Paul Kareem Tayyar

On Second Thought: Reflections on Charles Bukowski


It’s winter break for me, which means this is the rare week where I don’t need to sit up re-reading “A Clean Well Lighted Place” or “Babylon Revisited” in preparation for the next day’s class, or putting together essay questions for my students about the dominant themes in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It’s a great feeling, and I have found myself during these free nights reading a lot of Charles Bukowski, something which has been a bit of a surprise for me, considering I have mostly avoided Bukowski’s work over the past several years.  I think this is mostly due to the fact that as the Demigod of the Los Angeles/Long Beach literary nexus, the unofficial Poet Laureate of the City of the Fallen Angels and its surrounding areas, the Drunken Prophet of the traffic-clogged freeways and thankless, underpaying wage slaves just happy to live near the beach, Bukowski’s work had been so hyped that I figured it would be impossible for him to live up to the “Genius” label that fellow writers and readers alike have bestowed upon him.


But as is often the case in the land of a thousand failed sitcoms, I could not have been more wrong.


This past Monday night I came across a Bukowski piece in a fantastic anthology edited by Ann Charters about the 1960s called The Portable Sixties Reader.  The Bukowski selection was a short prose excerpt taken from 1969’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man, and it  was nestled in alongside selections written by some of my literary heroes (Lawrence Ferlinghetti Diane Wakoski) among them, and so I figured maybe it was time to give Bukowski a shot.  The piece was classic Bukowski: a down-on-his-luck Bukowski is working the graveyard shift at a gas station where his primary responsibility is to be willing and able to fire the shotgun stashed beneath the counter if any robber tries to hold up the place.  The narrative has the usual Bukowski props—hookers-with-hearts-of-gold, clipped, Hemingway-esque snatches of dialogue, a subtle, dry wit—but it was the story’s final paragraph, where Bukowski begins to weep at the news that his former employer (who recently fired old Buk for letting the hookers have their run of the station) has died that so moved me I almost started to cry myself.  Jesus, I had no idea he had this kind of heart, I thought to myself.  No wonder everyone out here loves him.


And so I have spent the last two nights tearing through selections of his work that are included in the anthologies of poetry and fiction I have sitting around the house—books like Garrison Keillor’s wonderful Good Poems collections, Edward Field’s excellent A Geography of Poets—and I find that in each one of these books Bukowski’s stuff is as good as anyone’s.  This realization has made me think that my several years’ resistance to Bukowski had a lot more to it than my simply being tired of hearing his name bandied about by breathless creative writing students.  It probably also had something to do with my own prejudices as a reader and writer, particularly for the kind of enduring mythos that always seems to surround the hard-living, hard-drinking, eternally down on their luck souls like Bukowski, Kerouac, Cassady, et al—the sense that true authenticity is the exclusive domain of those who can’t keep a job or a woman and who never met a drink or a smoke or roadside motel they didn’t like.  Why do these guys get to corner the market on authenticity? I would ask myself. Is a man any less authentic if he can hold a steady job, stay sober, keep off the smokes and treat a woman well?  These past two nights of this impromptu, informal Charles Bukowski seminar of mine has made me face my own insecurities.  Specifically, I have been guilty of doing exactly what I always tell my students to consistently avoid: don’t hold the artist’s personal lifestyle against him (or her) when reading their work (unless it’s Ezra Pound, that racist, anti-Semitic jerk).  No, Bukowski’s work deserves better than that.  The truth is that the guy was an incredible talent, and that his greatest stories and poems are almost as good as anything that Ernest Hemingway ever wrote.  And the fact that Bukowski is buried less than an hour from where I live and that, when he was alive, he drove the same freeways that I do every day, means he’s family, one of ours, a torchbearer and chronicler of the Southern California that I love.  In other words, I should stop holding his imperfections against him and start defending his work against the Eastern establishment who think the only good things that have ever come out of Southern California were film noir and Magic Johnson.


