Parallels: Sexton and Bukowski

When I was a young teenager, I fell in love with two poets: Anne Sexton and Charles Bukowski.  I say that I fell in love with them because, although I loved their poems, it was really their personas that fascinated me – how their art imitated their lives.  Looking back, I can’t imagine two poets any more different than Sexton and Bukowski and yet, because of the way their work shaped my adolescence, they will forever remain connected to one another in my mind.

Anne Sexton was the mother of so-called confessional poetry and draws many parallels to Sylvia Plath.  She was a severely beautiful woman who battled depression for years and tragically took her own life at age 45.  And, though she was well recognized in her lifetime and won, among other awards, the Pulitzer Prize, she has been largely ignored outside of the literary establishment in the years after her death.  Why has she been forgotten when a similarly talented poet such as Sylvia Plath entered the literary canon?  Plath was brilliant, but I think she fits more into society’s view, at least at that time, of poetess as doting wife and prim and proper lady.  Anne Sexton, however, was anything but; she wrote about many things the literary establishment deemed improper and, thus, for years after her death, she was scorned.

If you can only read one poem by Sexton, read The Civil War.  The last verse still sends shivers down my spine: “But I will conquer them all / and build a whole nation of God / in me – but united, / build a new soul, / dress it with skin / and then put on my shirt / and sing an anthem, / a song of myself.”  Few poems, in my opinion, carry the power behind each word that Sexton has infused in her best work.

And now, Bukowski: the crazy, womanizing, alcoholic who somehow found the time to be incredibly prolific.  He famously wrote The Trash Can, which begins: This is great, I just wrote two / poems I didn’t like. There is a trash can on this computer. / I just moved the poems / over/ and dropped them into / the trash can” and ends with “I know what you’re / thinking: / maybe he should have / trashed this / misbegotten one / also. Ha, ha, ha, / ha.”  There’s not much more unsentimental than that.  And that, strangely enough, is what I have always admired and loved about Bukowski: his hatred of sentimentality, his desire to write the anti-poem, to write simply and directly without asking for any form of pity or sympathy.  Even though his suffering came through each line.

It is Bukowski’s refusal of sentimentality that makes his poem “For Jane: With All the Love I Had, Which Was Not Enough” my favorite poem…ever.  I hate saying that, I really do; I hate classifying works in such a definite way.  But this poem, written by Bukowksi right after the untimely passing of his wife, affects me as no other poem has.  I cannot finish it without a tear in my eye.  Perhaps because you see his gruff exterior melting away in the midst of his grief.  But, whatever the reason, I dare you to read it without getting misty eyed.

 

For Jane: With All the Love I Had, Which Was Not Enough

by Charles Bukowski

I pick up the skirt,

I pick up the sparkling beads

in black,

this thing that moved once

around flesh,

and I call God a liar,

I say anything that moved

like that

or knew

my name

could never die

in the common verity of dying,

and I pick

up her lovely

dress,

all her loveliness gone,

and I speak to all the gods,

Jewish gods, Christ-gods,

chips of blinking things,

idols, pills, bread,

fathoms, risks,

knowledgeable surrender,

rats in the gravy of 2 gone quite mad

without a chance,

hummingbird knowledge, hummingbird chance,

I lean upon this,

I lean on all of this

and I know:

her dress upon my arm:

but

they will not

give her back to me.

 

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