The first two essays in an ongoing series
The Tiara of Theodore Roethke
Bukowski’s Irrepressible Brilliance
The first two essays in an ongoing series
The Tiara of Theodore Roethke
Bukowski’s Irrepressible Brilliance
My strength is the strength
Of ten young things: I am with you:
In that first moment of delight
When you look from the page, no longer lost
In the maze of youth
Just as the Islamic world absorbed the ancient scholarship of its Greek conquests, & just as the European renaissance repeated the assimilations, so too does Poetry have a duty to regurgitate itself from time to time, when the spirit of renewal strips away the evolutions of time, leaving shiny new versions of moments of classical brilliance. It is with this as my leading inclination that I now turn to the writings of Theodore Heubner Roethke; a very fine-minded, Twentieth Century, Pulitzer-prize winning, American, post-modernist poet. Very much respected by his peers, James Dickey once opined that he did not, ‘see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke’s got. Whitman was a great poet, but he’s no competition for Roethke.’ Dickey was surely here analysing the poetry of the poet, but what I want to study here are a curious collection of whispy musings on the art of poetry which Roethke stuff’d his notebooks with in the mid-twentieth century. In this same period he was also an English teacher, & these spontaneous philosophartistical outpourings represent some kind of cross-pollinating hybrid of human thought.
During the composition of these maxims, Roethke was too rush’d by teaching to collate his thoughts into a more conventional order. ‘I’m teaching well,’ he wrote in 1947, ‘if I can judge by the response – but haven’t done one damned thing on my own. It’s no way to live—to go from exhaustion to exhaustion.’ He seems have snatch’d at those scatter’d moments of focuss’d thought, scribbling them down in the depths of his office, to be discovered by his colleague, David Wagoner, upon the death of Roethke in 1963. Taking on the role of the Litologist (literary archaeologist) Wagoner dived into the 277 spiral notebooks full of fragmenting imagination, distilling them into a collection called Straw for the Fire (1972).
A half century later I intend to further the curation process begun by Wagoner by a secondary process of distillation. My endeavour shall be to select & reorder the most quintessentially poetic of Roethke’s maxims, in order to create some kind of spiritual map of the poetical experience entwined – with some magnitude & immediacy – with the entire universality of the poetic arts. As I do so, I hope to go against, as Roethke himself once said, ‘the academic tendency to rest: that profound impulse to sit down.’ Echoing the ‘garland’ collections of elegiac sayings espoused by the Tamils, I have named the collection’s form the ‘Tiara,’ in which are contained the choicest jewels dug up from the mines of mental ferment, which are polished & set in a smooth & solid structure.
‘The desire to express certain ideas,’ wrote John Cruikshank, ‘in as brief & memorable a form as possible is a long-standing human impulse.’ The aphorism has had many hey-days; the Kural of the Sangam age; the Roman epigrammical penchant as dictated by Tacitus & Martial; the intellectual epithetical flourishings of the seventeenth century French salon. In such brief capsules of literary exhortation, the qualities of elegance, accuracy & conciseness are held paramount. It is those maxims of Roethke which possess this triad of excellence the most which I have chosen for my materielle. Respecting Roethke’s deal love of teaching, I hope to have assembl’d the maxims in a way that will maximise the effects of the impartation of the poet’s empirical mind upon those who never had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with the man. Instead let us – & by us I mean every waking poet from now until the last gatherings of human time – listen to the everliving word-sage speak as if we were adepts gather’d at the naked feet of the wise Tamil sage; as if we were a young poet receiving Rilke’s letters of advice; as if we were one of the lucky students in the wartime poetry classes of Michigan State.
BECOMING A POET
The young artist: there is no other kind of mind but my own
Poetry is the discovery of the legend of one’s youth.
There is an academic precept which says: never listen to the young. The reverse should be true: Listen, I say, & listen close, for from them – if they are real & alive – may we hear, however, faintly & distortedly – the true whispers from the infinite, the beckonings away from the dreadful, the gray life beating itself against the pitted concrete world.
The wisdom the young make holy be their living
We’re not going to split the heart of reality: not until the third semester.
And then there is the more honest & charitable mentor who regards poetry as a kind of emotional & spiritual wild oats of the young, a phase of adolescence to be pass’d thro’ quickly – & anything said to shake him out of this emotional orgy is all to the good.
THE SPIRIT OF POETRY
The eye, of course, is not enough. But the outer eye serves the inner, that’s the point.
Basis of poetry is sensation: many poets today deny sensation, or have no sensation: the cult of the torpid.
Hearing poetry starts the psychological mechanism of prayer
The intuitive poet often begins most felicitously, but raptures are hard to sustain.