Paul Kareem Tayyar, September 17, 2011

Answering the Sirens’ Call: The Poetry of Robert Fitzgerald

It would be difficult to convince an audience that a writer who—during his lifetime—was awarded The Bollingen Prize and served as Consultant in Poetry to The Library of Congress (a post later to be re-titled Poet Laureate), and whose translations of Homer and Virgil remain classroom staples has been undervalued by the reading public. And yet a case can be made that Robert Fitzgerald (1910-1985) has become just that: a writer equal to any his generation produced but whose original work has been largely forgotten by contemporary audiences. In many ways, Fitzgerald, like Nicholas Ray (Director of Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place) or Connee Boswell (a jazz singer of such extraordinary gifts that Ella Fitzgerald idolized her), is yet another rich talent whose legacy has, in the decades since his passing, seen itself fade into a fiercely undeserved near-anonymity. So let this column be a small attempt to send readers back to his poetry—best found in the career-spanning retrospective Spring Shade—and to celebrate the work of a man whose love for Greek Mythology found its way into his poetry as a kind of early example of literary Magic Realism. I think the best place to start, then, is with one of Fitzgerald’s most beautiful poems, the lyrical and ruminative “Song for September”, which opens,

Respect the dreams of old men, said the cricket,
Summer behind the song, the streams falling
Ledge to ledge in the mountains where clouds come. (ll.1-3)

To those familiar with Fitzgerald’s musical renderings of Homer’s peerless verses, we can read this trio of opening lines as a transcendentalist’s take on Virgil’s Eclogues. The poem’s nameless, mysterious narrator doubles as a spirit-conscience who is both chronicling an old folktale and teaching a succeeding generation the earthly qualities that should be valued above all else: charity and goodwill. The voice of the narrator and the voice of the speaking cricket whose words open the poem are, from the outset, almost inseparable, as if the voice of the artist is, like that of the cricket, a wholly natural phenomenon whose wisdom stems from an almost primordial purity.

As the poem continues, the subject of mortality—its terrors and its dignities—is explored with a transcendental poise that sets Fitzgerald apart from contemporaries like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and placed him more in line with the 19th century American Romantics. Indeed, Fitzgerald, like Whitman, Whittier, Emerson, and Thoreau, understood that the new world was haunted, but that said haunting is as potentially beauteous and nourishing (“we walk in gardens among grasses / touching the garments of the wind that passes”) (ll.10-11) as it is lonely and stark (“time thins, leaving their will to wind and whispers”) (ll.6). This ethos might explain much of the reason Fitzgerald’s own poetry—as opposed to his peerless translations—have fallen out of favor: while his contemporaries were invested in the confessional mode as a way of grappling with the social and political terrors of the modern world, Fitzgerald’s poems were more interested in accessing a world that existed beyond the concerns of nationality, politics, and religion. He was a universalist in the best sense, as he used his poetry not as a mirror for his own society, but as a portal into the spirit-world of consciousness itself. And it is that sprawling, richly symbolic otherworld that has been the terrain of myth since man first put pen to paper—or paint to cave-wall—and it is there that Fitzgerald remained in his writing. This may be why, I suspect, his poems often seem less dated than those whose work was focused on more immediate concerns of time and place.

By the time, in the poem’s third verse, Fitzgerald writes,

The rain that speaks at night is the prayer’s answer.
What are dry phantoms to the old men
Lying at night alone? (ll.16-18)

the cricket has become an oracular, Tiresias-like figure, able to decipher the meaning of events and to read the fortunes of the blessed and damned with an accuracy and wisdom as breathtaking as it is lyrical. Just as Odysseus—the hero at the center of two of Fitzgerald’s most accomplished poetic translations—found in the Land of the Dead a humanity he thought he might have lost, so too do we find a blessing in our ability to commune with the dead, a communion possible because the old men, in their loneliness and mute solitude, act as symbolic mediums who provide us with an understanding of nature’s power and God’s will that we would otherwise not have access to. Such mystical abilities in the old are hauntingly, elegiacally expressed in the poem’s final lines:  “They are not here whose gestures we have known / Their hands in the dusk, their frail hair in the sun.” (ll.19-20)

To read a poem like “Song for September” alongside representative works from Lowell, for instance, or Plath, is a reminder that there was more occurring during the 20th centuries middle decades than Confessionalism. And while Fitzgerald did not produce as prolific and substantive a body of original work as many other major American poets, that is no reason to keep him out of the Poetic Canon: what work he did compose was uniformly excellent, on a par with the poems of his more famous contemporaries.

