The Rough-Knuckled Life and Poetry of Charles Bukowski Born on This Day 99 Years Ago!

German American poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

   a song with no end

when Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric”

I know what he
I know what he wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable.

we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as

Charles Bukowski from the night torn with mad footsteps, Ecco, 2003

Today, August 16th is the birthday of the notoriously controversial and provocative bad-boy of poetry, the German American Charles Bukowski. The author of more than forty novels and poetry collections his latest poetry collection was published earlier this year: On Drinking which not surprisingly is a collection of his “drinking” poems. For a wide-ranging discussion of the critical response to that book (many disapprovals) and to Bukowski in general the recent article by American poet Clint Margrave on Bukowski is helpful. The the link to the article please click here.

And please note: nothing about Bukowski is straight forward. Some of his poems have multiple versions and some of his poems published after his death are said to have been mangled by an editor.

Bukowski is not for the faint of heart.  And everything about him seems larger than life. That is apparent in the number of Hollywood films (Barfly and others) on him and taped interviews with him. He could be fouled mouthed and abusive. He lived a rough and tumble drinking life with lots of womanizing but he was not afraid to make that uncomfortably explicit in many of his poems. But and this is a big but for me, based on the relatively small number of his poems I have read (out of about 5,000 that have been catalogued) there is a treasure trove of wisdom on life and living in his poems that he earned the hard way.

The emotional depth in his poems is evident in some of his best-known poems including The Bluebird, The Crunch and The Laughing Heart. The Bluebird, in particular, strikes me as a heart-stopping look inside the heart and soul of an alcoholic. The power of alcohol to numb the Bluebird, the vulnerable and aching part I would say lives in all of us. but is expressed or not in so many different ways.
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Heidi Garnett’s Blood Orange – An Important Poetry Collection from 2016


Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett

Upstairs in the Study

A wound is a place where light enters you.
So many words, books on shelves, paper shoulders
holding dust’s weight. But what is this pain
I should search for again?
Where is the joy in it? On the window sill
an angel with wire wings plays Shostakovich’s Concerto # 1
in a minor and I begin to weep,
not because the music is beautiful, which it is,
but because for a moment I am perfectly content to do nothing,
but listen. It’s been so long. Snow begins to fall
and the corner between my desk and cedar chest
draws back into shadow. Outside
mountain siskin with their notched tails
tap at the birdbath’s frozen water, its split lip.

Heidi Garnett from Blood Orange, Frontenac House, 2016

It seems never ending: the flood of new poetry books year after year. But sometimes it is such a delightful surprise to go back  and rediscover notable books that are at risk of being forgotten. Left behind in the rush to find the next great book.  Such a book for me is the 2016 collection Blood Orange by Canadian poet Heidi Garnett.  The emotional and narrative range of the book is impressive. But I want to limit my focus to only two poems in the collection.

I come back to the epigraph poem of this blog post again and again. It is such a good example of her poetic mastery. The quick mind of her poems. And the imagery that supports her thinking. And what a poem of the moment. Of presence. And what a bold first line.
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A Huge Small Poem from Greg Orr’s latest Poetry Collection

American poet Gregory Orr








Song of Aftermath

Standing now, in a place
Scrubbed raw by flood.

I, who sought neither
Rapture nor fracture.

Now the question is:
What do you do with shatter?

Someone else’s map?
I’d end up half-trapped;

And even the best often
Just guess what’s next.

If I’m to grow now,
It will be through grieving.

It will be through this
Deepening I didn’t choose.

Gregory Orr from The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write, W.W. Norton & Co., 2019

Registrations Open! – A Ten-Day Generative Poetry Writing Retreat in Umbria, Italy – June 11 to June 21, 2020

La  Romita poet, Liz, reading her poem at the La Romita Spoken Word event, Terni, June, 2019

Poet as Diviner: Hunting the Pluck of Poetry

A Ten-Day Generative Poetry Writing Retreat
June 11th to June 21st, 2020
Writing “En Plein Air”
with Richard Osler
at the La Romita School of Art
Terni, Umbria, Italy


Richard, just want to say again how amazing La Romita was. You are an extraordinary facilitator and made the whole time there so wonderful and poetically rich – Thank you. Liz M –  July 2019. (For more endorsements please see below.)

La Romita


Please consider this invitation to join me, Richard Osler, poet and highly regarded poetry retreat and workshop leader, this June, 2020 in Umbria for my fourth retreat at the  La Romita School of Art in Umbria (click here for the La Romita website) where you will read and write your poems in some of the most beautiful places imaginable.

A poet’s room at La Romita, June 2019

During the retreat I hope you will become a diviner, not one hunting the pluck of water as Seamus Heaney says in his poem The Diviner but one hunting the pluck of poetry. Discover how, as Heaney claims, both a diviner and poet make contact with what lies hidden, and…make palpable what was sensed or raised.

