Henry Charles Bukowski is one of those few poets whose works were called both a bright phenomenon in the American as well as foreign literature and not a poetry at all. For a reader, it takes no more than a dozen of Bukowski’s poems to realize that his perception of the reality is condensed to an attitude of a social outcast, and he is aware and sometimes ashamed of it; however, the author still takes risk of articulating this outsiderness. Being often titled as a representative or even a godfather of dirty realism, Bukowski usually addresses the dark side of the world with all of its cruel, depressive, unfair, and unclean elements, thus desacralizing poetry in itself and by its own means. Prominently, his lyrical hero never matches the image of the person of the American dream. Bukowski’s narrator is a loser in the game of the life; he knows this, and understands that there are people out there who can relate to this texts. Therefore, this surrenderer’s attitude is evident and eloquent in two of his poems analyzed in this paper, namely “What Can We Do?” and “A Smile to Remember”.
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To begin with, the tune of existential despair is depicted in the parallel images of a mother and goldfish in the bowl in “A Smile to Remember”. The term “existential” is by no means accidental here. The experience of plain absurdity of life spent like behind the closed door was introduced to literature by French existentialists including the maestro of modern intellectual Europe, Jean-Paul Sartre. However, translation of such an encounter is quite new in Bukowski’s poem. For existentialists, this feeling was associated with maturity, tiredness of life, and involved some amount of tragedy. On the contrary, Bukowski depicts it in the simple and plain entourage, as he intends to describe how sad but still usual it is; the whole scene emphasizes that this sentiment is not a fate of a professional philosopher, it is shared by parents and their young son, the narrator. A reader sees a mother trying to educate her child, teaching him how to overcome (or to pretend to?) this despair: “my mother, always smiling, wanting us all / to be happy, told me, “be happy Henry!”, and further: “my mother, poor fish, / wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a / week, telling me to be happy: “Henry, smile! / why don’t you ever smile?” / and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the / saddest smile I ever saw” (Bukowski). In the final part of the poem, the goldfish dies, however, with “eyes still open” pretending to stay alive, like it cannot even meet its death properly; open eyes of the dead fish are connected with mother’s tragic, sad, and fake smile, caesured in the final line.
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In “What Can We Do?”, the narrator is a mature man whose prison is not his family unhappiness anymore, it had extended to the size of the Humanity. Bukowski uses simile to compare it to a “large animal deep in sleep” (Bukowski). In the narrator’s mind, the Humanity sometimes shows rare cases of gentleness, understanding, and courage, but these are rather exceptions from the usual flow of its “poisonous, vicious / and mindless” nature (Bukowski). Prominently, the usage of poetic decoration is almost absent, the author’s rhetorics is simple and plain like the entourage of the first poem. The tune of being existentially trapped is evident as well. What was embodied in the image of the fish bowl and family kitchen in “A Smile to Remember” is contained in words “I have met nobody who has escaped” in “What Can We Do?” (Bukowski). The direct message leaves no room for equivocation. There is no escape, and nobody did, “some of the great and / famous (…) have not escaped / for they are only great and famous within / Humanity” (Bukowski). A reader sees similar application of ceasuras in these two poems along with corresponding messages conveyed. If one looks closely on what exactly Bukowski highlights by introducing pauses in seemingly rhythm-free texts, the words can and smiled (in the first poem) and courage and life (in the second one) occur to be additionally emphasized. Conventionally, the primary semantics of the latter is rather positive because in everyday language; furthermore, these concepts express ability, joy, bravery, and vitality. However, this is not a case for Bukovsky’s texts. The caesured lexemes are put in the contexts where they gain darker meanings: the father cannot fight what is inside of him, the mother’s smile is fake and tragic, the courage is painfully rare, and there is little hope for the narrator to obtain his life, which no one was able to do.
To conclude, the two analyzed poems signify familiar existential despair wrapped in simple but striking, sad but not overdramatized language, revealing the degree of acceptance of a deeply depressed person. His poetic toolbox connotes this as well. One finds only the simplest tropes there including few metaphors, some parallelism, few simple rhythmic tricks, and usual adjectives, without any verbal images. Nevertheless, this tune is infrequent in literature for which it is common in order to protrude feelings and experience in the vain hope to make them more expressive. Bukowski’s calm voice is exceptionally eloquent in such a choir because one does not expect such a clear, deep, and radiant sorrow from the godfather of dirty realism.