the tragedy of the leaves – charles bukowski
I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness;
the sun was still good, though,
and my landlady’s note cracked in fine and
undemanding yellowness; what was needed now
was a good comedian, ancient style, a jester
with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd
because it exists, nothing more;
I shaved carefully with an old razor
the man who had once been young and
said to have genius; but
that’s the tragedy of the leaves,
the dead ferns, the dead plants;
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
screaming for rent
because the world has failed us
This week on The Friday Influence: Charles Bukowski.
He is infamous for his drinking and love-is-hell approach to relationships. I have mentioned his work in poetry workshops and seen eyes roll. Whatever. This man and his poems are the real deal. Sure, he wrote a lot, and you have to wade through a lot to get to something like the above poem. Still, in his poems and in his interviews, he displays a dedication and a love of writing that any fellow writer can identify with.
In the poem above, what moves me most is how Bukowski sets the scene with details, sets up a life and a feeling, and then sends all these things funneling down, concentrated into the angry, waving arms of a landlady, making her a symbol of how the world can fail real people. Through pacing and reshuffling of images, Bukowski becomes the necessary jester for this poem and this life.
Note how my comments revolve on Bukowski and not the speaker. The understanding in most poetry is that the speaker in a poem is separate from the actual poet. Yet, every once in a while, you get a poet whose immediacy with the line and nerve in writing create a poetry that is visceral on the level of the personal.
I see a similar thing in the work of Billy Collins: both are poets that want to make you laugh and feel something. When these are your aims, you risk that much more of who you are. Bukowski once said: Genius may be writing a difficult thing in a simple manner. Simplicity is often misunderstood.
You read about his life and learn early that he was the kind of guy who set up a persona in both his poems and real life. He talked big. But that’s because he had big things to say, things that came out if you stuck around long enough to let the blustering subside.
Bukowski carries on in the tradition of Chinese poet Li Po. Both, through drinking and speaking clearly, illuminated the world:
Drinking Alone – Li Po *
I take my wine jug out among the flowers
to drink alone, without friends.
I raise my cup to entice the moon.
That, and my shadow, makes us three.
But the moon doesn’t drink,
and my shadow silently follows.
I will travel with moon and shadow,
happy to the end of spring.
When I sing, the moon dances.
When I dance, my shadow dances, too.
We share life’s joys when sober.
Drunk, each goes a separate way.
Constant friends, although we wander,
we’ll meet again in the Milky Way.
* translated by Sam Hamill