Paul Kareem Tayyar

On the Road Again: Barbara Hamby’s American Odyssey

Garrison Keillor introduced us. Well, not in person (I’ve never actually met him), but it was in his anthology Good Poems for Hard Times, a magnificent collection of poetry featuring a who’s who of poetic all-timers (Bukowski, Rexroth, Sexton), where I first read Barbara Hamby—her voice rich, playful, and full of a knowledge of film, television, automobiles and slang so far beyond encyclopedic that her verses were like one-stop superstores of American Popular Culture. Though the word on the street is that the Beat Scene died forty years ago, somewhere around the time Jack Kerouac moved back in with his mother and Allen Ginsberg became Bob Dylan’s unofficial roadie, the truth is that Hamby has not only (along with the ageless wonder that is otherwise known as Lawrence Ferlinghetti) sustained the often-joyous linguistic enthusiasms of those San Francisco bards, but moved well past most of those more famous writers because her work is possessed of a warmth, a happiness, and a more down-to-earth spirituality than most of the Beats ever possessed. In short, reading Barbara Hamby’s poetry is like going on a road trip, one where the woman behind the wheel lets you ride shotgun as she speeds across the open highways of an America where drive-in movie theaters still show old Janet Leigh films on Friday nights, hardware stores have not been driven out of business by soulless corporate titans, and where the long poetic lines first introduced by Walt Whitman and resurrected by Ginsberg are pregnant with a thousand reasons to marvel at the world that we inhabit. If Joyce’s hope was that the city of Dublin, should it ever perish in a fire, could be rebuilt by the city planners closely reading the descriptive passages in his novel Ulysses, it is my belief that Hamby’s poems could do the same for the American Interstate Highway System.

Therefore, upon recently purchasing a copy of Keillor’s newest anthology, Good Poems: American Places (which is every bit as good as the previous two in the series), I was delighted to see that Keillor has included two more poems of Hamby’s, “Ode to American Hardware Stores” and “Mambo Cadillac.” Both of these poems display Hamby’s unparalleled ability to create a forward momentum in her verses, as well her peerless gift for turning the ode and the elegy into verse forms full of diesel-powered beauty. Reading “Mambo Cadillac,” for instance, is about as sexually playful an experience as listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s most risqué live performances, or watching Marilyn Monroe command a scene in herGentleman Prefer Blondes-era heyday:

    fill the tank 
    with high-octane rhythm and blues, sugar cane, and shark bait, too.
    We got some miles to cover me and you. (ll.25-27)

What is so fantastic about lines likes this are how much symbolic work they are doing, especially the fact that Hamby, in true grrrl power fashion, has co-opted the American road trip that has usually been the symbolic territory of men, and has staked her claim to an abiding nostalgia for car-culture that is being “driven” out of us as a result of environmental necessity.

In this context, “Mambo Cadillac” becomes, like the Cuban “Mambo music” to which the title alludes, a polyrhythmic narrative where the “center” is always shifting in such a way that no singular meaning can be pinned down. In this poem, as in so many of Hamby’s, motion is meaning, possibility is freedom, and the rich interior life of the writer becomes a kind of expressive jukebox to which the reader can always return for joy and vicarious escape.

When read in tandem with Hamby’s “Ode to My 1977 Toyota”, it becomes clear that her work comes the closest in verse to what Bruce Springsteen has raised to a level of high art in popular music, as she turns the act of driving solo into something out of epic myth:

        where have you
        not carried me—to dance class, grocery shopping,
        into the heart of darkness and back again? (ll.1-3)

Hamby beautifully articulates that the everyday sturm und drang of feminine activities—“grocery shopping” was hardly something that Homer would have considered worthy of an epic—is compatible with the larger mythic underpinnings of the quest narrative. And while Odysseus had Charon to ferry him back and forth across the River Styx, and Marlowe a boat courtesy of the British Imperials, Hamby has a stalwart sedan, legendary for its nearly-unparalleled endurance. No, the female speaker of these poems does not need a man to protect her, all she needs is a car with a working engine to carry her head-full of daydreams and memories into the beating heart of a vanishing America.

And it is this celebration of escape that makes Hamby an unofficial, latter-day Beat poet, albeit one with an intellectual and emotional maturity that was often in short supply with a writer like Kerouac. So, if you are a reader who likes a little enchantment and escape in your poetry, be sure to check out Hamby’s back catalogue—Delirium, The Alphabet of Desire,Babel, and All Night Lingo Tango—as all of these books are more entertaining and imaginative that just about any movie playing down at the local multiplex on a Saturday night.