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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Wild, The Beautiful and the Damned, 6 Jan. 2010
This review is from: The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 (Paperback)
The Pleasures of the Damned

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The Pleasures of the Damned is an apt title for this huge volume of the cult poet Charles Bukowski's poems, peopled as it is by those on the margins of society who, in the words of the wonderful Jarvis Cocker, 'dance and drink and screw because there's nothing else to do'. Published in The States at the end of 2007, this collection is being reprinted in paperback by Canongate in January 2010 to tie in with their republishing of Howard Sounes's definitive 1998 biography of the poet, Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life.

Bukowski was a prolific writer, churning out hundreds of poems as well as several novels and short stories. He wore his heart on his sleeve: his poetry opens a door into his life and is alternately bruised and angry, sorrowful and savage . If experience of hardship is the stuff of artistic inspiration then Bukowski had it in rusty, crap-shoveling spades. Bullied as a child because of his name and clothes, socially withdrawn until he discovered alcohol, which became his crutch, plagued by severe acne which scarred his skin permanently, his was not a happy or conventional youth. His poems reflect the path his life took, taking refuge in bars and brothels, racing tracks and poker tables . A cross between the sardonic, witty Tom Waits and the lost, shambling Pete Doherty of the poetry world, he has previously been described as the lowlife laureate.

Bukowski spent most of his life in LA, and his depiction of the lives of those under the radar in the city of broken dreams is as powerful and accessible as James Frey's in his last novel Bright Shiny Morning. Like Frey, one hesitates about whether Bukowski can truly be called a 'great' writer - Frey's repetition for emphasis, his disregard for punctuation and his fairy-story stereotypes (notably rich = evil, poor= saintly) are occasionally irksome, but there is no denying the immediacy and impact of his work. Similarly, Bukowski's poems hold an earthy fascination, trawling as they do through the lives of the less than privileged.

However, the dense fug of cigarette smoke and liver-pickling liquor seen from his bar stool stance don't detract from his acute vision and sharp perception. The subjects covered in these poems are many and include war, ageing, the desolation of the homeless and addicted, the anonymity and soullessness of life in the big city, sex, love, the author's snarling contempt for the bourgeouis and his hatred for the moneyed classes. But anyone anticipating a grim, humourless read is in for a pleasant surprise: as Irvine Welsh did in his early work when he was still fresh and shocking, Bukowski manages to inject humour into the most unlikely situations. Take this explanatory ending to a four page list of individuals Bukowski entreats us to ask, for example: ' A snarling wife on the balustrade is more than a man can bear.' Or this poem entitled 'A Future Congressman':

'In the men's room at the

track

this boy of about

7 or 8 years old

came out of a stall

and the man

waiting for him

(probably his father)

asked,

'what did you do with the

racing program?

I gave it to you

to keep.'

'no,' said the boy,

'I aint seen it! I don't

have it!'

they walked off and

I went into the stall

because it was the only one

available

and there

in the toilet

was the

program.

I tried to flush

the program

away

but it just swan

sluggishly about

and

remained.

I got out of

there and found

another

empty stall.

That boy was ready

for his life to come,

he would undoubtedly

be highly successful

the lying little

prick.'

Some of the narrative poems are reminiscent of Lou Reed circa Transformer - matter-of-fact, gritty, colourful stories of people who end up on the wrong side of the tracks for whatever reason. Consider this extract, for example:

'it's always early enough to die and

it's always too late,

and the drill of blood in the basin white

it tells you nothing at all

and the gravediggers playing poker over

5am coffee, waiting for the grass

to dismiss the frost...

they tell you nothing at all.'

Perhaps, like Reed, Bukowski will be remembered as a spokesman for the dispossessed in decades to come. He deserves to be.
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Initial post: 2 Apr 2010 18:30:05 BDT
This is a very fine review.
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