Offbeat 26 February 2016
I have a bad smoking habit, one that I have to lose rapidly. I was reminded of this the other day by Charles Bukowski, one of my favourite poets. He wrote “now, for a cigarette, cancer and I have an understanding like a whore paid for.” I shared that to Facebook, knowing that smoking will definitely screw me.
The quote comes from ‘American Express’ in the Roominghouse Madrigals. Look the collection up if you enjoy the sort of poetry that hangs out fairly comfortably, albeit disreputably, with the Beat Generation. He wrote those edgy poems while he was still rough, not self-conscious of his literary status as he became later when he found popularity.
I felt like a sellout posting Bukowski to Facebook. His rough face, which looks like it has been dragged over gravel and left to heal without treatment of the scars, is frequently seen on Facebook, alongside a cynical quote which is actually something Kinky Friedman said. If you were active on Facebook a year or two ago, you will almost certainly have seen it. The meme lasted for about six months, although the quote was also attributed to Tom Waits.
I thought about that for a while, then decided to revise my feeling. I actually first came across Charles Bukowski on Facebook. One of my writer friends, the one who posts pictures of wolves, shared a link to ‘The Blackbirds are Rough Today’, another piece of emotions dragged over gravel. That was well before the quote memes started showing up. And anyway, I reasoned, people should know just how hectic Bukowski can be.
If Bukowski’s poems were movies, my best guess is they would come with 21 age restrictions. The words are acceptable, in line with the censorship of the times, but the imagery they evoke are cigarettes, grubby sex, failing love, disaffection and despair, all the things that you don’t want to shape the mind of a kid.
As I read that last paragraph again, I feel naïve. All the things you wouldn’t want to shape the minds of kids are already out there entering their heads, and in full and indifferent view. How many of you allow children to listen to current RnB, or watch Channel O or MTV Base?
That stuff is full of crass booty, crass bling and barely veiled references to the sort of drug abuse that would frighten a touring 70s rock band. If the kids aren’t desensitised to the spiritual corruption already, they will have to discover it for themselves when they leave home. Bukowski might actually be a wholesome alternative, given that his language is vanilla and his poems are gritty realism, unlike the hedonism that current music portrays on private jets and in Hollywood home pools.
I get the sense that education is not strong on poetry anymore. It doesn’t examine the thoughts or the tricks that are used to bring ideas across. I wonder if kids will ever get to pick apart William Blake’s ‘Tiger Tiger’ and discover evil? Will they ever get the sense of aging and death in Dylan Thomas’ ‘Rage Rage’, and begin to comprehend their own mortality? Apparently all that is too difficult. The targeted marketing approach as reduced everything to a vocabulary of all of two hundred one syllable words, and about 130 seconds of twerking in a three minute video.
In spite of all I have intimated about education as a path to poetry, it is not the prerequisite. With someone like Bukowski, the read is easy, The only trick there is the simile. Everything else is a quick read. The same is true of a lot of poetry.
If you can find the right item, five minutes in bed, before sleep overtakes can keep the mind busy for days on end, far longer than the average movie.
Poetry is bogged down with the idea that it should be inspirational.
That is not true. It is rooted in realism, and it doesn’t have to be Wordsworth. Children should not have to read Wordsworth, in my opinion. If they want action, give them the imagery of ‘Charge of the Light Brigade.
The next time Lady Gaga warbles on about wanting a disease, give them something more wholesome. Give them Bukowski.