• Paul D. Wilke

A Few of My Favorite Bukowski Poems to Get You Started


Original silkscreen print by Charles Bukowski from my limited edition copy of The Last Night of the Earth Poems

"my wrists are rivers

my fingers are words"

- Charles Bukowski


Introduction


Poetry is a hit-or-miss thing for me - and mostly miss, if truth be told. I find the vast majority of modern poetry to be pretentious garbage, too clever for its own good, too inert to inspire, too unwilling to take chances, too narcissistic, too bound by rules, too timid to get in your face and provoke, too shiny, too happy, too opaque, and all in all, just so many dead letters sprinkled with flowers trying and failing to birth verses that mimic life.


One remarkable exception to this awful trend is the poetry of Charles Bukowski. Buk lived a hard life. His father beat the shit out of him on a regular basis when he was a kid. He suffered from disfiguring acne as a teenager. Later, he worked in a pickle factory, drank a lot, worked at the Post Office, drank some more, womanized, and gambled away what little money he had. He often lived in squalor and could be a mean sonofabitch. But he took those hard cards that life had dealt him and made some damn fine poetry. Most lives lived in such decadent excess would leave nothing behind other than to serve as cautionary tales. But for someone as talented as Bukowski, the wreckage of his life was all source material.


Reading a Bukowski poem, one quickly understands that this was not a poseur trying to fake feelings he's never really experienced. He's not out to impress you with faux-profundity that is nothing more than the dull echoes of better poetry written by better poets. No, his language is simple, and his delivery stark, but it packs a punch.


I imagine Bukowski sitting down with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and pecking these poems out on his typewriter all in one sitting, with the words going from his mind straight onto the paper, landing where they may, and him thinking all the while, 'Take it or leave it, assholes!' And yet, he manages to connect with more meaning and depth and humor and sarcasm than you might expect.


Sometimes his poems are more like short stories. Sometimes they feel like non-sequiturs. He can make you smile, wince, and gasp, all in the space of a few lines. And yet so much of Bukowski's poetry is absolutely and wonderfully beautiful, without shamelessly trying to be so. I admire that.


By the way, that was Bukowski's advice to writers: "Don't try." In fact, it's on his gravestone.


Bukowski once explained his writing philosophy in more detail.


"Somebody asked me: "What do you do? How do you write, create?" You don't, I told them. You don't try. That's very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it." - Charles Bukowski


So, here are a few of my favorites from The Last Night of the Earth Poems, published in 1992 by Black Sparrow Press. My signed limited edition copy was a gift from my late father-in-law, Mike Nunn, a lifelong Bukowski fan and the guy who introduced me to this gifted poet so many years ago.


Thanks for that, Mike, wherever you are now. You made me a richer man for doing so.


I hope you all enjoy these as much as I do.


Note: The following poems are taken from my copy of The Last Night of the Earth Poems. I've kept the formatting - line breaks, punctuation, capitalization - the same.



bluebird


there’s a bluebird in my heart that

wants to get out

but I’m too tough for him,

I say, stay in there, I’m not going

to let anybody see

you.


there’s a bluebird in my heart

that wants to get out

but I pour whiskey on him and inhale

cigarette smoke

and the whores and the bartenders

and the grocery clerks

never know that

he’s

in there.


there’s a bluebird in my heart that

wants to get out

but I’m too tough for him,

I say,

stay down, do you want to mess

me up?

you want to screw up the

works? you want to blow my book sales in

Europe?


there’s a bluebird in my heart that

wants to get out

but I’m too clever, I only let him out

at night sometimes

when everybody’s asleep.

I say, I know that you’re there,

so don’t be

sad.


then I put him back,

but he’s singing a little

in there, I haven’t quite let him

die

and we sleep together like

that

with our

secret pact

and it’s nice enough to

make a man

weep, but I don’t

weep, do

you?


nirvana


not much chance,

completely cut loose from

purpose,

he was a young man

riding a bus

through North Carolina

on the way to

somewhere

and it began to snow

and the bus stopped

at a little cafe

in the hills

and the passengers

entered.


he sat at the counter

with the others,

he ordered and the

food arrived.

the meal was

particularly

good

and the

coffee.


the waitress was

unlike the women

he had

known.

she was unaffected,

there was a natural

humor which came

from her.

the fry cook said

crazy things.

the dishwasher,

in back,

laughed, a good

clean

pleasant

laugh.


the young man watched

the snow through the

windows.


he wanted to stay

in that cafe

forever.


the curious feeling

swam through him

that everything

was

beautiful

there,

that it would always

stay beautiful

there.


then the bus driver

told the passengers

that it was time

to board.


the young man

thought, I’ll just sit

here, I’ll just stay

here.


but then

he rose and followed

the others into the

bus.


he found his seat

and looked at the cafe

through the bus

window.

then the bus moved

off, down a curve,

downward, out of

the hills.


the young man

looked straight

forward.

he heard the other

passengers

speaking

of other things,

or they were

reading

or

attempting to

sleep.


they had not

noticed

the

magic.


the young man

put his head to

one side,

closed his

eyes,

pretended to

sleep.

there was nothing

else to do—

just listen to the

sound of the

engine,

the sound of the

tires

in the

snow.



be kind


we are always asked

to understand the other person’s

viewpoint

no matter how

out-dated

foolish or

obnoxious.


one is asked

to view

their total error

their life-waste

with

kindliness,

especially if they are

aged.


but age

is the total of

our doing.

they have aged

badly

because they have

lived

out of focus,

they have refused to

see.


not their fault?


whose fault?

mine?


