Nearing the 25thanniversary of Bukowski’s death it is a difficult task ranking Bukowski’s poetry books he wrote during his lifetime because there is so much material to read and absorb. The 11 books assessed below, for example, comprise close to 3000 pages of poetry and were written over a period of 50 years.
So how do you go about evaluating of one book over another?
The older poems, say before 1970, have an untamed, non-formulaic quality about them. Poem after poem emerge like a wicked, wildly delivered wagon wheel punch or a snarled, misshaped piece of glass. The language is ongoingly inventive and often includes unusual turns of phrases and word choice. The persona is less of a smart ass, know-it-all anti-hero and more of a ‘no body’, who can write.
Bukowski defends his nonliterary, innovative style in a letter to James Boyar May of Trace in response to an article by Robert Vaughan ‘Essay on the Recent History of Immortality’ which appeared in the Jan-Mar 1961 edition through an insightful summation of his craft: ‘I think sometimes the great symphonies that we have accepted today that were hissed at and walked out upon when first heard… but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could instead of sweating out the correct image, the precise phrase, the turn of thought, simply sit down and write the god damned thing, throwing on the color and sound, shaking us alive with the force, the blackbirds, the wheat fields, the ear in the hand of the whore, sun, sun, sun, SUN!' He concludes the letter forcefully, raging against the straight-jacket of formal rules in poetry: ‘Let’s make poetry the way we make love; let’s make poetry and leave the laws and the rules and the morals to the churches and the politicians; let’s make poetry the way we tilt the head back for the good liquor; let a drunken bum make his flame, and some day Robert, I’ll think of you, pretty and difficult, measuring vowels and adverbs, making rules instead of poetry.’
Probably more interesting are Bukowski’s explicit comments about his writing process. He tells Corrington he simply writes his poetry, he does not know what the poems mean and he doesn’t want to know: ‘When I write the poem it is only fingers on typewriter, something smacking down. It is that moment then, the walls, the weather of that day, the toothache, the hangover, what I ate, the face I passed, maybe a night 20 years ago on a park bench, an itch on the neck, whatever, and you get the poem- maybe. I don’t know much about what you can say about these poems’. He later tells editor Robert DeMaria, ‘Of course my work is not carefully worked-out and hastily written. that’s the point. I write down what I need. Poetry has long ago dulled me with its tricks and mechanics’. To John Martin, ‘You know, the writing must come out of the living, the reaction to the living. If I get a little scorched now and then, it’s all for the good of the barbecue’.)
Anyways, he is my list- it is largely intuitive and based on the accumulative effect of the heap of poems Bukowski tossed onto the pile of each of his collections:
#11 DANGLING IN THE TOURNEFORTIA (1981) 281 pages
This poetry book is sandwiched between Burning in Water, Drowning in Frame (1974), Love Is a Dog from Hell (1977) and his later books War All the Time (1984) and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992). Dangling in the Tournefortia was published when Bukowski was fifty-nine years old and the book is a radical departure from the more complex, chaotically lyrical poems which first established Bukowski’s reputation as a poet. In his biography on Bukowski Hank(1981), Neeli Cherkovski makes clear that he considers Buk’s early work superior, “In Dangling in the TournefortiaI found Hank’s poetic style truly transformed. The new poems did not have the rhythmic proficiency that made his earlier poems so interesting…He had opted for a massive outpouring of emotions, caring little for the well shaped, hypercrafted poem.”
The collection explores many of Bukowski’s favourite themes: women (yrs., Anica, we’ve got to communicate, pretty boy, culture, a galloon of gas are amongst the most accomplished), gambling at the racetrack (I can’t stop, do you use a notebook?) the writing process public readings (on the hustle, attack and retreat, a poetry reading) and observations of quirky people. He meticulously records every event, impression, memory, wild thought- no matter how trivial, inexplicable or random. Too many poems focus on domestic, ordinary experiences such as shopping, going to restaurants, cleaning his room or negotiating with his then partner Linda King.
The language in this collection is strongly pared back with few literary allusions or concentrated lyrical passages and is typically narrative in form. You get the impression, that at this stage in his career, Bukowski may be more focused on writing novels (Women,1978, Ham on Rye,1982) and short stories (Play thePiano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument,1979) than on poetry.
