Before selecting Charles Bukowski’s Storm for the Living and the Dead from my local library’s book shelves, I don’t recall having read anything written by him. I may have, but if I did read something by him, I didn’t take any particular note of it. And there wasn’t very much in Storm for the Living and the Dead that would send me looking for more.
The poems in this collection project an image of Bukowski as a “hard mouthed”, vulgar man. Tough, drunk and largely insensitive. And that he may have been – I don’t know. But I don’t really care to know because there aren’t many revelations of the human experience and spirit to be found in the collection. I’m left with a reaction that I really don’t need to delve deeper. There probably isn’t a deeper. Perhaps Bukowski was mawkishly putting on a kind of Falstaff disguise. And perhaps that is Bukowski’s value as a poet.
Perhaps contrasting himself to Bukowski was how Frederick Seidel might have come to view himself as a literary figure of merit. This pair of American poets do present a contrast of superficial aesthetics. But beneath the rumpled sport-jacket on the one hand and the bespoke suit on the other, I’m not sure there’s much to separate them. It is terrific, though, that poets of the past can provide such rich demonstration that the past can be just as seedy as the present. Tonic for that notion that there were “good old days” to be sentimental for.
There were moments in the book that I found interesting. I enjoyed Bukowski’s confession about carrying around Ezra Pound‘s Cantos for longer periods of time (without actually reading them) than younger poets can claim to have done. The familiar phrased “now that Ezra has died” suggests a familiarity within poetry….that Pound, Bukowski and even the informed reader are all part of the same family. It was a moment in the book which raised its head above most of the rest of the muck.
I found his musings (pg. 241) to be rather reminiscent of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. It shouldn’t be surprising to find a claim to wisdom in a collection like this. Normally a comparison to Blake would be a sign of regard. In this case, however, it is only an observation that further elevates Blake in my esteem. I’ve seen conceptual imitations of the Proverbs of Hell, but I haven’t seen any innovations that actually improved on what Blake wrote.
Having read the book cover-to-cover, I was glad to put this collection to the side. I had a similar feeling after reading Seidel’s collected works. I didn’t even waste the time required to finish Pound’s Cantos.
HarperCollins says the book is “A timeless selection of some of Charles Bukowski’s best unpublished and uncollected poems.”. I’m not so sure about the argument of being timeless. If it is a sample of Bukowski’s best, I’ll leave the rest of the Bukowski canon to those who will show appreciation.
All of this being said….the most encouraging thing that I’ve learned from Seidel, Bukowski, and even Pound, is that a poet must persevere in the writing. The top priority for any writer should always be the writing. If I’m not writing…what am I doing?