I am asked to hide

my viewpoint

from them

or fear of their

fear.


age is no crime


but the shame

of a deliberately

wasted

life


among so many

deliberately

wasted

lives


is.


the man with the beautiful eyes


when we were kids

there was a strange house

all the shades were

always

drawn

and we never heard voices

in there

and the yard was full of

bamboo

and we liked to play in

the bamboo

pretend we were

Tarzan

(although there was no

Jane).

and there was a

fish pond

a large one

full of the

fattest goldfish

you ever saw

and they were

tame.

they came to the

surface of the water

and took pieces of

bread

from our hands.


our parents had

told us:

“never go near that

house.”

so, of course,

we went.

we wondered if anybody

lived there.

weeks went by and we

never saw

anybody.


then one day

we heard

a voice

from the house

“YOU GOD DAMNED

WHORE!”


it was a man’s

voice.


then the screen

door

of the house was

flung open

and the man

walked

out.


he was holding a

fifth of whiskey

in his right

hand.

he was about

30.

he had a cigar

in his

mouth,

needed a

shave.

his hair was

wild and

uncombed

and he was

barefoot

in undershirt

and pants.

but his eyes

were

bright.

they blazed

with

brightness

and he said,

“hey little

gentlemen,

having a good

time, I

hope?”


then he gave a

little laugh

and walked

back into the

house.


we left,

went back to my

parents' yard

and thought

about it.


our parents,

we decided

had wanted us

to stay away

from there

because they

never wanted us

to see a man

like

that,

a strong natural

man

with

beautiful

eyes.


our parents

were ashamed

that they were

not

like that

man,

that’s why they

wanted us

to stay

away.


but

we went back

to that house

and the bamboo

and the tame

goldfish.

we went back

many times

for many

weeks

but we never

saw

or heard

the man

again.


the shades were

down

as always

and it was

quiet.


then one day

as we came back from

school

we saw the

house.


it had burned

down,

there was nothing

left,

just a smoldering

twisted black

foundation

and we went to

the fish pond

and there was

no water

in it

and the fat

orange goldfish

were dead

there,

drying out.


we went back to

my parents’ yard

and talked about

it

and decided that

our parents had

burned their

house down,

had killed

them

had killed the

goldfish

because it was

all too

beautiful,

even the bamboo forest had

burned.

they had been

afraid of

the man with the

beautiful

eyes.


and

we were afraid

then

that

all through our lives

things like that

would

happen,

that nobody

wanted

anybody

to be

strong and

beautiful

like that,

that

others would never

allow it,

and that

many people

would have to

die.

victory

what bargains we have made

we have

kept

and as the dogs of the hours

close in

nothing

can be taken

from us

but

our lives.



the damnation of Buk


getting old, and older, concerned that

you might not get your driver’s license

renewed, concerned that the hangovers

last longer, concerned that you might

not reach the age of 85,

concerned that the poems will stop

arriving.

concerned that you are concerned.


concerned that you might die in the

spa.

concerned that you might die on the

freeway while driving in from the

track.

concerned that you might die in your

lap pool.

concerned that the remainder of your

teeth

will not last.


concerned about dying but not about

death.


concerned that people will no longer

consider you dangerous when

drunk.


concerned that you will forget who

the enemy is.


concerned that you will forget how to

laugh.


concerned that there will be nothing to

drink in hell.

and concerned you will have to

listen to

one poetry reading

after another

after another…


the Los Angeles poets

the New York poets

the Iowa poets


the black poets

the white poets

the Chicano poets

the 3rd world poets

the female poets

the homosexual poets

the lesbian poets

the bisexual poets

the sexless poets

the failed poets

the famous poets

the dead poets

the etc. poets


concerned that the toteboard will

explode into flowers of

shit


and the night will never

come.

the aliens


you may not believe it

but there are people

who go through life with

very little friction or

distress.

they dress well, eat

well, sleep well.

they are contented with

their family

life.

they have moments of

grief but all in

all they are undisturbed

and often feel

very good.

and when they die

it is an easy

death, usually in their

sleep.


you may not believe

it

but such people do

exist.


but I am not one of

them. oh no, I am not one

of them,