“. . . the old fellow in front of me dropped his glasses . . .”

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) wrote my kind of poetry.

My kind of poet.

My kind of poet.

Not very elegant. Crass, even, by many poetry lovers’ standards. Doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t have a rhythm recognized by the regular repetition of “feet” either iambs or amphibrachs or dispondees, and it often doesn’t even have images either similes or metaphors or personifications. Almost seems like, as far as what we learned about poetry in high school goes, we should pay no attention to the man behind the INK SPOTS.

Why on earth should I remember this song when I remember so little pop culture? (Not a “rhetorical question.” There’s no such thing. I tell my students if they know the answer to the question, it’s disingenuous to ask it, and, if they don’t, they have no business asking it to make a point.) My mother must have sung it. Several covers of the song exist, but this is definitely the version I remember. Somewhere along the line I knew (because some vocal-major friend sang it when I was in college, perhaps) the tune was the semi-classical song “Mattinata” by Leoncavallo, composer of the opera Pagliacci, which everyone knows.

I did not remember all of these details, I will confess. I had to look them up. I remembered the song, but the rest were vague 69-year-old’s snatches of memory. Some years ago researching them was what musicologists did, but nowadays with Google and Wikipedia, anyone can do this kind of arcane research.

Dr. Robert Nelsen used to refer to “the squiggles on the page.” That was when he was a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at Dallas and not a college president. I don’t think Robert ever had us read any of Charles Bukowski’s work. Right. We were studying fiction writing with Robert.

ink spots—squiggles on the page—“You’re Breaking My Heart”—MattinataPagliacci—Robert Nelsen—Charles Bukowski. How’s that for a train of thought?

“Helping the old,” by Charles Bukowski

I was standing in line at the bank today
when the old fellow in front of me
dropped his glasses (luckily, within the
case)
and as he bent over
I saw how difficult it was for
him
and I said, “wait, let me get
them. . . “
but as I picked them up
he dropped his cane
a beautiful, black polished
cane
and I got the glasses back to him
then went for the cane
steadying the old boy
as I handed him his cane.
he didn’t speak,
he just smiled at me.
then he turned
forward.
I stood behind him waiting
my turn.

(Bukowski, Charles. “Helping the Old.” You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense. New York: HarperCollins: 2002.)

If I were a real English professor, I’d have you analyze first—uh, I don’t know where we’d start. Here’s where I’d start by myself. When the old fellow in front of me.

when the óld

féllow

in frónt

of mé

Well now, it does have a regular rhythm. de-de-dum, dum-de, de-dum, de-dum. If Bukowsi had used the first word that came to mind—as you and I would have—“man,”—the stanza would not scan. Read it with “man” instead of “fellow.” OK, class, that’s boring as hell. Let’s get on with the analysis. Oh! That’s all. That’s the extent of my analysis.

You’ll say that any writing or speech in English has a regular meter. Yep. And the best writing unintentionally follows something like unrhymed iambic pentameter (which we all know from Shakespeare). Why do you suppose all those Renaissance and Elizabethan poets used it? It’s the way we talk. Prove me wrong.

But not all writing or speech creates an image. That’s what makes poetry.

The old fellow in front of me. I’ve seen that old fellow—as you have—a thousand times. I see him in the mirror every time I brush my teeth. Fortunately my hip has healed perfectly, and I no longer have the cane. I bought You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense some time ago because the Publishers Clearing House blurb said it was poems about Bukowski’s cats and his childhood. Some are, some aren’t.

But here’s the deal. This poetry is not simply prose put into short lines. I’m moderately good at writing prose, but here’s my sorry attempt (and I’m not fishing for compliments like,

The banks are supposed to look

The way banks are supposed to look

“Oh, no, your attempt is not sorry”) to answer Bukowski’s poem from the old man’s POV. This entire post is a stream of (almost) consciousness that’s old man thinking. I’ve probably thought this way all my life, but I’m here to tell you that the older you get (at any rate, the older I’ve gotten) the more you (or I) hold onto these strings of ideas. They may not go anywhere, but they’re mine, and it’s comforting to be able to encapsulate them in writing. I’ve been working at this “poem” for three days. Hardly seems worth it.

“Being helped when old,” by Harold Knight

That young blade
watches every
move. 
He doesn’t think
how it is
to be old.
Damn! The
floor.
Why the fuck
can’t you be careful,
old man?
Break those glasses
and pay for more.
Don’t help much
anyway.
Thanks, man.
The cane!
That damned cane.
Does he guess
how mortifying
this is?
Struck dumb.
Get that idiotic grin
off
your
face.

I’m not yet at the point of thinking about what it’s like to die (at least not thinking about it all the time). But when I’m ready, it’ll probably go something like this. Poem with cats.

“1990 Special,” by Charles Bukowski

year-worn
weary to the bone,
dancing in the dark with the
dark,
the Suicide Kid gone
gray.

ah, the swift summers
over and gone
forever!

is that death
stalking me
now?

no, it’s only my cat,
this
time.

(Bukowski, Charles. “1990 Special.” The People Look Like Flowers at Last. New York: HarperCollins Publishers [Echo], 2007.)

only my cat, this time

only my cat, this time

 

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