O keep me perpetual, muse, ears roaring with many things
Good poets wait for the muse, the unconscious to spring something loose, to temper & test the promptings of the intuition with the pressures of craftsmanship: they can think while they sing.
Simple & profound: how little there is
Say to yourself: I will learn & treasure every good turn of speech ever made.
The intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.
THE ART OF POETRY
Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even can enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.
The nobility of my imagination is my theme: I have to let things shimmer.
The essence of poetry is to perish – that is to say be ‘understood.’
A ‘movement’ is a dead fashion.
The artist has several levels of life always available. If he falls to the ground with a theme or gets a ‘block,’ he can always return to life – a routine task.
This is the lazy man’s out often: I haven’t read it, therefore it does not exist.
Poetry is not just a mere shuffling of dead words or even a corralling of live ones.
A musical ear is a gift from nature: but like all gifts it can be develop’d
Rhythm: creates a pattern into which our mental faculties fall; this cycle of expectancy calls for surprises. The poet, at least the good poet, provides them.
My design in short poems: to create the situation, & the mood as quickly as possible: etch it in & have done; but is that enough? No. There must be symbolical force, weight, or a gravity of tone.
Play with it – The language has its cusses & fusses just like us.
Diction: one of the problems of diction, in certain kinds of poems, is to get all the words within a certain range of feeling; all elemental, all household, etc. etc. Often a very good figure from another level or range will jar.
The decasyllabic line is fine for someone who wants to meditate – or maunder. Me, I need something to jump in: hence the spins, & shifts, the songs, the rants, the howls. The shorter line can still serve us: it did when English was young, & when we were children.
To make it so good that there will be no actors will ever act it right: but none can be so bad, in any windy barn, to foul it up entirely.
It’s the damned almost-language that’s hardest to break away from: the skill’d words of the literary poet
Did I beat the poem to death? Did I worry the material like a mad dog?
We can love ourselves & literature with equal intensity – that’s our contribution
A poet is judg’d, in part, by the influences he resists
Puts his thoughts in motion – the poet
A poet: someone who is never satisfied with saying one thing at a time
The poet must have a sense not only of what words were & are, but also what they are going to be?
A poet must be a good reporter; but he must be something a good deal more.
Poet must first control, then dominate his medium
Maturity in a poet: when he no longer is concern’d with personal mortality… but whether the language dies.
There comes a time in the poet’s life when one personality, even with several sides, is not enough. Then he can go mad or become a dramatist.
There are so many ways of going to pot as a poet; so many pitfalls, so many snares & delusions.
FORM IN POETRY
Remember: our deepest perceptions are a waste if we have no sense of form.
We must have the courage, as Kierkegaard says, to think a thought whole
Transcend that vision. What is first or early is easy to believe. But… it may enchain you.
The artist (not the would-be): you may have deep insights – but you also need the sense of form. Sometimes the possession of the first without the second may be tragic.
English poetry: mostly by ninnies, capable of fits & starts of ravishing feeling
The Victorians – they didn’t let enough go in or go out. They lived in ponds.
Some of these Limeys write as if they were falling over chairs
The ‘other’ poem in Yeats… had to set the stage for his best work. If he had not written at such length, he might not have been heard.
The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing & snoring & scraping
One of the problems of the lyric poet is what to do with his spare time; & sometimes it becomes the community’s problems too. It worries people.
A bewildering bardling: no real feeling except a thin intense hatred of his contemporary superiors
A culture in which it is easier to publish a book about poetry than a book of poems
One of the subtlest tasks is the sifting from time. Some poems have that special sheen of contemporaneousness, the immediate glitter of fashion – & still survive.
One of the virtues of good poetry is the fact that it irritates the mediocre
Not the stuff, but merely the stuffing, of real poetry. An anthology of abstractions from one of the less sure metaphysicians: a nowadays nausea.
Much to be learnt from bad poems
A wrenching of rhythms, verbal snorting; tootling on the raucous tin-ear, mechanized fancies: his poems have movement, sometimes they slide away from the subject.
Embroidering a few metaphors on his pale convictions
These fancy dandlers of mild epithets, graceless wittols hanging on the coattails of their betters. I can forget what they do until they forget to steal & start being themselves.
Those dreary language-arrangers. Don’t be ashamed if you belch when you try to sing
So many writers are an immense disappointment: they’re neurotic, grubby, cozy, frighten’d, eaten by their wits.
Think with the wise, talk like the common man
When you begin to get good, you’ll arouse the haters of life
May my silences become more accurate
Live in a perpetual great astonishment
I can’t die now. There’s too much to do.
He was the master of the remark that insults everybody – including himself.
