Charles Bukowski’s “The Mockingbird”

“the mockingbird” is one of Charles Bukowski’s finest poems. For years, the leading poetry anthologies refused to recognize Bukowski and his poetry, despite the fact that he was one of the most influential poets in American letters during the Cold War period. This likely was rooted in a revulsion towards Bukowski’s subject mater. The “Poet Laureate of Skid Row” wrote about bums, bowel-movements, booze, boozy-blowzy broads and the joys of getting busted up in a barroom dust-up. Betting on horse-races and consorting with prostitutes with hearts of lead were other favorite subjects of his poetry, short-stories and novels.

His poetry and prose were as raw as any doggerel found scrawled on a shithouse wall. His sentiments were about par with those on those found on the outhouse walls, and this wasn’t Leopold Bloom’s outhouse, either. Unlike many major American writers, Charles Bukowski had to work for a living, and unlike his fellow poet Wallace Stevens, who also worked in the real world, Bukowski’s work-a-day world was not genteel. Stevens was the vice president of an insurance company; Bukowski worked a series of dead end jobs, when he could get them, before serving a virtual jail sentence as a Post Office Employee throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

There was not American Dream for Charles Bukwoski. There was only nightmare.

Though Charles Bukowski published regularly from 1955 until his death in 1994, and was likely the best-selling poet in the world after the brief heyday of poetaster Rod McKuen in the late 1960s, he ramined so far out of the mainstream of the Anglo-American world of letters that he was ignored by the Literary Establishment. I don’t think Charles Bukowski would have wanted it any other way.

Yet, a poem was anthologized in The Norton Anthology of English Poetry that paid to homage to Bukowski and “the mockingbird” by borrowing one of the lines in the poem. Eventually, Bukowski was included in Postmodern American Poetry – A Norton Anthology in 1994, the year of his death.

The fact that Bukowski — a major and highly influential poet considered one of the great American writers in Europe with sales any other poet would envy — was ignored by the critical establishment but had a famous fragment of his poem “the mockingbird” included in the Norton Anthology in an inferior poem by an inferior poet is part of the mockery of the fates endured by the individual that the poem “the mockingbird” limns.

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the mockingbird
by Charles Murkowski

the mockingbird had been following the cat
all summer
mocking mocking mocking
teasing and cocksure;
the cat crawled under rockers on porches
tail flashing
and said something angry to the mockingbird
which I didn’t understand.

yesterday the cat walked calmly up the driveway
with the mockingbird alive in its mouth,
wings fanned, beautiful wings fanned and flopping,
feathers parted like a woman’s legs,
and the bird was no longer mocking,
it was asking, it was praying
but the cat
striding down through centuries
would not listen.

I saw it crawl under a yellow car
with the bird
to bargain it to another place.

summer was over.

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Charles Bukowski was a two-fisted Jacob shunned by the angels and reduced to duking it out with legions of minor demons in the alleyways behind bars, a monumental loser, cast out from the life’s feast that was the American dream who would have given Life and maybe even God Herself a kick in the pants if She hadn’t already laid him flat out on his ass on a dirty, beer bottle bestrewn floor in a filthy, low-rent room somewhere a gob of spit’s throw from Skid Row.

Many a fancied club fighter thinks of himself a man’s man, that is, a ballsy man of action who’s just catnip to women, the kind of He-man self-christened with a beer bottle bruiser who wakes up in the early afternoon to piss razor blades and shits hot-gravel. Macho is a word the Hispanics originally gave to describe a quality of animals, not people.

These are Charles Bukowski’s people. His characters. He half-believed in the shit himself. What he really believed in was that he wanted no part of the American dream.

Mockingbird Wish Me Luck

“A lot of people look at Bukowski superficially. They cannot understand why so many women flock to him. He has the magical appeal of a very solid person underneath lots of bluster, a father figure. Everybody’s father.”

— Frances Smith

To Kill a Mockingbird won Harper Lee a Pulitzer Prize and was voted by the nation’s librarians as the best novel of the 20th Century, beating out Ulysses, Light in August and Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough. As for Charles Bukowski’s novels, collections of poetry and short stories, one would be hard-pressed to find a copy in any library outside of the author’s native California.

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, the good-as-gold father Atticus Finch (his last name evoking his persona, a hybrid of chthonic and Apollonian) tells his son, after having gotten a BB gun from his uncle for Christmas, that he would like him to confine himself to shooting tin cans. Atticus, the All-Wise Patriarch, knows his son eventually will shoot animals.

“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em. But remember: it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Jem’s sister Scout, the narrator of the 20th Century’s greatest novel, is confused by her father’s ukase about sin. The motherless waif asks the family’s African American servant Miss Maudie what her father meant.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” Miss Maudie tells her. “They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mocking bird.”

That is the chthonic mythology of Depression Era Alabama in Harper Lee’s novel. In Charles Bukowski’s depressed Los Angeles of the early 1970s, a mockingbird is a bird of a different feather. Rather than singing music for people to enjoy, it uses its gifts to mock a cat, an adversary of many generations. The mockingbird symbolizes women and the cat their long-time adversary, and two beasts are locked in the battle of the sexes, one of Bukowski’s favorite subjects.

But in Bukowski’s world, there is no compromise. There is little grace. Unlike Atticus Finch, Henry Charles Bukowski, Sr., the poet’s father, was a brutal, unfeelingly martinet who regularly beat his son with a razor strop until he was big enough and physically strong enough to object to further abuse. There was no rhyme or reason to his father’s abuse: It simply was. It was part of the natural order of life, as the young Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. lived it.

In Charles Bukowski’s poetry, there is recognition of the life process in which innocence is painfully lost but a compensating wisdom is gained, but the wisdom is not ticket to a passage to a higher state of consciousness. Nothing is earned from the battle, or learned from the defeat. There is only recognition that life is defeat: There is loss, yes, that is eternal, but the victory is ephemeral. The lessons of victory will last no longer than its taste in the cat’s tongue, his salivary glands, his whiskers. Soon to be lost.

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In the Garden of Eden in which Charles Bukowski resided through no real choice of his own (a place where free will is neglible and consists mainly of deciding not to commit suicide to seek an early exit, summer is over. Time only exists After the Fall. Sin is rampant, even regnant, and beyond conscience. Nature is a charnel house in which sin and death are inevitable.

Mock on

One has to remember the poem of the Old Druid to understand Charles Bukowsk, for Bukowski was mocked, and mocked mercilessly, by his Life, by his Father, by his Women, by Establishment Critics, but never by his Muse:

Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau
by William Blake

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on, ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. The teasing, cocksure beauty of today will soon be bargained to another place. It was a realization Charles Bukowski understood from a young age and may have been the emotional root of his exile from a society he could not tolerate.

Sources:

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird, (New York: Harper & Row, 1961)

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