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What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (1999) by Charles Bukowski

all theories
like cliches
shot to hell,
all these small faces
looking up
beautiful and believing;
I wish to weep
but sorrow is
I wish to believe but belief is a
we have narrowed it down to
the butcherknife and the
wish us

  • In one sentence: Bukowski's poems are just a man in a room - odd, then, that this is enough to make people read them voluntarily, religiously, unlike almost all contemporary poetry with their bigger brains and better politics and more eventful stories and uplifting messages.
  • Number of reads: 10 since 2007.
  • Galef type: Values 3 - written from a holistic value structure, letting you experience that value structure from the inside
  • To be read when: you can't sleep and it's 2am and tomorrow's going to be a pain in the arse and you're alone in the house; there is no better book. .

Unbeatable at what it does, which is to slide through the mind with zero friction, depositing emotional silt and cheap, warm style from a previously insane and helpfully hopeless man in you – whatever you want that for. More than any other poet, he just literally talks to you. You can roll your eyes at his gaucheness and despise his chauvinism and feel nothing all you like: that's fine. It doesn't matter. It's not the point.

So it's barely art, but he knows it. Pity any academic working on CB: these poems don't invite analysis; they are worn on their own surface. They mean just what they first mean. Many of them are just about writing poems, but I cannot resent their hollowness, since emptiness is his brush. Its main virtue is complete honesty. much has gone by for most of us,
even the young, especially the young
for they have lost the beginning and have
the rest of the way to go;
but isn’t it strange, all i can think of now are
cucumbers, oranges, junk yards, the
old Lincoln Heights jail and
the lost loves that went so hard
and almost brought us to the edge,
the faces now without features,
the love beds forgotten.
the mind is kind: it retains the
important things:
junk yards
...there used to be over 100 of us in that big room
in that jail
i was in there many
you slept on the floor
men stepped on your face on the way to piss.
always a shortage of cigarettes.
names called out during the night
(the few lucky ones who were bailed out)
never you.

...when love came to us twice
and lied to us twice
we decided to never love again
that was fair
fair to us
and fair to love itself.
we ask for no mercy or no
we are strong enough to live
and to die and to
kill flies,
attend the boxing matches, go to the racetrack,
live on luck and skill,
get alone, get alone often,
and if you can’t sleep alone
be careful of the words you speak in your sleep;
ask for no mercy
no miracles;
and don’t forget:
time is meant to be wasted,
love fails
and death is useless
Everything that people mock Leonard Cohen for is much more true of Bukowski (misery, drawling, self-obsession, archness, chauvinism, treating the whole world as your confessional); he is just more direct and macho about it; that fact, and the very different crowd surrounding his medium is enough to earn him contempt rather than mockery. (And contempt is a kind of involuntary respect.) Backwards analogy: Bukowski is Tom Waits minus gospel, minus FX pedals, minus Brecht and Weill, minus one steady Kathleen peer. And minus metre of course. A grumpy adolescent old man; a sensitising misanthrope; a beautiful lech.

He has only two modes: midnight countercultural raving and laconic woke-at-noon observation. Neither would work without his lecherousness and/or meanness and/or arrogance; they are the absolutely necessary breve before he blares out his concern.

moments of agony and moments of glory
march across my roof.

the cat walks by
seeming to know everything.

my luck has been better, I think,
than the luck of the cut gladiolus,
although I am not sure.

I have been loved by many women,
and for a hunchback of life,
that’s lucky.

so many fingers pushing through my hair
so many arms holding me close
so many shoes thrown carelessly on my bedroom

so many searching hearts
now fixed in my memory that
i’ll go to my death,
I have been treated better than I should have
not by life in general
nor by the machinery of things
but by women.

but there have been other women
who have left me
standing in the bedroom alone
doubled over—
hands holding the gut—
why why why why why why?

women go to men who are pigs
women go to men with dead souls
women go to men who fuck badly
women go to shadows of men
women go
because they must go
in the order of

the women know better
but often chose out of
disorder and confusion.

they can heal with their touch
they can kill what they touch and
I am dying
but not dead

(That ^ might have gotten your back up, because it pattern-matches to modern whining about women's choices. But it isn't that: remember, from above, that he is calling himself a pig and a dead soul.)

This is three books written over thirty years, one sentence per ten lines as always, stapled together to give the impression of a late-life opus. It covers the whole lot: his Great Depression origin myth; his meaningless, crabbed middle years; and his long, long late period spent in contempt of the arty people who pay and applaud him.

...that dog took quite a few arrows and
managed to
but I saw what really happened and didn't
like Eddie very much.
so when I broke Eddie's leg
in a sandlot football game
that was my way of getting even
for Igloo.

...we took him in.
Igloo turned out to be rather dumb
did not respond to very much
had no life or joy in him
just stuck out his tongue
slept most of the time
when he wasn't eating...

when he was run over by an
icecream truck
3 or 4 months later
and died in a stream of scarlet
I didn't feel more than the
usual amount of grief
and loss
and I was still glad that I
had managed to
break Eddie's leg.

I am nothing like him, except maybe in sense of humour. He is not anti-modern - grew up through the Great Depression, a simulation of pre-modern subsistence; loves shit cars; lives for late night recorded music - but science, growth, and the expanding circle give him nothing of the sense of direction, transcendence and hope that it gives to me and mine. But still I "relate", as the disgusting verb puts it.

I have read this a half-dozen times over a dozen years. (It isn't hard; it takes maybe an hour and a half.) I know of no better poet to begin to explain why poetry is good and unique and feeds life. Whether or not this says something about my own character: I don't expect to stop reading it.


PS: Bukowski's epitaph is "Don't try". On the face of it that's mean and funny and fine, but it also means what Yoda means by it: don't force it. Don't betray your nature; do only what you are absolutely aligned behind. Is that good advice? Maybe not, but it is epitomises the man, more than the nihilistic joke.