Ignored by the larger mainstream anthologists of America, Charles Bukowski is the ultimate proletarian anti-poet, an American hero their establishment would rather not possess on account of the fact he is by far their best, or rather truest poet. His style was refreshingly honest, a Tu Fu of the Beats, inspired by the twentieth century ‘Poetic Revolution,’ when poetry had, in Bukowski’s words, ‘turned from a diffuse and careful voice of formula and studied ineffectiveness to a voice of clarity and burnt toast and spilled loaves and me and you and the spider in the corner.’
Among Bukowski’s massive, almost industrial, output I have found a poem of his which is, in relation to the convetional poetic spheres, just so brilliantly curveball. It is found in a collection entitled ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell,’ a whirlwind of poems dated 1974-77. The book is midway between the publication of our poet’s first collection, ‘Flower, Fist & Bestial Wail’ (1960) & his death in 1994; & may be seen as the highwater-mark of his career. In this period Bukowski’s star was very much on the ascendency; success in Europe, breakthrough interviews with Rolling Stone Magazine & an acceptance into the American poetical elite as a notorious enfant terrible. On 25th November 1974, Bukowski read in Santa Cruz alongside Gary Snyder & Allen Ginsburg, an event memorialized by Ric Reynolds, who described Bukowski as; ‘a man of genius, the first poet to cut through light and consciousness for two thousand years & these bastards dont even appreciate it.’
The mid-seventies also saw Bukowski engaged in a string of affairs with women; including Linda Lee Beighle, Pamela Miller – who becomes Nina in his short story, Workout – & Jane Manahattan – the Iris Hall of his Women. Of her time with Bukowski, Jane commented, ‘he was funny all day every day. A great love of life, & an enjoyment – always to be seeing the funny thing, & making a comment. he was a comedian.
The poems within ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell’ are both sexually visceral & brutally protagonistic, with an incredibly poised ‘cogito, ergo sum.‘ Here we have the American sonnet sequence to Laura, but of course fashion’d via fabulously free ‘verse libre’ & the even freer love of the sex-addl’d seventies. In one of the poems, ‘how to be a great writer,’ he declares at its opening the creative & spiritual ordination of the entire collection;
you’ve got to fuck a great many women
and write a few decent love poems.
Ever since the publication of his first poem, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,’ in 1944 – at the age of 24 – the German-born Bukowski & his writing was dedicated to the holy trinity of Wein, Weib & Gesang – Wine, Women & Song. Thirty years later, his dedication to those core tenets was as strong as ever, only the delivery had changed to that of an ageing & cynical amourouse.
So to the poem I have chosen, artists: (Bukowski never respected the principle of capital letters), a classic laissez-faire love-affair with a groupie. Next to his omniscient genius – Bukowski almost breaks sweat telling us so – she is a minor writer, & not even that inspirational a lover. The scene is set for a droll masterpiece that could never find its way into an establishment canon, but for pure drama & in-the-moment magic it is unsurpass’d in all the poetry I have personally read. For the purposes of this essay I shall give the poem in full, adding a little critigloss in the interludes.
she wrote me for years.
“I’m drinking wine in the kitchen.
it’s raining outside. the children
are in school.”
she was an average citizen
worried about her soul, her typewriter
underground poetry reputation
she wrote fairly well and with honesty
but only long after others had
broken the road ahead
In eleven lines Bukowski brilliantly introduces his muse. We know so much about her already; a bor’d mother who writes to differentiate herself from the hum-drum. In a damning piece of critique on both her style & the state of modern poetry, Bukowski portrays her quite ruthlessly as lagging far behind the original poets who have ‘broken the road ahead.’
she’d phone me drunk at 2 a.m.
at 3 a.m.
while her husband slept
“it’s good to hear your voice,” she’d say.
“it’s good to hear your voice too” I’d say.
what the hell, you
In this next segment, Bukowski introduces himself into the poem – he is always the star -, converging on illicit daft-o’clock phonecalls with his faraway ‘mistress.’ There is no background to these calls, but the not-knowing encourages our minds to calculate why? She is a poet of an underground scene, did they meet that way? Did they sleep together then, or are these late night calls the first sordid steps towards her infidelity. We get all of that from just five short lines, which are followed by five superbly brusque words in which Bukowski’s soul & voice are eternised. He’s up for it, why not, wouldn’t you?
she finally came down. I think it had
something to do with
The Chapparal Poets Society of California.
they had to elect officers. she phoned me
from their hotel
“I’m here,” she said, “we’re going to elect
“o.k., fine” I said, “get some good ones.”
I hung up
the phone rang again
“hey, don’t you want to see me?”
“sure,” I said, “what’s the address?”