Through writing sessions, many en plein air on site where we visit, you will be inspired by written meditations on craft and by creative prompts. And on our last full day, guided by the celebrated book-maker Terry-Ann Carter, enjoy a day of making magic out of paper and words.
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What’s at Stake These Days When Writing Poems that Might Offend And a Poem as an Example by Keetje Kuipers

American poet Keetje Kuipers.

I buy my white daughter a black doll

and she cries and she sleeps and she rides
through our kitchen in a pink stroller. She takes
a tiny bottle in her pursed lips, and every night

she takes a bubble bath. As my daughter drapes
a washcloth across her brown shoulders
and down her delicately curved back, I think

about the man I loved years ago – his elbows,
his knees, those ashy places I caressed without
understanding and how his mother told me

make sure he mositurizes, as if she agreed I had
any business caretaking his body in a country
that would rather see him dead. What do I

think I can teach my daughter, especially when
I’ve still learned so little? Only that we might all
be transformed by our own unknowing love.

Keetje Kuipers from All its Charms, BOA Editions, 2019

With on-line trolling a common occurrence these days poetry and poets are not immune. And not just on-line trolling.  Poems on sensitive subjects whether or not handled well (that’s part of a discussion) are being targeted for criticism that in certain cases feels unmeasured and one-sided, more like personal shaming. No fruitful discussion. A mob mentality seems to occur. And outrage is invited to win the day. Not a measured weighing in.

I ventured into this topic a few months ago when discussing Tony Hoagland’s poem, Change but I wanted to add some more thoughts to this issue which might be persuading poets to take fewer risks in their poems. Especially after Ukranian/American poet Ilya Kaminsky came into a round of internet abuse a few weeks ago calling for him to go home. Not sure whether or not this was based on political comments he made on twitter or Facebook or blow-back from his recent book Deaf Republic which has two poems that specifically focus politically and personally on events in the U.S.  Regardless, that kind of shrill response is another example for me of a scary malaise in our time.

This is why I have featured Keetje Kuipers poem above which she calls a failure in an article in Poetry Northwest discussing the challenge of not only writing on tough subjects but also when any poem feels not quite right, a failure. And I would add she means by that a necessary failure:
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A Celebration of Prosody – The Swoops of Ross Gay’s Breathless Sentences and a Meditation on Joy

American poet Ross Gay, winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry

And yet, and yet, when the cold
makes brittle what remains—the spent okra
stalk, the few pepper plants that hang on
through the first two frosts, these little gold
tomatoes—when it withers even the rogue
amaranth, its tousled
mane bent and defeated,
when the silver maple out front has ceased whispering,
and when the bullfrogs nestle into their muddy lairs,
and the peepers go where they go,
and the crows circle,
just down the street, its leaves
too mostly blown off, spindly,
and creaking in the wind,
while the whole world shimmers with death,
hauling all its sugar not perfect globes
the size of a child’s handful,
giddy, it seems
at the sound of ants
slurping beneath, at me
joining them, brushing away wood chip and beetle
before burying my tongue
in the burst pulp
dropped on the earth below,
the persimmon
gives its modest fruit
for yet a while.

Ross Gay from Lace & Pyrite – letters from two gardens by Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatatil, Organic Weapon Arts, 2014

Still reeling from a gorgeous week of writing poetry in Port Townsend, Washington, at the Centrum Writers’ Conference with American poet Carl Phillips, I am reading poems with his voice in my ear saying again and again: poetry is structured language. And I am now architect and engineer looking at structure in all the poems I read! It’s what made me look and look again at Ross Gay’s untitled poem from his collaborative chapbook written with fellow American poet Aimee Nezhukumatatil.

The main structural element in this free verse poem: its one sentence in 27 lines. The huge deferral before completing the first part of the sentence that begins: And yet, and yet, when the cold/ makes brittle what remains. Then, 25 lines later the sentence finishes: the persimmon/ gives its modest fruit/ for yet a while. This is such a great example of what Aimee Nezhukumatatil, his friend and poetic collaborator calls his long swoops of breathless sentences. And a great withholding of the final verb. Such great use of the linkage words, when and while.

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The Extraordinary Poetry of Two Tormented Poets and Lovers – Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan

Austrian German poet Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) Photo Credit: The New Yorker and Herbert List, Magnum

The Respite

A harder time is coming.
The end of the respite allowed us
appears on the skyline.
Soon you must tie your shoelace
and drive back the dogs to the marshland farms.
For the fishes’ entrails
have grown cold in the wind.
Poorly the light of the lupins burns.
Your gaze gropes in the fog:
the end of the respite allowed us
appears on the skyline.

Over there your loved one sinks in the sand:
it rises toward her blown hair,
it cuts short her speaking,
it commands her to be silent,
it finds that she is mortal
and willing to part
after every embrace.

Do not look around.
Tie your shoelace.
Drive back the dogs.
Throw the fishes into the sea.
Put out the lupins!

A harder time is coming.

