Monday, February 27, 2012

On Bukowski’s Form

The poet Adam Fieled recently posted an essay about Charles Bukowski on the As/Is blog (and later added it to his Red Room profile) . Titled “Learning from Bukowski,” it argues for the value of Bukowski’s poems as “triumphs of logopoeia, articulating serious, universal problems and finding consoling resolutions in solitude, seriousness, literature, and memory.” Ezra Pound defined logopoeia as the way a poet “employs words not only for their direct meaning, but [...] takes count in a special way of habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the word” — or to put it another way, the directly assumed meaning of the word, the content of a poem as opposed to its form. Thus, while Fieled accepts the criticisms of those who see Bukowski’s writing as rough and “lack[ing] of formal skill” (indeed, Fieled writes, “I do not deny that Bukowski’s lack of formal skill is a serious flaw”), he challenges those who dismiss Bukowski for his emphasis on a particular kind of content. For Fieled, Bukowski’s value need not be bound up with formal concerns. Much more important is the “precision of his worldview and its presentation-in-verse.” And certainly, this is what seems to be foregrounded in most of his work, at least from a certain point onward.

Further, Fieled claims,
More important even than logopoeia is rhetopoeia, the rhetorical impact or heft of any given poem. We must be convinced by any given poem’s rhetopoeia that it needs to exist, is a necessary entity. This Bukowski is able to do, time and time again, because (in his best poems) he has something substantial to say. Bukowski is a relevant poet because, while form can be faked, content cannot. You either have something substantial to express (whether it is on an emotional, psychological, aesthetic or any other level) or you don’t. In considering Bukowski and form, give the man at least the credit of volition — his writing career spanned forty-odd years, if he’d wanted to learn form, he would’ve. Content was obviously so important to him that form was (mostly) superfluous; and who’s to say he wasn’t right?
I find Fieled’s essay intriguing, and as a Bukowski fan myself I like the fact that he has taken such a bold approach. It’s as if he is saying, “Okay, so maybe Bukowski isn’t that great on a technical level, but there is so much more going on with him that is of even greater importance.” I like that he argues for this alternative way of gauging the value of poetry and poets, a sort of “screw you” to academic elitists who see form as the be-all-and-end-all. In doing so, he looks to the precedent of Whitman (who was similarly attacked in his own day) and to the fact of Bukowski’s very real popular acclaim as a redeeming factor. It is an audacious and original argument, and one that I can only wholeheartedly support, within the assumptions that it sets for itself.

However, I think that it also possible to make an argument for Bukowski on the basis of form. Contrary to Fieled’s (and others’) portrait of a poet who couldn’t be bothered to “learn form,” Bukowski’s own early work suggests otherwise. The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966 (Black Sparrow Press, 1988) shows us quite a different poet than the more usual, later Bukowski many of us are familiar with. In the earlier poems, sound devices such as alliteration and assonance are to the fore; word choice is anything but “boring” and diction is anything but “flat.” Take these lines from “22,000 Dollars in 3 Months”:
night has come like something crawling
up the bannister, sticking out its tongue
of fire, and I remember the
missionaries up to their knees in muck
retreating across the beautiful blue river
and the machine gun slugs flicking spots of
fountain and Jones drunk on the shore...
Alliteration is present in the “beautiful blue river,” while the assonance of “gun,” “slugs,” and “drunk” cannot be lost on the attuned reader. There are the further poetic devices of simile (“like something crawling/ up the bannister”) and metaphor (“tongue/ of fire”), while the poem ends with the anaphoric sequence of “dead communists, dead fascists, dead democrats, dead gods and/ back in what was left of the hut Jones/ had his dead black arm around her dead blue waist.” Bukowski knew what he was doing, and any number of examples from this volume could be further cited as evidence for his skills as poetic craftsman.

In 1987, Bukowski himself wrote in the introduction to The Roominghouse Madrigals that
The early poems are more lyrical than where I am at now. I like these poems but I disagree with some who claim, “Bukowski’s early work was much better.” Some have made these claims in critical reviews, others in parlors of gossip. [....] In my present poetry, I go at matters more directly, land on them and then get out. I don’t believe that my early methods and my late methods are either inferior or superior to one another. They are different, that’s all.
What Bukowski posits here is a conscious shift in style. He admits that his own earlier work was “more lyrical,” with all the attendant strategies that lyric poetry implies. It is therefore clear that his later style was not that of mere “technical incompetence” (as Fieled describes it), but indeed a chosen stance. Even a perceived disregard for form is inherently a kind of form in itself. I agree with Fieled that Bukowski’s (seeming) anti-formalism allows him to more readily “bare himself whole” and thus more easily facilitates a sense of “catharsis” for his audience. But, for me anyway, the idea that he isn’t eminently aware of all this is a bit hard to believe.

For me, a more salient question is not the dichotomy between notions of a crucially important content versus a supposedly effete conception of form, but rather why Bukowski chose the form that he so obviously chose (“give the man at least the credit of volition”). I think that Fieled is on to something when he writes of “the thousands of normal people around the world who share in Bukowski’s alienation, solitude, and appreciation of the redemptive powers of poetry and the written word,” but I don’t think that such a sense of authenticity can only be arrived at by an ignorance of the techniques that Bukowski only later eschewed. Let’s give some credit to those thousands as well. Fieled posits the concept of rhetopoeia, and surely Bukowski’s later style is a rhetorical strategy. There is nothing wrong with this; in fact, there is no escaping it. Everything that anyone puts into words, every form, or denial of form, is a rhetorical stance unto itself, as much as it also a “necessary entity.” Bukowski chose the form that he chose because it was necessary for him to both continue to move forward as an artist and to reach his readers in the way that he wanted to. I completely agree with Fieled on the importance of Bukowski as a poet with something substantial to say, yet surely Bukowski’s critical reputation (a primary concern in the piece under discussion) can only be enhanced by a tandem awareness of his deliberate formal choices.

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