Top 10 Classic Charles Bukowski Poems
#10 - ANOTHER ACADEMY
ANOTHER ACADEMY Image

If you’ve never had the satisfaction of hearing Bukowski read his poetry, I suggest one of the following sources: Hostage (CD, Rhino Records, 1985), The Charles Bukowski Tapes (VHS, Lagoon Video, 1987), Bukowski at Bellevue (VHS, Black Sparrow Press, 1988) or A Charles Bukowski Reader (CD, HarperCollins Publishers, 1993). In the spring of 1970, Bukowski gave a poetry reading at Bellevue College in Seattle, Washington, to an audience of mostly what appeared to be drug-addled, bored and rather unreceptive college students. It was just his fourth reading and his nervousness comes through on the Bellevue videotape even though he has his handy thermos with him to help dull the pain of making a public performance (which he hated doing and reluctantly agreed to do for the money). He probably puked in the parking lot before the reading as he did before just about every single one of his subsequent appearances. One of the poems Bukowski reads to the students is “Another Academy,” which compares the older and wiser subculture of bums (“men without”) with “the hippies and yippies” who “hitchhike in $50 boots.” To illustrate their dignity, he relates an anecdote about their preferred method of suicide:

“in New York City

where it gets colder

and they are hunted by their own

kind, these men often crawl under car radiators,

drink the anti-freeze,

get warm and grateful for some minutes, then

die”

“Another Academy” can be found in Mockingbird Wish Me Luck (Black Sparrow Press, 1972), a collection of poetry dedicated to Buk’s then-girlfriend Linda King “for all the good reasons.”

#09 - DRAWING OF A BAND CONCERT ON A MATCHBOX
DRAWING OF A BAND CONCERT ON A MATCHBOX Image

The poet sits in his dirty kitchen and ponders the idealistic vision of a concert in a park drawn on a matchbox, complete with such images as a “concertmaster,” “rowboats,” a “boy with American flag,” a “lady in yellow with fan,” a “Civil War veteran” and a “girl with balloon,” He concludes that “life on paper is so much more/pleasurable. there are no bombs or flies or/landlords or starving/cats . . . ” The poet then imagines himself magically transported into the drawing itself, as he tries to score with the “lady in yellow with the fan.” Soon he imagines that he is screwing her right there on the stove in his dirty kitchen. But reality, as always, rears its ugly head: “the balloon pops and I walk across the kitchen/on a rainy day in February/to check on eggs and bread and/wine and sanity.” The poem is included in an early poetry collection called The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (Black Sparrow Press, 1969). In addition, Bukowski reads it on the Bellevue videotape.

#08 - THE GENIUS OF THE CROWD
THE GENIUS OF THE CROWD Image

Since I started out reading Bukowski’s later, more narrative poems, when I finally got around to checking out some of his early lyrical material, I disliked it immediately. However, I’ve come to recognize the brilliance of the poems collected in The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems [1946-1966]. In “The Genius of the Crowd,” Buk rails against society’s war against the individual:

“Beware Those Who Seek Constant

Crowds; They Are Nothing

Alone

Beware

The Average Man

The Average Woman

BEWARE Their Love

Their Love Is Average, Seeks

Average

But There Is Genius In Their Hatred

There Is Enough Genius In Their

Hatred To Kill You, To Kill

Anybody.”

[Editor’s Note: We can only assume that when Bukowski sat down to write this rant it had been a long time since he had gotten laid.]

#07 - I WANTED TO OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT (BUT ALL I BROUGHT DOWN WAS SOMEBODY'S WIFE)
I WANTED TO OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT (BUT ALL I BROUGHT DOWN WAS SOMEBODY'S WIFE) Image

Visualize a group of anarchists plotting a revolution with a little Marx Brothers humor thrown in for good measure and you will understand the appeal of this unusual poem, which serves to outline Bukowski’s philosophy on the futility of political movements in any form. To illustrate his point, the poet looks back 20 years ago when he hung out with an old Jewish tailor (“his nose in the lamplight like a cannon sighted on the enemy”) and an Italian pharmacist (who “lived in an expensive apartment in the best part of town”):

“[W]e plotted to overthrow

a tottering dynasty, the tailor sewing buttons on a vest,

the Italian poking his cigar in my eye, lighting me up,

a tottering dynasty myself, always drunk as possible,

well-read, starving, depressed, but actually

a good young piece of ass would have solved all my rancor . . .”

However, the anarchy falls apart after the tailor dies and the pharmacist discovers the poet spending too much time with his wife: “he did not care to have/his personal government overthrown.” After winning $200 in a crap game, the poet heads down to New Orleans, mills around listening to the lively music coming from the bars and thinks about the dead tailor:

“he gave way although he was stronger than any of us—

he gave way because his bladder would not go on,

and maybe that saved Wall Street and Manhattan

and the Church and Central Park West and Rome and the

Left Bank.”

“I Wanted to Overthrow the Government,” which can be found in Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (Black Sparrow Press, 1974), concludes with Bukowski’s anti-political philosophy, which he shares with the pharmacist’s wife:

“I guess she felt as I: that the weakness was not Government

but Man, one at a time, that men were never as strong as

their ideas

and that ideas were governments turned into men . . .”

At the end of the poem, the poet resolves that he will soon “have to get very drunk again.”