My guess is that Bukowski was writing and publishing so much material at this time and struggling to cope with his rising fame that there is a complacency but also a sense of exhaustion in his work. The poem the American writersymbolically alludes to this idea. In the poem Bukowski is being interviewed overseas, presumably in Germany and he is feeling bored and makes “no attempt to be/ brilliant” during the conversation. That evening he watches himself on tv and self-satisfyingly quips:
how marvelous to be me without
it looks on tv
as if I knew exactly what I
The poem fear and madnessalso pointedly reflects the difficulty Bukowski is experiencing in getting used to the order and cleanliness of his new St Pedro mansion. The poem ordertellingly reveals his mental exhaustion and concludes with the lines:
I look about
in all this space
but I can’t
And I think of Lenny
Bruce’s immortal line:
now I sit in this
A few poems like ‘we evolve’ and the Cold War ‘taking care of the whammy’ attempt to rise above the temporal but many of the poems are thinly written and unsatisfying for the seasoned Bukowski reader.
#10 SEPTUAGENARIAN STEW Stories & Poems(1990) 375 Pages
It difficult to slot in this book because it includes 21 short stories totaling 150 pages of writing. For this ranking exercise, I am only considering the poems in this book. Like much of Bukowski’s late writing style, it is heavily pared back and largely narrative in form. Although there are a few excellent poems on relationships (postcard, on the rebound) and at the racing track (the click of miracle, night quarterhorse racing Hollywood Park) the best and most interesting poems provide his latest take on his writing career at age 70- why he decided to become a writer (the burning of the dream), his life as a starving artist (my best friend), his writing manifesto (The Rape of the Holy Mother) and his budding relation with Black Sparrow Press editor John Martin (the good old machine). Bukowski is also shown to be vulnerable, battling with writer’s block (my buddy) and vowing to make a comeback (pernicious anemia) to defy the critics and show them his writing has not slipped.
Towards the end of the book Bukowski includes a few “old man poems” which he had 15 years earlier vowed he would never write, and more importantly, five poems in which the poet acknowledges that death is near (the last drink, celebrating this, swift and slow) and he is ready for it (tired in the afterdeck).
#9 The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966 (1988) 256 pages
This book was published in1988 and collects 139 Bukowski poems he considered to be the best of his early poems, some of which first appeared in his earliest books and most in long defunct, obscure magazines. Bukowski writes in his October 1987 Forewardto the book: “The poems were sent out as written on first impulse, no line or word changes. I never revised or retyped. To eliminate an error, I would simply go over it thus: #########, and go on with the line.”
Interestingly, Bukowski provides an assessment of his poems: “The early poems are more lyrical than where I am 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. Now the reader can make his own judgment, first hand. In my present poetry, I go at matters more directly, land on them and then get out. I don’t believe my early methods and my late methods are either inferior or superior to one another. They are different, that’s all.”
In his Authors Introductionin his anthology BURNING IN WATER DROWNING IN FLAME (1978) Bukowski clearly states “for my critics, readers, friends, enemies, ex-lovers and new lovers, the present volume along with The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hillsand Mockingbird Wish Me Luckcontain what I like to consider my best work written over the past nineteen years. Burning includes selections from his early books It Catches My Heart in Its Hands(1963), Crucifix in a Deathhand(1965), At Terror Street and Agony Way(1968), together with his new poems (1972-1973) in the section Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame. Interestingly, towards the end of his IntroductionBukowski writes, “Looking at these poems written between 1955 and 1973 I like (for one reason or another) the last poems best.”
The Roominghouse Madrigalswas published by Bukowski in his late 60s. It includes poems from a wide variety of sources, including all of his early chapbooks and dozens of previously uncollected and unpublished poems. In his ForewardBukowski acknowledges that his early out-of-print books are expensive and to appease his eager fans who want to read more of his early work he has released this book. He says of the anthology, “Re-reading these, there remains a certain fondness for that time. Coming in from the factory or warehouse, tired enough, there seemed little use for the night except to eat, sleep and then return to the menial job. But there was the typewriter waiting for me in those many old rooms with torn shades and worn rugs, the tub and toilet down the hall, and the feeling in the air of all the losers who had preceded me.”
There are several outstanding poems in this collection, the best being The Genius of the Crowdwhich featured in the documentary film Born Into This(2003). Personal favourites also include Old Man Dead in a Roomand A Trick to Dull Our Bleeding.
