No Great L.A. Poets? Every Barfly in Town Knows Bukowski
President Bush has finally taken all this war talk one step too far. Now he’s declared war on Los Angeles.
Bush didn’t attack L.A. himself. He delegated the dirty work to one of his lieutenants: poet Danny Gioia, Bush’s nominee for chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
A writer of well-crafted but mundane poems, Gioia came out firing right after his nomination. Speaking to reporters, Bush’s pet poet said he had been misquoted in the Los Angeles Times last fall as saying that no great poet ever came out of California. It wasn’t California that was lacking; it was Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles is perhaps the only great city in the world that has not yet produced a great poet,” he said.
This is war! And this is wrong. Hasn’t he ever heard of Charles Bukowski?
No poet anywhere -- not Whitman and New York, not Baudelaire and Paris -- is so identified with his hometown as Bukowski is with Los Angeles.
Born in Germany in 1920, he came to L.A. when he was 3 and stayed until his death in 1994. He attended Los Angeles High School and L.A. City College. He worked in the railroad yards and the downtown post office. He lived in the seedier part of Hollywood and later in San Pedro.
Bukowski published more than 45 books of poetry and prose, mostly with the upstart, now defunct, Black Sparrow Press of Santa Rosa. Three books were published posthumously, and five more are in the works from a division of HarperCollins. The first, due in January, is “Sifting Through the Madness, for the Word, the Line, the Way.” Like all his earlier work, it is punctuated with references to place, from Glendale to Hermosa Beach; from the Baldwin Hills to Beverly Hills; from Malibu to the L.A. River.
He captures mood and madness, as in his bleak, honest picture of Venice Beach: “the lost and the damned / the wounded and the intellectual / the boozed and the debauched / the negative and the uninspired / and the police / and the police / and the police.”
He recalls a Beverly Hills moment that could have happened today: “I feel very strange, very odd / that we are sitting at this table / spread with an immaculate white tablecloth / with all the successful people sitting here with us / with the war about to start tomorrow / or next week / as we sit over wine and coffee / on a beautiful, clear day in Beverly Hills.”
He sums up the insanity of the morning commute: “the freeways are a psychological entanglement of warped souls / dying flowers in the dying hour of the dying day.... what you see on the freeway is just what there is / a funeral procession of the dead / the greatest horror of our time in motion / see you there tomorrow.”
He reminds us that Los Angeles is the city of unlimited opportunity, but what we make of it matters: “Nobody can save you but yourself /and you’re worth saving.... maintain your self / with humor and grace / and finally / if necessary / wager your life as you struggle / damn the odds, damn the price. / Only you can save yourself / do it! do it!”
Who much cares whether Danny Gioia wins Senate confirmation? It does matter, though, that Bukowski is the great poet of Los Angeles. He belonged to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles belongs to him.