Ordinary madness

David L. Ulin is books editor of The Times.

Charles BUKOWSKI may be a Los Angeles icon, but reading “The Pleasures of the Damned” -- the new volume of his selected poetry edited by John Martin, his longtime benefactor at Black Sparrow Press -- it’s impossible not to ask some hard questions about his status and whether it is deserved. I’ve often thought his place in this city’s literary pantheon was more a matter of opportunity than of talent; when he started writing full-bore, in the mid-1950s, few people were creating an authentic local literature, which, for better or worse, is what he did.

Back then, most L.A. writing was the work of outsiders, with a small indigenous poetry scene, leftist and oddly formal in its aesthetics, centered around such journals as Coastlines and the California Quarterly. Although Bukowski published in such venues, he stood against all that; a loner, avowedly apolitical, he focused on the small degradations of daily life. “there is a loneliness in this world so great / that you can see it in the slow movement of / the hands of a clock,” he wrote in “The Crunch,” describing “the terror of one person / aching in one place / alone / untouched / unspoken to / watering a plant.” He was trying to articulate a vision of Los Angeles as an urban landscape, not exotic but mundane, where we not so much reinvent ourselves as remain unreconciled.

And yet Bukowski was hardly the first writer to look at L.A. through this filter. One thinks of his great hero John Fante, whose superlative 1939 novel, “Ask the Dust,” evokes the city in similarly existential terms. It’s no coincidence that decades later, Bukowski was the one who brought Fante’s work to the attention of Martin, or that when Black Sparrow reissued the then-long-out-of-print “Ask the Dust” in 1980, he would write the preface. “Yes, Fante had a mighty effect upon me,” he wrote. “Not long after reading [his] books I began living with a woman. She was a worse drunk than I was and we had some violent arguments, and often I would scream at her, . . . ‘I am Bandini, Arturo Bandini!’ ”


Fante makes an appearance about three-quarters of the way through “The Pleasures of the Damned” in a pair of poems inspired by his death in 1983. “the writing of some / men / is like a vast bridge / that carries you / over / the many things / that claw and tear,” Bukowski writes about his mentor in “The Wine of Forever,” but the bulk of this 500-plus page collection highlights the fact that his own work is not up to such a standard -- not even close. Rather, the 274 poems here affirm a sense of the author as a hit-or-miss talent, capable of his own brand of small epiphany but often stultifyingly banal.

” . . . when I opened the / newspaper / and read of the fire / which / destroyed the / library and most of / its contents,” he writes in a poem about the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library, “I said to my / wife: ‘I used to spend my / time / there . . . ‘ “ The library fire becomes a metaphor for loss, for aging, for the slow closing of possibility, but the poem has no real payoff. Then there’s this, about the aftermath of lovemaking, from a poem called “Like a Flower in the Rain”:

later we joked about the lotion

and the cigarette and the apple.

then I went out and got some chicken

and shrimp and french fries and buns

and mashed potatoes and gravy and

cole slaw, and we ate. She told me

how good she felt and I told her

how good I felt and we ate

the chicken and the shrimp and the

french fries and the buns and the

mashed potatoes and the gravy and

the cole slaw too.

Here, Bukowski means to tell us about the solace of simple pleasures -- sex, food, companionship -- but he ends up with uninspired details, a disconnected litany.

Part of the problem is the Bukowski persona: the dirty old man, the drunk, the layabout. For a lot of readers, especially younger ones, this is the draw -- the idea of the artist as outsider, unbound by social stricture and thus available to tell the truth. To be sure, it’s an attractive image, but Bukowski is no Louis-Ferdinand Celine, to cite another of his role models, which means that often what emerges is empty posturing.


“THE Pleasures of the Damned” includes poems about failure, about drinking beer in the afternoon, about lust and bodily functions and going to the track. It also features other, later poems about “being” Bukowski -- not songs of experience but something much more contrived. In “Gold in Your Eye,” he describes driving his BMW to the bank to “pick up my American Express Gold Card”; what might have been an interesting meditation on money and how it does (or doesn’t) change us becomes, instead, a taunt at those who expect him to live a particular way. “Poetry” relies on the tired homily that “it / takes / a lot of / desperation / dissatisfaction / and / disillusion / to / write / a / few / good/ poems.”

Even when Bukowski pierces the facade, there’s the sense that he could have mined his material more deeply, that he could have excavated something more. “Oh, Yes” reads, in its entirety:


there are worse things than

being alone

but it often takes decades

to realize this

and most often

when you do

it’s too late

and there’s nothing worse


too late.

It doesn’t help that “The Pleasures of the Damned” has no editorial structure; there’s no introduction, and except for a few small thematic clusters -- a handful of poems about cats, and another, toward the end, on dying -- the material seems arranged with little thought to order, chronological or otherwise. To find out where these poems first appeared, you have to flip to an “Alphabetical Index of Poem Titles” at the back, a process so unwieldy as to be useless.

Martin clearly put the collection together that way on purpose. The idea, I suppose, is to let the poetry stand on its own merits, without intrusion, but in the end, a bit of intrusion might not have been so bad. After all, stacked together as they are, the poems here quickly run together into one long, unchanging reverie. The voice, never the most expressive to begin with, flattens out. What lingers are a few impressions: Bukowski’s tendency to reach for the broad, overdrawn image (“it is indecent to search him out,” he writes in “Goldfish,” “indecent like the burning of peaches / or the rape of children” as if the two had anything to do with each other) or the abstraction posing as a profound statement about life.

One of the benefits of a career retrospective is that it allows us to see how a writer has progressed, how themes and styles are continued or discarded. This collection, though, shows no real growth. A poem from the 1950s reads no different than one from the 1980s; they are part of the same lifelong binge. “I’ve got this room upstairs overlooking the harbor,” Bukowski noted in 1979, describing his method of composition, “and I drink 2 or 3 bottles of wine and tap it out.” But reading “The Pleasures of the Damned,” you begin to wish there had been a little less “tapping” and a little more development.

To his credit, Bukowski seems to have recognized that; “this then / will be my destiny,” he writes in “The Poetry Reading,” originally published in the 1972 collection “Mockingbird Wish Me Luck”:

scrabbling for pennies in dark tiny halls

reading poems I have long since become tired


and I used to think

that men who drove buses

or cleaned out latrines

or murdered men in alleys were


So why, then -- in L.A., anyway -- does he remain a sacred cow? Partly, I suppose, it’s personal; when I first arrived here in the early 1990s, he was known for giving work to any start-up ‘zine that asked for it, and he was a tireless supporter of younger poets. That goes a long way in the indie lit world, where rivalries can be especially vicious because the stakes are, by and large, so low.

Even more, it has to do with Los Angeles, where writers remain uncertain about their significance, which makes us reluctant to criticize our own. It’s a garrison mentality, but the truth is that we as a literary culture have outgrown it, just as we’ve outgrown Bukowski, and the ordinary madness of these poems. “There are so many . . . who go by the name of poet,” he wrote in his 1983 short-story collection “Hot Water Music.” “But they have no training, no feeling for their craft.”


He’s right, of course. Yet the most telling thing about that statement may be what it anticipates about “The Pleasures of the Damned.”