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.
Far too many people made the mistake with Bukowski of confusing fiction with reality. For while it was true that at one point in his life he had lived much like those who inhabited his poetry and prose, by this point in his life he was no longer living rough. There was no reason for him to have to fight for his survival, but if these two readings were any indication as to how audiences reacted to him, they expected him to be one of the foul-mouthed protagonists depicted in his work. In both instances he tries his best to remind them of who he has become by reading a work which deals with the issue directly. In the poem he talks about how he receives letters from men living in single rooms written on torn lined paper which compliment him on how he’s captured their lives on paper. He then continues on to wonder what they would think if they knew their missives were ending up at a two-garage house where he leads a perfectly comfortable life and keeps a young man in a cage, beaten two or three times a week and fed on cheap whiskey, who writes all his poetry these days.
However in spite of everything, the heckling from the audience and Bukowski’s increasingly angry rejoinders — in Vancouver he becomes so angry he lashes out at audiences in general because there are always two people who sit right down front who insist on talking through his readings — both movies are still valuable records of one of the most original poetic voices of the 20th century. While his reading style is fairly low key, the power of the words is such that we very quickly find ourselves falling under their spell. There’s no beating around the bush with Bukowski’s poetry; little in the way of allegorical language, metaphor or any of the other poetic devices our teachers were so fond of forcing us to try and interpret so we could find the meaning hidden in the words. Indeed there is very little subtlety to his work at all, just like the world he uses them to describe, whether he’s describing the state of his money after he drops his wallet into the toilet after he has had a particularly foul-smelling dump or inviting us back to his room where he’s spending the night with a woman.
Needless to say, a poetry reading isn’t the most visually exciting thing you’ll see on a DVD as the camera is forced to stay with its rather static subject the whole time. However, it’s fascinating to watch Bukowski right from the moment he walks onto the stage. Whether he’s smoking his ever-present Bidi (an Indian clove cigarette), taking large gulps from a seemingly bottomless glass of red wine, talking with the audience, and even reading the occasional poem, his weathered features and rough-hewn voice hold our attention where others wouldn’t. He has some sort of charisma which is hard to define as it’s not the standard issue stuff handed out to the good-looking or otherwise conventional types we’re normally attracted to.
There’s a clue to be found in his readings as to what it is that keeps us focused on him. For while he has no problems joking with the audience about himself or trading insults, you could see genuine anger come through when his poetry was derided or treated with indifference. It’s that passion for his work, the total commitment to his art that we feel emanating from him, that keeps our attention focused on him throughout the reading. Even when he seems to be uncaring and blasé about the whole affair, there’s the sense of something lurking beneath the surface that’s not quite safe – like a hibernating bear who is slow to rouse, we’re aware he could wake up at any moment and rip someone’s head off.
Each disc comes with bonus features that weren’t available when they were released individually. While some of them are just your standard talking head things with academics pontificating about Bukowski’s work (God, he must be laughing about that) it’s well worth checking out the readings of his poetry by people like Bono, Tom Waits, and others who are part of the interview with Johm Dullaghan who directed the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This and the excerpts from a performance of the play Love Bukowski. However no matter how interesting any of these features might be, none of them compare to the genuine article itself. While you only receive the smallest taste of just who or what Charles Bukowski was and what his poetry was like, for those who have never experienced him before this will make an unforgettable introduction and give everybody else a few more moments to savour his genius. Charles Bukowski ain’t like the poetry you learned about in school, but its some of the best damn stuff you’ll ever have the opportunity of reading or hearing.