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When the Suffering Gets Too Much

Charles Bukowski's Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems

Ecco has published the first of their five posthumous collections of new poems by Charles Bukowski. Taken from the large quantity of unpublished work the author entrusted to John Martin (his longtime editor at Black Sparrow Press), the 150 poems that will be featured in these five titles were selected over the years as the best poems for Martin to file away and compile into posthumous books. This is not a surprising plan from a man who thought a great deal about death.

Perhaps you think that if you've read one Bukowski book, you've read them all -- they seem to try to encourage that feeling by jumping between time periods and subjects. In one poem, the poet's voice is a little boy's, while in the next, he has the point of view of a friend whose wife he has messed around with. Then he's Hank Chinaski as a fat-cat plantation overseer (who'd have thunk of it?). Turn the page and here's the freeway, the boxing ring, a hospital bed, the racetrack, a jail cell, a fight with the missus.

The thing about famous dead poets is you're already familiar with their style -- makes it easier to choose whose collection to spend your hard-earned 30 bucks on. Unless you're a purist who avoids poems about poetry, Charles Bukowski is one to place your money on (although as his narratives attest, notoriety can be a pain). Some poetry readers are the kind who show up at the door, send a knife in the mail, offer invitations to keggers, or beg to have lousy manuscripts passed on to publishers.

Such accounts never fail to bleed irony, as evidenced in "crazy world" -- "anyhow, I'm now using the knife the reader / sent me to clean my fingernails. / better this than ripping it deep into / somebody's guts. / I prefer to do that with the / poem." If there's one thing Bukowski spends time on, it's using words to work the emotions -- at his most effective he slashes at the heart, at his least he depresses.

As clear as ever is the importance he puts on the passion of active writing. In "one step removed" he dismisses as nonsense the way fans elevate Chinaski in his old age: "meanwhile, some wild-eyed young man / alone and unknown in a room / will be writing things that will make you forget / everybody else / except maybe the young man to / follow after / him." There is valuable advice he offers to writers, as well, and criticism of dry academia. Though many try and think they've succeeded, it's a tough job getting to be an "easy read" and as honest a writer as Bukowski.

The times when this volume shines brightest are its laugh-out-loud moments, the touches of humanity, so starkly set off against the shit jobs, failed relationships, feces, probing doctors, decline of aging, bets at the track and alcoholics. When the suffering gets too much it's nice to get a chance to smile. As much as Bukowski rails against war, the police and the establishment, he still appreciates his own weaknesses -- at the same time celebrating the beauty of classical music, living and writing.

Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems
by Charles Bukowski
Ecco; ISBN: 0-06-052735-8
Hardcover, 395 pages (January 2003)