#06 - THE MAN AT THE PIANO
THE MAN AT THE PIANO Image

A mediocre musician plays the piano for an indifferent crowd in a nameless nightclub: “the man at the piano/plays a song/he didn’t write/sings words/that aren’t his/upon a piano/he doesn’t own.” After finishing his set “to no applause,” the piano player retreats to the crapper on his break, enters a stall and lights up a joint. According to Bukowski, “this is the way it goes almost everywhere with everybody and everything.” If you’re lucky enough to find a copy of The Bukowski Tapes, you can hear the master himself reciting this classic poem. It can also be found in the collection titled Dangling in the Tournefortia (Black Sparrow Press, 1981). If you like this one, you’ll have to check out a similarly themed poem called “leaning in wood” in Play the Piano Drunk /Like a Percussion Instrument/Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit (Black Sparrow Press, 1979). It concerns “4 or 5 guys at the racetrack bar” and their meaningless banter as they look vacantly into the mirror behind the bar and wait to make their bets:

“our reflections look better

as we walk away:

you can’t see our

faces.”

#05 - A NICE PLACE
A NICE PLACE Image

Jane Cooney Baker was Bukowski’s first and greatest love. Eleven years his senior and already a full-blown alcoholic by the time they met, Jane served as the inspiration for many of Buk’s earliest and best poetry, which was originally published in various little magazines and eventually collected in The Roominghouse Madrigals by Black Sparrow Press. Only one known photo of Jane exists (from her high school yearbook) and it can be found in Howard Sounes’ solid Bukowski biography titled Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life (Grove Press, 1998). By the time period of this poem, Jane had developed a grotesque pot belly and her drinking was out of control. According to Sounes, the couple sometimes had sex, “but Jane was so far gone that intercourse repulsed [Bukowski].” As usual, the poem depicts a cheap apartment, a nosey landlord and a couple just trying to drink in peace.

“you’d think I never paid the rent;

you’d think they’d allow a man to drink

and sit with a woman and watch the sun

come up.

I uncap the new bottle

from the bag and she sits in the corner

smoking and coughing

like an old Aunt from New Jersey.”

As for Jane, she spent the last days of her life as a maid in a cheap hotel before dying of a massive hemorrhage in 1962. She was just 52 years old.

#04 - OLD MAN, DEAD IN A ROOM
OLD MAN, DEAD IN A ROOM Image

Another early classic, “Old Man, Dead in a Room” serves as the last poem in the early (and quite rare) collection titled It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (Loujon Press, 1963). The title of the collection came from a line in a poem by one of Bukowski’s early inspirations, Robinson Jeffers. Once again, the same themes emerge: the cheap apartment, the landlord demanding rent money and the poet desperately trying to have privacy to write:

“this thing upon me is not death

but it’s as real

and as landlords full of maggots

pound for rent

I eat walnuts in the sheath

of my privacy

and listen for more important

drummers . . .”

The poem can also be found in The Roominghouse Madrigals. A wine-addled Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) quotes from a portion of this poem in the film Barfly [1987]:

“. . . as my grey hands

drop a last desperate pen

in some cheap room

they will find me there

and never know

my name

my meaning

nor the treasure

of my escape.”

#03 - ONE NIGHT STAND
ONE NIGHT STAND Image

Another classic that can be found in The Roominghouse Madrigals describes a night of unrewarding and pathetic sex between the poet and a woman obviously past her prime: “you are yesterday’s bouquet so sadly raided.” Even though the poem seems to describe a one-night stand, the obvious model for the woman would have to be Jane Cooney Baker:

“I kiss your poor

breasts as my hands reach for love

in this cheap Hollywood apartment smelling of

bread and gas and misery.”

#02 - THE SHOELACE
THE SHOELACE Image

Also included on The Bukowski Tapes, this early poem can be found in Mockingbird Wish Me Luck. It’s simply a listing of “small tragedies/that send a man to the madhouse.” According to Bukowski, “the dread of life is that swarm of trivialities that can kill quicker than cancer and which are always there” such as a “leaky faucet, Christ and Christmas,” “constipation,” “speeding tickets” and, my personal favorite, “making it as a waitress at Norm’s on the split shift.” The poet lays out a simple philosophy of life:

“with each broken shoelace

out of one hundred broken shoelaces,

one man, one woman, one

thing

enters a madhouse”

Bukowski's advice? “. . . be careful when you bend over.”

#01 - THE TRAGEDY OF THE LEAVES
THE TRAGEDY OF THE LEAVES Image

The opening poem of It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) evokes a vision of despair rarely, if ever, surpassed in 20th-century American poetry. In fact, “Leaves” may be the most popular and arguably best poem Bukowski ever wrote. Its opening lines are as powerful as T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” without the bullshit and footnotes:

“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 . . .” 

As usual, the poet’s woman has left him and his grotesque landlady is demanding the rent money. When all is said and done, the most memorable aspect of the poem is the final passage:

“I walked into a dark hall

where the landlady stood

execrating and final,

sending me to hell,

waving her fat, sweaty arms

and screaming

screaming for the rent

because the world had failed us both.” 

In The Bukowski Tapes, a drunken Bukowski reads “The Tragedy of the Leaves,” which appears as the opening poem in Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.

[Editor’s Note: I once showed this poem to a friend, hoping that he would share some of my excitement for its brilliance. “What’s so tragic about a pile of dead leaves?” he asked.]

User Comments - Add a Comment
Manny Jesus - 2013-04-11 01:02:14

Raw with love should be in. It really hits me.

Riv - 2014-03-06 00:38:39

An almost made up poem is one of my favorite bukowski poems.

Martin Sinclair - 2014-05-20 18:35:45

I would have to say Crucifix In A Deathhand not only is one of Bukowski's best but one of the best by a 20th century American poet. Buk does not get the credit he earned or deserved. I would also add Blue Bird.

Al Fogel - 2014-12-16 09:23:39

" Something for the touts, the nuns, the grocery clerks and you" should rank among his best. Al

John Smith - 2016-12-27 03:15:18

Roll the dice is my personal favorite. Life is short and if one takes that poem to heart they will achieve great things.