Ingeborg Bachman (1926-1973), trans. Michael Hamburger from The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, Ecco, 2010

Thanks to an extensive article by Emma Garman online in the Paris Review this week I was reminded of the extraordinary German poet Ingeborg Bachmann. And the great impact the poem above had on my poetry mentor and friend Patrick Lane when he read it in an anthology in the 60’s. It may be that Bachmann is experiencing a real revival of interest in her work. Just a few months ago the writer Rachel Kushner profiled her late-career novel Malina in the New Yorker, calling it the truest portrait of female consciousness since Sappho.

I don’t remember all Patrick said about The Respite but its  ominous and threatening overtones created by such original images gut-punch me every time I read it.  And maybe, just maybe, I might hazard to claim that this line: Put out the lupins is one of the greatest lines of poetry I have ever read. Especially coming as it does after the lupins are introduced in the first stanza: Poorly the light of the lupins burns. The dread in this poem. The dread in so many of her poems.

Bachmann struggled with a lot of mental pain and despair in her life and her poetry is drenched with the darkness of a post-war Germany. What I didn’t know within her troubled but brilliant writing life, that ended tragically in a cigarette-caused fire in her Rome apartment, was her tempestuous on and off relationship with the great German-speaking Jewish Romanian poet, Paul Celan. Celan, who drowned himself in the Seine in 1970, was forever haunted by the Second World War and its toll on so many including his family – his parents died in the Holocaust and he endured two years as a prisoner in a labour camp. His poem Death Fugue is considered one of the most important poetic expressions of the horror of the Holocaust.
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What a Feast of New Poems! The La Romita En Plein Air Poetry Retreat June 22nd to July 2nd, 2019

The view from Narni, Umbria, overlooking the Nera River valley

Was it only last Sunday we were here in the hill town of Narni? And wrote our next to last poem based on postcards with images taken from space  of our solar system and stars and constellations hundreds of light years away. The challenge: to write a poem that connects the the far-away images to specific moments or images from here in Umbria.

We read our poems together a few hours after we returned to La Romita before our poetry reading that evening. For the reading the twelve of us picked a favorite poem from the more than ten poems we each wrote during the retreat.
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Death by Addiction – A Searing Poetic Memoir by Sheryl St. Germain

American poet Sheryl St. Germain. Photo credit: ©teake zuidema, 2107.

Loving An Addict

Yesterday the skies were troubled
gusts almost knocked us down

today the sun, the kiss of a breeze

it was always fights or lies

Maybe at the end 

         I preferred the lies

Sheryl St. Germain from The Small Door of Your Death, Autumn House Press, 2018

The absolute helplessness of of someone close to a person in the thrall of addiction. The huge bravery of Sheryl St. Germain to write about it. And the crushing metaphor inside the title of her collection of poems: The small door of your death. Small door = needle prick. Equals overdose. Equals death. Equals the death of St. Germain’s son Gray (1984-2014) almost five years ago. Equals the title of her passage through her own addiction and Gray’s and his death.

This is an astonishingly out-there book. Harrowing and life giving. Yes the contradictions poetry can hold. This book epitomizes what poetry should and could be. The huge no of addiction and a son’s addiction and death. The huge yes of recovery and moving from unspeakable grief to the release of speaking and writing about it. I can’t say enough good things about this book. And about St. Germain’s never-give-up heart.

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Two Roads to Take – One Truly Up, One Tragically Down – Poetry for Recovery

Tools of Drug Addiction

The Addiction Room

The room is dark. There are four walls
a top and a bottom. I am trapped. I can’t get out
and sometimes in that darkness I don’t want out,
sometimes I love feeling trapped, like the room
has somehow stayed safe. I cannot get out
and more importantly, no one can get in.

Somewhere along the way I’ve become the darkness,
become one with the room, surrounded by the chaos,
white noise and demonic screams. My fear fades
with the kiss of that pin-point touch, warmth flows
throughout my body and in that moment I am
untouchable but no one told me what tomorrow would bring.
The warmth that pretended to be safety was gone,
I was trapped and no longer wanted to be.
The six sides of this room mirrored the cold prison
I was living and dying in on the inside. Death was
lingering ever so closely and not that that I had
become completely unaware of it, I had stopped
fearing it. I almost wanted it and invited it. I am trapped
and all hope is gone or lost in this four-sided, top
and bottomed room.

S. with permission

I have the privilege of being midwife to the birth of fragile, restive, resilient, stand-out poems written by men and women in recovery. Given safe space and the support of other supportive published poetic voices these poems appear on the page in under fifteen minutes. Some go back to the darkest days of addiction, some celebrate the new light coming through in recovery. Others span any topic you might imagine. But what they all share is what Canadian poet Susan Musgrave says: a poem knows more than I do and is wiser than I am. And that is where the healing can happen. The writer’s own voice as counselor and confidant.

Today I write this blog with a sadness infused in between my words. S (not the initial of her first name) who wrote these searing words above during the past few years died in mid-2018 of an overdose. A courageous woman, another casualty of our on-going opioid crisis. S was happy to give me permission to use her poems in my work. And her mother has welcomed my use of them. I thank them both. But I so wish S was alive to read these poems and write some more.

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