet another acolyte who just entering their drunken -brutishness- is -authenticity phase. Bukowski was good at one point in his life, but his lack of interest in the word outside is few blocks of Los Angeles made him progressively less interesting as his years and books wore on.What is distressing is that he decided rather early on his career to rewrite "Love is a Dog from Hell" and "Ham on Rye" for the remainder of his life, marking his work as the stuff of a man who whore'd his talent to become saleable to an audience wanting to seem literate without actually doing any reading beyond a certain depth or page length.I just can't shake the feeling that Bukowski's version of despair and beatitude is more a symptom of cornball fantasy than something felt from the gut, or the heart. He exhausted that vein long before he passed away. He makes me think of someone who creates enormous amounts of anxiety because his life essentially static, full of non-events, sad variations on daily behavior, and rather than go mad and destroy something, he tries to pass off the nagging vibe by writing alot, in a reserved, occasionally effective prose; still the, fantasy did not resolve what I think were his real symptoms. The themes did not change, the moral of the stories were the same funny/sad/fuck you bits of flophouse grit. One realizes, after a bit, that the only thing Bukowski did succesfully, besides write the same story over and over, was grow old.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Bukowski:Born Into This

Bukowski: Born Into This on DVD, a documentary on the writer by John Dullaghan demonstrate why fans should be leery of meeting a writing hero, especially if said writer specializes in writing about boozing, whoring, bad jobs, pain, despair, bad luck and bad faith: fairly soon the charm of the man falls away during the classic interviews collected here, and we're given a grim picture of an irritating and maddening personality who could do one thing well, which was to write about his life long fuck ups and regrets. Bukowski's writing was limited and his books are something a reader wanders from after an infatuation of the one-trick genius,but the film leaves you with the feeling that way he wrote about the world he knew was singular and will survive many coming trends and fads in writing life.I'd never say that Bukowski was without art or the transcendent grace of the true poet.Lew Welch said you don't write unless you can't do anything else, and in that sense I suppose suppose the one thing the man could do was understand his pain to it's sharpest , needle point jab and then to tell the truth of it all in a voice that was undecorated and splintered. There is beauty in his verse, but his scope was so narrow that I fear over the years he began to write poems and tales according to what he knew were audience expectations. It's an over cited quote from Frederich Engles, but it bares repeating here; quantity diminishes quality. The poems , I think, were a bit too easy for him to compose on the fly, and this is why I think Bukowski's lasting contribution to American letters is his fiction, especially Post Office, Ham on Rye and Hollywood. Fiction is harder to write, and the world of Henry Chinasky, as Buk imagined it, avoids the easy outs the later poems are won't to have. For hard core fans only , perhaps, but worth catching or getting on DVD. There was something as touching as revealing about the scene where the monster inside him bubbles up while he's sparring with his wife.It's doubly moving when you recognize Buk's flair ups of rage and aggression from your own experience, if you happen have a back ground involving more-or-less alcohol consumption; it's the urge to destroy everything that's important in one's life, to drive off anyone that cares about you because under all the bravado and gallows humor lurks profound self-loathing that will manifest itself at exactly the wrong moment. Not that there's anyone good moment for booze-fueled flare ups to occur. Writing seemed the one thing that was unconditional in his life, and it is the one thing that kept him either blowing his head off or killing someone else. The rare , black and white footage in the movie was amazing, and it was appropriate to open the film with Buk at the Poet's Theater in San Francisco, puking his guts out before going on stage to read to a packed auditorium. The footage I thought was effective was Buk driving his VW bug, taking his interviewer of the mean streets he roamed. Favorite moment: Buk is going off one anecdote/philosophical tangent when a siren drowns him out. Buk falls silent, the camera captures an ambulance speeding past them, cutting through the traffic to some life and death situation, and then Buk resumes his story as the siren fades, not missing a beat. A perfect counterpoint. I thought Barfly was a blown opportunity, mostly due to Micky Rourke's cryptic stylization of the Bukowskiesque protagonist, who seemed to stuck somewhere between an SNL-quality impersonation of Brando's Godfather performance and DeNiro's habitual screw up in Mean Streets. Faye Dunnaway was a revelation, though, giving a performance that didn't need to be propped up by some by-gone idea of glamour. She did well with the film's tone of washed out naturalism.

One thing that I'm grateful to Buk for is his convincing Black Sparrow publisher John Martin to reprint the novels and stories of John Fante. Fante seems to be the biggest influence on him as a writer, and after reading several of his books-- Ask the Dust, 1933 Was a Bad Year, Brotherhood of the Grape, Wait Until Spring Bandini-- I'm firm in my opinion that Fante is the better writer. A better prose style, a funnier sense of humor, a hardboiled lyricism that rivals the best flights of Chandler. The republication of his body of work, I think, was a significant restoration to the American canon. Fante was a writer of the Last Stand ,
of flawed yet ambitious men advancing toward vainglorious dreams despite repeated wounds to their romantic, out sized egos. What gives Fante his edge is his refusal to soften the blows as he writes about the vanities and fuck ups of instinct driven men;
the hurt is palpable, the humor is deadly, the situations believably human.