Cut-Ups on The Bukowski Bus
by Tim Scannell
Reviewed in brief by Bill Kushner:
Double Issue, Vols. 7 and 8, 2001
Editors: Julia Blumenreich et al.
Alice Notley's Disobedience
(Penguin, 2001; 380 pp. $18)
~ . ~
Cut-Ups on The Bukowski Bus
"We don't write to be judged; we write to get it out of us so we don't do something worse," Charles Bukowski once asserted. With that, he fits the encouragement/disclaimer of the editors at Nerve Cowboy, who invite work, " disturbing enough to make us all glad we're not the author of the piece."
Bukowski's claim that most poets practice "effete intellectualism" is demonstrably untrue: Few are effete, even fewer particularly intellectual. Clearly, his cult followings in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere are not driven to him by mass intellectual appeal. His late-in-life embrace of wealth, of imported wines and beers, as the fawned-over toast of Sean Penn and other Hollywoodites was dilettantish.
In sum and substance, Bukowski's poetry is a repetitive narration of adolescent bravado: anger, substance abuse, violence, vexation by and resentment towards humans generally. For better or for worse, myopic rebellion and sullen mood are signal traits of a phase in adolescence. "People are always pointing out things to me," Bukowski wrote: "I'm a drunk or I'm rich or I'm something else. How about the writing? Does it work or doesn't it?" Agreed. Product is more important than biography and should be judged as such—in the same way that one makes bite-the-tongue allowances for the irrational rough edges of adolescents, hoping they survive the tumultuous initiation into adulthood.
Does the writing work, or not? Many sites on the www are devoted to his product, and over 1500 critical references in periodicals and newspapers may be found there, too. I have re-read some Bukowski poems. "Combat Primer" is about a long list of writers who died young, got shot or run out of town, committed suicide or went mad.it's that kind of war ,
but when they sandbag
you from the blind side
don't come to me with your
As an assertion about and judgment on the writing life, this product is surely a facile one, inasmuch as one could as readily assemble a far longer list of creative lives filled with quiet accomplishment, eased by successful livelihoods to a peaceful, natural death. Those are ignored because Bukowski's adolescent attitude demands Götterdämmerung, and the ubiquitous 'they,' who derail, spoil or obstruct the dream, his language appropriate in tone and voice for the psyche of the typical suffering teen.
we are always asked
As usual with Bukowski, the looming 'they' appear for venting spleen, as though any 'raisin' (as my one-time teenaged son used to call senior citizens) descending from his RV to load up provisions at a local Safeway were automatically outdated, foolish or obnoxious. There's little need for selective quotation: examples are legion, peppering his immature swagger and constant bullying. Vomit poem #3 is vomit poem #88; bite-off-my-woman's-clit poem #6 is-bite-off-my-woman's-clit #864; barfight #44 is barfight #333; cockroaches-are-better-to-love-than-human-beings #82 is
Bukowski wrote and rewrote four or five poems. He is, simply put, a media creation of the alternate zine world itself, that very same one which so hates, derides, and whines about its mainstream counterpart for its creation of shallow icons: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Monroe, Warhol, Madonna, Penn, Winfrey, Mailer, et al., each ebbing and flowing in the ole in-and-out of fickle favor. Both worlds, alternate and mainstream, are chockablock with arrogance, ideology, and pseudo-holy turf wars. And stupidity. Of course, the Taliban would kill them all, all of them driven by a no less procrustean, totalitarian ideology. To mistake it as another, as different, is (kindly put) appallingly muddleheaded.
Despite his bluster, I consider Bukowski a very valuable poet deserving of a wide readership, but not deserving, as an adult, of emulation. My reasons are the two obvious ones: He writes, with humor, in a plain American idiom, which includes all those titillating words so successfully reveled in by, say, Mort Sahl and George Carlin.
'Cock' and 'cunt' reign supreme in Anglo-Saxon literature. I can recall getting the train into Chicago's Loop with my fourteen-year-old pal, Chris, and virtually running off it into Bretano's bookstore to buy our copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1958). We did more diligent reading and re-reading that joyous summer than ever during our previous K-8 schooling. Salutary. But, I must admit, in my later maturing, that Henry Miller (Tropics of Cancer, Capricorn) and the Marquis de Sade (Juliette) appeared abusive and juvenile. Much later, Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex Well, I'd long been there, long done that--and better.
Bukowski is likeable for his humor. The most dire need of lonely teenagers is to laugh at themselves. Bukowski was always droll, even on his tombstone: "Don't Try." Totally unintellectual, yes, but that is just what a teenager is.
