THE PLEASURES OF THE DAMNED is a collection of Charles Bukowski's poems, 548 pages of them, many of them from earlier volumes of poetry, some of them never before published. For anyone familiar with Bukowski, there are few if any surprises here, rather a healthy sampling of this iconoclast's poetry. So very autobiographical, many of these poems are about the things Bukowski loved: the races, cats (you can learn from them), booze, poetry (he calls himself a poetry junkie), Wagner, sex (like Mahler, you do not rush it), some women. He can write a paean to a lover in "The Shower" but then say in another poem that American women, as opposed to Japanese women, "will kill you like they tear a lampshade." He is not reticent in writing about people and things he hates as well: some writers, especially Hemingway, whom he describes as "just a drunk"-- the irony is that in "a clean, well-lighted place," his description of Hemingway's use of his literary reputation to reel women in "one at a time" sounds like Bukowski himself-- critics, mindless work. (He pictures workers trapped in jobs that go nowhere as having "goldfish security.)
Nothing was immune from Bukowski's pen. Apparently he could write about any subject. There are poems here on the killing of elephants in Vietnam, a grammar school bully remembered, the ignorance of youth, a trip to the doctor, picturing himself in a nursing home, a conversation with death, an old car ("a poor man's miracle"), the abuse that both he and his mother suffered at the hands of his father (his mother had "the saddest smile I ever knew"), the homeless, the old, poor, sick and dying, throwing a radio out a window, etc., etc.
No one would say that Bukowski wrote "pretty" poems. On the other hand, we cannot deny that many of them go straight to the bone. In "eating my senior citizen's dinner at the Sizzler" (what a horrendous image) markers in modern cemeteries are "flat on the ground, it's much more pleasant for passing traffic." His world is inhabited by a sixty-five-year-old man with cancer who kills his sixty-six-year-old wife who has Alzheimer's and then kills himself and a house that is sad because it is inhabited with people who have mindless, dead-end jobs. For many of the people Bukowski writes about, "it's a lonely world/of frightened people,/just as it has always/been." On the other hand, in the poem entitled "mind and heart" (p. 523), he acknowledges that we are all alone, "forever alone" but goes on to say that "I have been alone but seldom lonely."
Reading Bukowski reminds you of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg--although he certainly is not derivative of any other writer-- but a case can be made that he is a lot closer in his mood and world view to some of the darker poems of both Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson than he probably would have acknowledged. There is a place in the parade of poets for anyone who speaks the truth: the Robert Frosts, the Emily Dickinsons, the Donald Halls, the Edwin Arlington Robinsons along with the Charles Bukowskis.