The 5 Best Charles Bukowski Poetry Books
"Poetry is what happens when nothing else can."— Charles Bukowski
Charles Bukowski was a prolific writer who produced a lot of poetry books in his time (there are over 60 currently in publication at the last count). In fact there are so many that it can be difficult for readers to sift through them and find the best.
Unfortunately, due to the massive appeal of his work and the commercial success that goes with that, some of the material that has been published since his death hasn't been his most accomplished work, much of it being work that Bukowski himself considered to be unworthy of publication during his lifetime.
My 5 selections for the best Charles Bukowski poetry books highlighted below give a positive spread of his work, from the raw poems of his early career, when he was struggling with turbulent romances and money, to his later period, when he’d established himself as a professional writer and his life was less chaotic.
Described by Time magazine as a "laureate of American lowlife", Bukowski was a damaged and dislocated person, in many ways.
An outsider from a young age and legendary drunk in adulthood, his favorite writing topics included his relationships with women, heavy drinking, horse racing, and the drudgery of work.
Despite the gritty subject matter, however, Bukowski’s best poetry is threaded through with a wry and insightful humor that never fails to amuse and inspire.
"If you are going to try, go all the way or don't even start. If you follow it you will be alive with the gods. It is the only good fight there is."— Charles Bukowski
#1 The Last Night on Earth Poems
He was near the end of his life and in a reflective mood when he wrote this book. Many of the poems show him looking back to the bar life and dead end jobs of his youth with an old man’s perspective. His tone is beautifully understated and punctuated with humor.
I bought my copy during a visit to New York and knew it was something special within five minutes of opening the book and beginning to read.
The collection includes some of his best poems, works such as “Dinosauria, We”, “Darkling”, and “The Soldier, The Wife And The Bum”.
#2 Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame
This book is a wonderful collection of Charles Bukowski’s early work, covering the period between 1955 and 1973. Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame was the first book of his poems that I owned and made me realize that modern free verse doesn’t have to be dry, pretentious, and obscure.
This book contains his Catullus-influenced poem, "to the whore who took my poems" which includes with the lines: "next time take my left arm or a fifty/ but not my poems:/ I'm not Shakespeare/ but sometime simply/ there won't be any more, abstract or otherwise;/ there'll always be money and whores and drunkards..." If you want to read his early work, this is the best Bukowski poetry book.
An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.— Charles Bukowski
#3 Dangling in Tournefortia
Written not long after he’d “made it” with musings about his new found comfortable life in San Pedro, as well as material concerning his earlier, more troubled times in East Hollywood, Los Angeles.
Some wonderfully witty writing in here with poems about mortgages and tax accountants, as well as the standard fare of race tracks, classical music, and bad sex.
One of the best Bukowski poetry books from his mid-period.
We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.— Charles Bukowski
#4 Love is a Dog From Hell
Top drawer book, containing poems from the mid to late 1970s.
Charles Bukowski had given up his job at the Post Office by this point and begun to experience the first benefits of his growing fame.
The Love is a Dog From Hell collection includes the poignant poem about his ex-lover, "one for old snaggletooth", which includes the lines: "she has hurt fewer people/than anyone I know,/and if you look at it like that,/well,/she has created a better world/she has won."
If you're losing your soul and you know it, then you've still got a soul left to lose.— Charles Bukowski
#5 Septuagenarian Stew
Despite his chaotic lifestyle and heavy drinking, Bukowski possessed a tremendous creative energy throughout his life and this book is a testament to that.
As its title suggests, this book was written at the age of seventy, but none of his verve has gone. In fact he produced some of his best poetry in his later years.
Three years after this book was published, shortly after completing his experimental novel, “Pulp”, Bukowski died from leukemia. Written on his gravestone were inscribed the words: “Don’t Try”, a phrase from one of his poems.
That's the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.— Charles Bukowski, Women
Charles Bukowski Poetry Books to Avoid!
I personally found What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire a very disappointing read. The quality was noticeably lower than Bukowski's typically high standard. I wasn't surprised to find out that the book is mainly made up of poems that were not published during the writer's lifetime - I can certainly see why many of them were rejected at the time.
Generally speaking, I would advise anyone to be wary of poetry published only after Bukowski's death. Yes, he was a prolific writer, but not everything that he produced was golden, and he himself was very careful when alive not to publish everything.
There are women who can make you feel more with their bodies and their souls, but these are the exact women who will turn the knife into you right in front of the crowd. Of course, I expect this, but the knife still cuts.— Charles Bukowski
Boring damned people. All over the earth. Propagating more boring damned people. What a horror show. The earth swarmed with them.— Charles Bukowski
The Bukowski Novels
As well as producing poetry, Bukowski also wrote six novels, all of which are definitely worth reading, in my opinion.
He actually began his writing career as an author of short stories, but after a personal crisis involving the death of his romantic partner, Jane Cooney Baker, and a subsequent health scare due to excessive drinking, he switched to poetry.
It was Bukowski's publisher, John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, who persuaded him to write novels, partly for commercial reasons - novels tend to sell better than poetry.
Bukowski drew on his experiences of work, childhood, low-life living, relationships with women, the movie industry, and drinking to produce six great reads.
You can read my mini-reviews of the novels at my blog site: Bukowski Drank Me Dry.
© 2011 Paul Goodman