Bukowski’s City

A comment I made on someone else’s post made me consider (perhaps a little too soon) the effect of the city on certain postmodern writing. Postmodern poetry, being a departure from and a response to Modern writing, necessarily contains marked differences. Some of those marked differences could be in form, topic, mood, or whatever else. To consider Carl Sandburg as a poetic reincarnation of Walt Whitman is not an unrealistic stretch. To consider Charles Bukowski as a poetic middle finger to optimism is not a gigantic leap either. Bukowski’s poetry certainly falls into the postmodern era, but it seems like Bukowski’s brand of cynicism wells up from something different and not as a response to earlier movements. Similarly, Sandburg’s hugely different attitude seems to well up from that same thing: the city.

In “Chicago,” Sandburg writes that Chicago is a “city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” For Sandburg, the city is alive, proud, optimistic, full of wonderful working men and women. It seems that this kind of optimism exists in its purest form in pre-Depression America.

For Bukowski, America has already been through a depression and two world wars. As such, his vision of the city is much more bleak one. He focuses on the working poor, as does Sandburg, but the industriousness, the optimism, and the “American Dream” mentality of Sandburg is replaced by the drudgery, alcoholism, depression, and nihilism in Bukowski’s world. For instance, in “Big Night On The Town,” the man’s big night out starts “drunk on the dark streets of some city.” The man wanders into dirty bar and orders drinks. He is a approached by Madame Death, who is a prostitute who “stinks of swamps.” Shifting out of the second person (second person being a much more immersive way to present a poem) Bukowski writes “It’s one a.m. In a dead cow world.” In this bleak line, the big night out on the town has turned into a horrible kind of solitary drunkenness. The poem ends when the man leaves the bar to go back to his roach-infested room where he remembers there is a full bottle of wine on the dresser, something that Bukowski describes as “Perfection in the Star Turd/where love died/laughing.” By using “a big night out on the town” as the premise for the poem’s action only to have the poem be a gigantic bummer is a major theme in Bukowski’s work. When the idea is to celebrate, Bukowski asks “celebrate what?” The celebration in this poem starts with going into a seedy bar, buying a beer for a prostitute named Death, mixing vodka into a beer, and leaving to get more drunk alone in a room full of roaches. The only thing in the poem that’s celebratory is the roaches themselves, and love died laughing.

Bukowski also considers the concept of “writing the city” in his poem “a poem is a city,” in which “a poem is a city filled with streets and sewers/filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen,/filled with banality and booze,/filled with rain and thunder and periods of/drought, a poem is a city at war,/a poem is a city asking a clock why,/a poem is a city burning,/a poem is a city under guns/its barbershops filled with cynical drunks,/a poem is a city where God rides naked/through the streets like Lady Godiva” Again, Bukowski’s conception of a city is a negative thing. In this, I think it’s key to note how some writers attempt to retaliate from writers of the past while working within the same medium.

“big night on the town” – http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/charles_bukowski/poems/13225

“a poem is a city” – http://breningstall.typepad.com/breningstall-on-typepad/2009/11/a-poem-is-a-city-by-charles-bukowski.html

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3 Comments

Filed under City Cultures

3 responses to “Bukowski’s City

  1. I must admit that I don’t know a ton of Bukowski’s writing, but “a poem is a city” certainly fits within the confines of our class. I think there were modern writers who were pessimistic about the city and postmodern writers who are optimistic about it. (The Colson Whitehead book, especially.) But there definitely is a shift from an overall sense of progress to a suspicion of it. You might be especially interested in the film noir chunk of the class, since that’s really where I see the transition from optimism about the project of modernity to a sense that it won’t work.

  2. Or to take this another direction, how do you think Bukowski’s poems compare to the pessimistic ones in the Newcomb essay?

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