Happily, finally growing up, nearly every single teen will ignore Bukowski's silly epitaph, and will learn to strive and succeed—always with good humor, hopefully. Each will wrestle the demons of self-doubt and self-pity to stretch and reach for and grab the brass ring, fight through disappointment and set-back for long, long adult decades in the sun. No small irony, Bukowski himself reached 'raisin-hood,' at 70-something driving his BMW to the track. Good for him.
In spite of his own personal rancor, Charles Bukowski will provide for some yet two gold stars in the firmament for youth to hang on to: plain statement and trenchant humor. May they ultimately catapult themselves out of the pain and isolation of adolescence into a maturity of, "Do try," and even, "Do try again!" Very few Bukowski poems, if any, will make it into the Western Canon, but I cannot see that it really matters at all. I'm a 3.96 CUM graduate from university, yet my Superman comics and Mad magazine are still on the shelf, right alongside Beowulf and Macbeth.
(A prolific, independent reviewer and essayist, Tim Scannell is a regular contributor to the magazine. (Masthead) He lives in Washington State.)~ . ~
Editors: Julia Blumenreich et al.
(427 W Carpenter Ln, Phila. PA 19119, $10) by Bill Kushner
What do I like about this new double issue of 6ix Magazine? Much. A lot of that, very much. Beautifully mounted, handsomely turned out, 6ix is obviously a labor of love for each of its 6 editors. I especially like that it asked many of its poets to supply their 'working notes': the how and why, ways and means that their poems came into being.
Poet Evelyn Reilly replies that the title of her (absolutely perfect) poem, "All Men Say 'What' to Me," is a from a letter written by Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Another poem of hers comes inspired by Marianne Moore. I like that young women poets do homage to those gone before. On the other hand, poet Phyllis Koestenbaum is represented by three terrific poems, "mistranslations," she calls them, of poets Jacques Prevert, Eugenio de Andrade and Paul Celan. And she writes, "Why do I mistranslate? I love imagining what a word means, reaching for associations that work I love the look of foreign words, love, even, the pretense that I know a language I do not know " Poems, you see, that come out of love, and into the light.
Poet Merry Fortune's absolute stunner of a poem, "Secrets—Phase I," comes, she writes, from an assignment in a workshop given by Lewis Warsh. As does Lilla Lyon's fine, "Notes for a Novel." The titles give you the assignments by Warsh, and are then available all us poets to try. Got any secrets? Make a poem of them. Better than seeing a shrink! Itching to write the great novel? Put your novel in the form of a poem, the great American poem!
Stephanie Dickinson writes about her touching poem, "Teeth," based on a photo of her mother at age 11: "I observed my mother in a world in which I didn't exist. I'm not even on the horizon. I tried to capture her world, her vulnerability, and the pain before I was." These valuable 'working notes' are often as poem-like as the very poems themselves.
6ix, double issue, is a must-read for all poets and would-be's and lovers of. A lot for your ten bucks: poems by two poetry icons: the great Alice Notley and the great Anne Waldman, and then poets you've maybe never heard of, but soon will: Michele Madison Somerville (Her poem, "Crush," a tour-de-force, funny, sad, so-o romantic); Phyllis Wat's tongue-in-cheek, "Operating Instructions for / Becoming a Gentleman-Scholar;" Tom Whalen's wise-guy poems; Brad Ricca's sexy, "Sex with Madonna." So many poets, so many poems, and in all sizes, styles, plus book reviews, plus, plus, and plus!~ .
Alice Notley's Disobedience
by Bill Kushner
Alice Notley refuses to repeat herself, insists always with each new book on challenging, firstly herself, and then the world, with all its poseurs and pieties and hypocrisies. She is also determined to challenge all the so-called 'poetical languages' of the world.
Disobedience is part dream notebook ("To change the world, as I always say, / change the forms in our dreams"), part pulp mystery novel, and part day to day and night to night diary/long poem of an American woman living in Paris, with its lights, beauty, culture, pollution, bomb threats, and railway strikes.
It is also part confessional poem, although Notley puts an entirely new light on that genre. She digs deep; her dream woman keeps going down and down and into the very 'un' of the unconscious, that sticky, sweaty place where we all dwell in a sense, collectively hiding. Disobedience, living up to its title, becomes incredibly sexual and revealing.
By challenging her very own sanity as she is about to be turning 50, her hypnotic voice guides us through the maze and amazement that is truly an inner life well-lived: "Our emotions / terrify and transform us. Our lives / have a will of their own. That's why / people want to hear / our diaries."
Is she a real life genius among us? Award-winning poet Notley earns every single word in this virtual tour-de-force of her struggle to survive in those worlds, inner and outer, as they swirl around and about her.
(Bill Kushner's work is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2002, published by Scribner's. His other books, including, He Dreams of Waters, reviewed here in 2001, are available through SPD (800) 869-7553.)