Tuesday, 9 February 2010
THE PLEASURES OF THE DAMNED: POEMS, 1951-1993 by CHARLES BUKOWSKI
In my head, all right minded folk know the work of Charles Bukowski, recognise a Smiths lyric, and can tell you the result of the latest QPR game. I’m kidding myself of course (although the last one is easy to guess) but The Pleasures of the Damned offers a quick leg-up for those slouching in the Bukowski stakes. I always think a bookcase without Bukowski is a bar with no beer, so now's a good time for some of you to stock up.
First published by Ecco in 2007 as a classy looking hardback, the 2010 Canongate paperback gets a scowling, fag butt smoking Bukowski on the cover with sloppy “punk” lettering. Yeah man, cos that’s what he was like yeah. Crazy punk, didn’t give a fuck. Well, as it happens, boys and girls, he cared a great deal how his books were published and presented and I don’t expect he’d have been too chuffed with this one. But yeah, maybe for a lot of crappy pointless other stuff, he didn't give a fuck.
John Martin, his editor and publisher, a man so convinced of Hank’s talent he promised him money for the rest of his life if he quit his job at the post office, has selected the 250 poems to create a “Best of” collection. With thousands to choose from everybody will have their own choices but I immediately thought of five - and four of those are here, so that’s a decent percentage. Plus I only had to wait until the sixth entry for my absolute favourite, The Last Days Of The Suicide Kid. I know reading 250 poems sounds like some sadistic punishment dished out at school for fighting in the corridor but bear with me.
Even those with a cursory knowledge of our man will think of him drinking, shagging, and betting on horses. All reasonable stuff but he goes deeper than that. Although frequent topics, his work was seldom about those things as Martin is obviously at pains to show: his selections spread across five decades have the effect of watering down Hank’s more contemptuous nature found in individual volumes of his work. He played the tough guy role well but he had heart, he had soul, he had a strong sense of morality and decency (admittedly harder to spot after too much sauce) and he could be a big softie (just count the number of poems about his cats). “I do have feelings, you know”, he confirms, aware it’s not always noticeable in The Angel Who Pushed His Wheelchair. Those feelings and compassion was especially acute for the outsider, the underdog, the lost, the lonely, the homeless, the drunk, the foolish and increasingly before his death in 1994, the sick and the elderly. To Hank, skid row bums would rise in the haze of a drunken hour “like millionaires” and have “the most beautiful faces in town”. This would be romantic balderdash in less knowing hands than Bukowski’s.
He could also be very funny, usually at his own expense, and sensitive, as the poems reflecting on the death of Jane Cooney Baker who he’d enjoyed/endured a fifteen year on-off relationship show.
The poems aren’t presented in chronological order but they hang nicely together in little thematic batches. They aren’t dated either so you have to guess when they were written by flicking to the back to see what book they came from, and then turn to the front to see what year that was published. It’s difficult to date a lot of them anyway as they would sometimes sit with John Martin for years before being issued; decades, in the case of some posthumously published ones. If I wasn’t such a precious fusspot I’d annotate the pages in pencil. With over 500 pages it’s better to forget it and concentrate on the words.
I’m guessing most would start with Bukowski’s novels and short stories but fear not the poetry. These are only like shorter stories anyway. Everything he wrote was in his deceptively simple style. He told it just like it was. If it was shit stained, he'd tell it. It looks so easy he spawned a million imitators but few can get the line down with such little fuss and get straight to the truth, however uncomfortable it might be. Back in the 1960s in Notes of A Dirty Old Man he wrote, “An artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way”. There you go, I rest my case.
The Pleasures Of The Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 by Charles Bukowski is published by Canongate, priced £14.99.