Many of the previously unpublished or uncollected poems have an unfinished, rushed feel to them which is understandable considering Bukowski’s hectic working life and his limited opportunity to get the line down. Other poems are challenging to the average reader and force them to work hard to understand what Bukowski is trying to achieve. They usually are experimental in form and consist of random thoughts and associations which are dissected in raw, quirky lines. You really need to re-read many of these rambling poems to get a better jest of them. I can imagine Bukowski was out of it when he wrote many of these poems and was happy with the boisterous but chaotic result. The best amongst these, in no particular order, are An Empire of Coins,I Was Born to Hustle Roses Down the Avenues of the Dead, A Report Upon the Consumption of Myself, Farewell Foolish Objects, The Night They Took Whitey, It’s Nothing to Laugh aboutand I Write This Upon the Last Drink’s Hammer.
#8 YOU GET SO ALONE AT TIMES THAT IT JUST MAKES SENSE(1986)313 pages
This is a consistent and well edited collection of poems in which Bukowski continues to drill into and further consolidate & mythologise the aura of his past. There are about a dozen poems about Bukowski’s early life as a starving artist, including the titular poem The Master Plan. There are also a wealth of new poems which fill in more details about his childhood, his life on skid row, his artistic influences, his evolving writing processes and his relationship with other poets, his fans and women.
This collection is highly accessible and uses Bukowski’s pared down style and voice he first adopted in Dangling in the Tournefortia(1981). The poetry in You Get So Aloneis consistently better. Personal favourites include downtown L.A., I’m not a misogynist, termites of the page,I’ll take it…and quiet.
This book rarely gets a mention in the Bukowski canon. In the poem ‘trying to make it’ the narrator, presumably, Chinaski, notices that a new jockey from Arizona has a hard time getting a gig at the L.A. racetrack. Drawing a long bow to Bukowski’s own “tornado” of scribblings, this book, like the jockey’s aspirations, gets lost somehow. Chinaski concludes:
sometimes getting started
in the big time
is tantamount to
trying to raise an erection
in a tornado
and even if you do
nobody has the time
#7 THE DAYS RUN AWAY LIKE WILD HORSES OVER THE HILLS (1969)204 pages
There are a couple of dozen excellent poems in this anthology but the overall quality is uneven. The best poems tend to be the rambling, improvisational poems such as these mad windows that taste life and cut me if I go through themand the brilliant title poem the days run away like wild horses over the hills. If you are more familiar with Bukowski’s later work, it is interesting to closely read such masterpieces as what a man I was, kaakaa & other immolations, hermit in the city, the screw-gameand I thought of ships, of armies, hanging on …to compare his use of style.
The poems were first published in close to fifty small press magazines as well as in some of Bukowski’s early chapbooks, including Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, Poems and Drawings, Longshot Pomes for Broke Players, Run with the Hunted, Cold Dogs in the Courtyard and A Bukowski Sampler. Most of the poems were first published between 1960-1969 and according to bukowski,com’s data base, 7 perhaps 8 poems are also attributed to the 1950s & one poem as early as 1956.
#6 PLAY THE PIANO DRUNK/ LIKE A PERCUSSION INSTRUMENT/ UNTIL THE FINGERS BEGIN TO BLEED A BIT (1979) 126 pages
Apart from his early chapbooks, this anthology of poems is the slimmest volume Bukowski published during his lifetime but it contains a high proportion of gems. Many of the poems were originally published between 1970 and 1979 in small press magazines such as Blitz, The Goodly Company, Hearse, Midwest, Ontario Review, The Other, Target and Wormwood Review. These are terse, tough poems by a poet at the height of his powers.
Some of the better poems are centered around simple every day events like observing the circular flight of pesky insects in ‘2 flies’, eating a piece of fruit in ‘apple’, going for a walk during lunch in ‘the sandwich’, getting his teeth cleaned at the dentist in ‘8 rooms’ or observing people shopping in ’59 cents a pound.’ What’s interesting about these narrative poems is you are unable to predict what is going to happen. The poems start with a basic premise but with Bukowski’s incredible imagination at work and drawing from his huge repertoire of experience you never know where you will end up.
Some of his poems about relationships, such as, 40,000 flies, dow average down, I love you, the killer smiles, fire station andI’m in love reveal a rare vulnerability behind Bukowski’s macho façade during this period. In the poem I’m in love, the speaker’s young girl friend realizes that he has been cheating on her and she begins beating him with her thin wrists. The poem concludes:
she got up and lit a cigarette, she was trembling all
over. she paced up and down, wild and crazy. she had
a small body. her arms were thin, very thin and when
she screamed and started beating me I held her
wrists and then I got it through the eyes: hatred,
centuries deep and true. I was wrong and graceless and
sick. all the things I had learned had been wasted.
there was no living creature as foul as I
and all my poems were
Few poets wrote more compellingly about writing than Bukowski, and you will find some outstanding examples in this collection. Notable are tough company, interviewsand nothing is as effective as defeat.
