I still had a few lingering thoughts about Poetry Month, so I thought I’d run my 2008 review of Charles Bukowski’s Pleasures Of The Damned. It was the poet’s final and mammoth posthumous publication. Bukowski’s impact on free verse cannot be overstated, and without his influence, there would be no Breathing Room(s). This review originally ran in Buffalo Rising. -Tom
As far as Charles Bukowski’s work is concerned, you either enjoy his work or you don’t. As far as I’m concerned, any artist who can pen 54 books is worth looking into. Almost two years ago, a friend of mine read a poem of his aloud, with a roaring campfire in the background, during a summertime couple’s cocktail get-together–and I was hooked for life.
I’d rather read books, listen to music or watch films from an artist who’s consistently above-par than fixate on the tiny visionaries who knock one or two dingers out of the park and then disappear. It’s a testament to the poet’s already extensive and prolific career that he passed away in 1993, and Ecco books has been publishing uncollected volumes of his work practically every year since. Even death couldn’t shut Bukowski (aka: ‘Henry Chinanski’) up. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and The Pleasures Of The Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 (Ecco, 2007) marks the final note in a swan song the dead, drunken lout has been singing for fifteen years beyond the grave.
The final note plays like a familiar variation on an old jazz standard because a lot of work previously published in other collections makes a return visit in the pages of this fanatic-magnet of a hardcover. Bukowski’s heirs must have scoured the final drawers in his writing nook for one last run at the residual checks, as a smattering of new, previously uncollected verse can be found peppered throughout.
It doesn’t help that I just recently tore through The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966 (Ecco, 2002) along with The People Look Like Flowers At Last: New Poems (2007). Make no mistake, I don’t regret the purchase, and jump at the chance to buy any hardcover from a writer I’m enthusiastic about. It’s just a bit of a letdown to find out that I’ve already read more than seventy percent of the work within.
If you’ve read Bukowski’s work and you don’t own much of it, or if you want something literary and high-minded to show off on the coffee-table nook for your pretentious cocktail guests or in the bathroom for quick laughs and heartwarming forays into the fragility of the human soul, buy it at once. If (like me), you are systematically collecting everything the author has written and you’re starting with the larger volumes first and working your way down to the slimmer collections, you might want to hold off. There are better posthumous selections out there and they’re all marked up at boutique prices in whichever eccentric local book retailer or soulless conglomerate you can find them.
And for the uninitiated, Buk’s work is certainly worth reading. He was a champion of the underdog and an anti-elitist in the best possible sense of the term. A drunkard, a womanizer, a socially challenged citizen and a compulsive (and mostly successful) gambler at the race track, but a genius just the same. His work truly appeals to poetry lovers who think that they hate poetry. That’s how I got sucked in, and two years later, I’m still voraciously devouring every last verse in whichever books I haven’t bought yet.
Many critics bemoan the fact that his work was more structured, honest and true in the poetic sense before he become an underground sensation among skid row types, loose women and those who aren’t afraid of five to ten stiff drinks. While this may be true, the testament and the sheer weight of his own Akashic library will live on forever. His style of free verse has left a generation-spanning cacophony of enthusiasts, acolytes and derivative hacks. Present party included.