With another piece of blasé indifference to his groupie – this time, given to his muse directly – Bukowski reaffirms all what he has been telling us about the situation. She is a poetess & she wants to see him, while he is completely indifferent to both her place in the poetry world & whether he gets to sleep with her or not. The Chaparral Society, by the way – Bukowski spelt it wrong – is the oldest and largest poetry organization in California, founded in the Los Angeles Area in 1939.
after she said goodby I jacked-off
changed my stockings
drank a half bottle of wine and
drove on out
they were all drunk and trying to
fuck each other.
I drove her back to my place.
she had on pink panties with
Here, in its most poetically pungent, is the visceral sexuality I mentioned earlier. What stands out the most, & what for me first shone a light on this poem’s architectural majesty, is the brevity & poetry contained in, ‘I drove her back to my place / she had on pink panties with ribbons.‘ This is all we are allowed to hear about their sexual union, delicately teasing us with what the poet secretly knows, but refuses to share, with just a hint of frilly lace to set minds racing & libidos rising.
we drank some beer and
smoked and talked about
Ezra Pound, then we
its no longer clear to
me whether I drove her to
the airport or
In this post-coital aftermath, Bukowski sounds almost bored with the scene – going through the motions. He was in his mid-fifities at the time, & one imagines hundreds of notches on his bedpost from literary groupies. Many, many beers & many, many conversations about Ezra Pound. He then reinforces our instinctive inquiry by completely forgetting the episode’s denoument. There is no teary farewell at the airport, his muse simply dissapears into the aether.
she still writes letters
and I answer each one
hoping to make her stop
In this short stanza we get a suggestion of the interplay between Bukowski & his muse – they have a relationship, the student-teacher-lover type – & it is the only moment when Bukowski shows any real humanity in the poem. The fact that he takes the time to answer her letters proves she’s got under his skin, when other groupies were simply swatted away. There is something about this lady that was incorrigibly annoying to Bukowski, but whose spirit he could never truly shake off.
someday she may luck into
fame like Erica
Jong. (her face is not as good
but her body is better)
and I’ll think,
my God, what have I done?
I blew it.
or rather: I Didn’t blow
meanwhile I have her box number
and I’d better inform her
that my second novel will be out in September.
that ought to keep her nipples hard
while I consider the posibility of
Francine du Plessix Gray.
The last two stanzas of Bukowski’s remarkable poem differ from the mental theatre of the earlier stanzas, launching the poem into the more philosophical chambers of its creator’s mind. He is free now to pronounce judgment on both the affair & the poem, & does so with a flourish of bravura. Two leading literary lionesses of the seventies are dragg’d into the picture – one hardly expects Bukowski letting them know of his decision to do so – placed on pedestals beside his muse. Erica Jong ‘s 1973 novel Fear of Flying blew female sexuality wide open, while Francine du Plessix Gray was a Pulitzer-winning grand dame of the New Yorker magazine. To Bukowski, all three are simply sexual objects who just happen to write, & the most important happenstance here is actually his second novel – Factotum. This was published in 1975, giving us a terminus ad quem for the composition of artists:.
Personally, I find the ending a little abrasive – in the same way Millenials are being offended by some of the patter & subject matter of the Friends sitcom. But the honesty of artists: is what makes this poem transcend the confines of conscious dignity into the realms of cosmic genius. The afterburner proplusion of an already unchallengable classic. In a letter to Nancy Flynn (1975) our poet attempts some kind of explantion as to his psuedo-misogynistic style.
I’m no woman-hater. They’ve give me more highs and magics than anything else. but I’m also a writer, sometimes. and there are variances in all things
To conclude this essay, I would just like to show how Nancy Flynn could well be the muse of the poem. The drawing above clearly hints at a sexual union, while in a letter dated April 7th 1975, Bukowski asks Nancy, ‘what’s this here shit about going to Turkey? It rains there too.’ This of course connects with the poem’s opening scene of a bored houswife writing about the rain. In another letter, dated April 21st, Bukowski mentions slipping ‘a couple of poems past the APR’ – the American Poetry Review. The informal substance of this comment suggests Nancy is familiar with the poetic establishment. This fits easily into his muse’s connection to the poetic establishment and her links to the The Chaparral Society.
Finally, in the letter of the 21st our poet also tells Nancy; ‘finished the 2nd. novel, FACTOTUM, at last. It should be out in Sept,’ which is a clear match to the poems, ‘I‘d better inform her that my second novel will be out in September.‘ Nancy Poole is a poet, on whose website we may read, ‘I spent twenty years in Ithaca, New York, working and raising a son, before moving to western Oregon in 1998 with my husband and cats.’ She rather does look a lot like the literary photfit painted by Bukowski in his poem, & with that I rest my case.