The anthology captures Bukowski at his experimental, imaginative best. The poems were published over a period of 10 years and incorporate many different styles, voices and subject matter. If you are fairly new to Bukowski, I recommend this is first book of poetry of his you should read!
#5 MOCKINGBIRD WISH ME LUCK 1972(159 pages)
This is a substantial anthology of Bukowski mostly written from late 1969 to 1972, although nine poems derive from the 1960s, including two from 1962 (reference bukowski.net Charles Bukowski works database for the book: https://bukowski.net/database/displayContents.php?book=55). Dozens of the poems first appeared in small press magazines such as Wormwood, Open City Press, New York Quarterly, Californian Librarian, Earth, Event, Vagabond and many others.
There are some outstanding poems which are probably considered amongst Bukowski’s best, including Mockingbird, ww2and the last days of the suicide kid.Increasingly, Bukowski is writing about his life as a writer. Some fine satiric examples include the poet’s muse, poetryand the garbageman.
The book is dedicated to Linda King and towards the end of the book there are a dozen or so poems which reflect their frenetic relationship, the best poems being have you ever kissed a panther?and a split.
#4 BURNING IN WATER DROWNING IN FLAME (1978) 232 pages
I have a soft spot for this anthology- it being the first book of poetry of Bukowski that I read in June 1979 while living at Maroubra Beach in a share flat. The anthology consists of four parts:
(1)It Catches My Heart in its Hands(originally published in 1963 by Ioujon Press) features 25 of the book’s 66 poems.
(2)Crucifix in a Deathhand (originally published in 1965 by Ioujon Press) features 25 of the book’s 54 poems.
(3)At Terror Street and Agony Way(originally published in 1968 by Black Sparrow Press) features 29 of the book’s 46 poems.
(4)Burning in Water, Drowning In Flameconsists of Bukowski’s latest poems written in 1972-1973.
In the last section of the anthology Bukowski includes many examples of a more pared back, narrative style which Buk is best known for and which has been imitated by 1000s of poets. The poems warm asses, wet night, I can’t stay in the same room with that woman foe five minutesand hell hath no fury…are fine examples of his new style.
In the AUTHOR’S INTRODUCTIONBukowski comments that “each of these sections brings back special memories but concludes, “Looking at these poems written between 1955 and 1973 I like (for one reason or another) the last poems best.”
Most interesting is Bukowski’s story behind the publication of At Terror Street and Agony Way- the first book of Buk’s published by John Martin of Black Sparrow Press. Bukowski used to go to John Thomas’ place and they’d take pills and drink and Thomas would tape their conversation however oafish. Bukowski continues:
At one time during these tapings John asked that I bring over some poems and read them. I did. And left the poems there and forgot about them. The poems were thrown out with the garbage. Months passed. One day Thomas phoned me. “Those poems, Bukowski, would make a good book.” “What poems, John? He said he had taken out the tape of my poems and had listened to it again. “I’d have to type them off the tape, it’s just too much work,” I said. “I’ll type them up for you.” I agreed, and soon I had the poems back in typescript form.
Bukowski showed the poems to John Martin who had previously published some of his poems as broadsides. A few days later Martin rang him and told him, “You have a book there and I’m going to publish it myself.”
#3 WAR ALL THE TIME POEMS 1981-1984 (Black Sparrow Press, 1984) 284 pages
This is a major collection and represents Bukowski’s second concerted attempt after Dangling in the Tournefortiato pare his language down to the bone. What you loses in lyricism he gains in telling uncluttered narratives to his audience, now largely familiar with Buk’s backstory. The best poems, to name a few, include a strange moment, frozen foot section, beauti-ful, truce, girls, overhead mirrors, making it, eating my senior citizen’s dinner at the Sizzler, night on a visa card, the walls, on and off the road, Sparks and talking to my mailbox. The poems tell fascinating, credible and often enormously humorous stories which are easy to understand at first reading.
This is a solid book full of excellent poems written by Bukowski in his early 60s from the perspective of a “famous writer” at the height of his game. Bukowski covers the gamut of what he is best known for- women, the track, working class jobs, his childhood & adolescence, skid row, his struggle to become an artist & his belated fame as a writer. The writing is tight & has a spontaneous feel to it- yet sometimes you get the sense that this is a writer looking back on wild times rather than experiencing the moment.
