Say "poetry" and most people will immediately think of something intellectual, slightly effeminate, and not usually worth the effort it takes to understand. They'll think back to days in high school spent trying to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible words strung together apparently without rhyme or reason while their teacher droned on about metaphors, similes, and deeper meanings. The idea that poetry might actually have something to do with the real world or be written in language that anybody can understand would come as quite a surprise to most people. That the same poetry might be about the mean streets of big cities featuring casts of characters who hang out in old dingy bars or the cracked stone steps of tenement buildings drinking two dollar bottles of wine and rotgut whiskey would never even cross their minds.
Until his death in 1994, American writer Charles Bukowski produced scores of poems and prose depicting life among those who eke out an existence in low-paying menial employment and who seek solace in the bottom of a bottle and the company of cheap whores and whose hopes for the future rely more on the long shot at San Marino or race tracks like it around the country. Not only did his poetry talk about subject matter most others wouldn't or couldn't tackle, it did so in the language of the people who populated it. Sex, bodily functions, drinking, gambling, and generally life on the skids are fixtures of Bukowski's poetry.
Yet, that's not the be all and end all when it comes to his work. For behind the words is an intelligent and compassionate mind which, although he makes no effort to hide his readers from the nastier realities of life on the skids, never makes those populating his work figures of ridicule or objects of sympathy. He finds humour and pathos among them in equal measures, and is just as likely to be laughing at himself as anybody else. For Bukowski not only wrote about the down and outs — for the longest time he was one himself, and a good deal of autobiographical detail makes its way into his work.
Although Bukowski lived until 1994 he gave his last live poetry reading in 1980. A newly released two-DVD set, One Tough Mother, produced by mondayMEDIA and the Infinity Entertainment Group, combining the films made of his last two readings (There's Going To Be A God Damned Riot In Here!, Vancouver, 1979 and The Last Straw, Redondo Beach, California, 1980) gives one a fairly good indication as to why he stopped doing them. As its title suggests, the Vancouver reading degenerated at times into a shouting match between Bukowski and the audience and even though it was a less antagonistic gathering in California, the atmosphere still left a lot to be desired.