#2 LOVE IS A DOG FROM HELL: Poems 1974-1977 (1977) 307 pages
This is Bukowski at his horny best. He has finally made it as a writer & is reaping the benefits- both sexually, with the revolving door of a huge variety of women & getting more of his immortal words down on the page.
The collection is structured in 4 parts:
1 one more creature/ dizzy with lovefocuses on his candid, intimate relationships with women & includes some of his more sexually explicit poems. The best poems overall are the six foot goddess,sexpot, numb your ass and brain and your heart-, ashesand trying to get even.
2 me, and/ that old woman: sorrow is more of a mixed bag of work & includes many portrait poems (e.g: the insane always loved me), Bukowski’s reflections on writing (the best being how to be a great writer) & his often sardonic take on mundane daily activities, such as killing a cockroach, trying to help his girlfriend locate her car or wanting to fuck his alarm clock.
3 Scarletrepresents his torrid relationship with a young red-headed woman. The best poems include like a flower in the rain,a killerand waving and waving goodbye.
4 popular melodies/ in the last of/ your mindis diverse section which also includes many interesting portrait poems, personal anecdotes and Buk’s views on writing, such as, an unkind poem& now, if you were teaching creative writing, he asked, what would you tell them?
The title poem love is a dog from hellis a brilliant improvisational, highly associative piece that Buk probably didn’t know where the fuck it was headed but it rocks!
#1 THE LAST NIGHT OF THE EARTH POEMS (1992) 405 pages
This collection gets the nod as Bukowski’s best poetry book published during his lifetime- but by a very slight margin. The sheer volume of the book- a massive 405 pages and the amazing depth and variety of the poems gets it over the line—just.
This is the last book of poetry that Bukowski published during his lifetime. It strengthens and furthers our understanding of the Bukowski legend. He seems to be setting the record straight as he senses his “luck is running thin.”
The poems are acutely observational and recall incidents from his lifetime of drinking, writing and womanizing. Many of the poems revisit Bukowski’s young adult life as a starving writer. The poems ‘young in New Orleans’, ‘flophouse’ and ‘spark’ are particularly brilliant in capturing Bukowski’s defiant rejection of mainstream ‘working stiff’ life and demonstrate his great resilience in developing his writing about people on the fringe.
More interesting and subtle are his reflections on his declining health, his family and people in general as he ‘runs out of days.’ As the clock ticks down he writes and listens to Brahms and drinks wine and thinks about his cats and his wife. In ‘darkling’ he has a sleepless night and thinks of death out there ‘beyond the venetian blinds.’ In ‘confession’ as he waits for death he imagines his wife discovering his ‘stiff/ white/ body’ and feels sorry for her.
Bukowski also sees the lighter side of growing old and of his impending death. In ‘mugged’ he wryly sums up his situation: ‘I now allow cars to pass me on the freeway./ I haven’t been in a fist fight for 15 years./ I have to get up and piss 3 times a night.’ In ‘the damnation of Buk’ he is ‘concerned that there will be nothing to/ drink in hell.’ And scarier still he is concerned that he will ‘have to listen to/ one poetry reading/ after another/ after another…’
The apocalyptic poem Dinosauria, we’ is arguably the best poem in the collection and was featured in director John Dullaghan’s film Bukowski: Born Into This (2003). http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/bukowski-born-into-this/
‘the bluebird’ shows a more sensitive, personal side to Bukowski’s writing. The birdbird in his heart ‘that wants to get out’ symbolises the nice guy lurking under Bukowski’s tough façade.
This stripping back of pretense is echoed in other poems which might surprise the Bukowski novice. In ‘oh, I was a ladies’ man’ he is disgusted by his treatment of woman as a young man. He sees himself as a selfish, self satisfied ‘fucking dog.’ As ‘the walls get closer’ he attends a track meeting and watches ‘the horses run by/ and it seems/ meaningless’ (‘are you drinking?’). In a suborder of naked buds he senses the failure of language to capture the whole of what he has experienced:
I would like to make
piece of paper
shriek and dance and
the keys just
strike it harmlessly
for just a fraction of
His growing sense of doubt humanises and broadens the reader's views on Bukowski.
His growing sense of doubt humanises and broadens the reader's views on Bukowski.
The Last Night of the Earth Poemsshows Bukowski’s ongoing search and development as a mature writer. His growing sense of doubt and fear broadens and deepens our perceptions of the man and his writing.
So this is my assessment. I reread Bukowski’s poetry books early in 2018 and now I send it your way. What do you reckon is Buk’s best work of poetry?