I was young and living poor in Uptown Chicago. I was an on and off again college student. It took me seven years, maybe eight, to get my degree in Communications. I’d attend a term then hitch hike to California with my good friend, Karl. We both had hair to the middle of our backs and a fondness for faded blue jeans and mountain men shirts. Imagine seeing us on the highway with our thumbs out.
The next adventure was with David, a scrawny lad who to this day is still the best guitar player I have ever known. I apprenticed for a couple years as a furniture maker and went on to be a customer service manager for a mail order cosmetics and pharmaceutical company. What kind of career path was that?
By the time I got back to college, I was in a hurry and completed my final two years in about half the time. My college did not have a Communications major, so I petitioned the school to allow me to co-create one with a professor, a published poet who later went on to the CEO-ship of a cardboard company. The college surprised me. It said okay, go ahead – albeit in much more officious language.
There were some courses they offered that were applicable to my major, like journalism, communications theory, and fiction writing. Another regular course was Media Interviewing or somesuch. The instructor was a drama coach. It seemed like a fitting metaphor. She would assign us to go out somewhere and interview someone. Someone older than us, someone of a different race, someone of the opposite sex.
I probably shouldn’t admit this but I never did one interview. I just wrote stories about interviews that I made up. I made up the characters, the setting, and the back and forth. I got a B for the course. The instructor wrote on my last paper, “You could have gotten an A if you had been more original.” I was disappointed. I was vying for cum laude but I did raise a sardonic smile at karma’s unavoidable comeuppance.
I also did a few topics as independent study like two courses on Poetry Writing and one on Exposition and Criticism. It was fun and while I can’t remember much of the course work, I wrote some stories that raised one or two eyebrows. I even won an award for a collection of poetry that appeared in my college’s literary review. I wrote a lot of poems during those two Poetry Writing courses and I was confident would be published one day by the Atlantic Monthly or the Paris Review.
It would be years before literary journals with names like Grain, Matrix, Edges, Syncline, and Sackbut. Eventually CBC aired a few of my short stories nationally and provincially – stories I have either lost or forgotton.
I wrote criticism for Cedar Rock. a tabloid literary review that featured new and alternative writers. I appeared in a couple editions as a poet, but I had the most fun writing a review of Charles Bukowski’s romance with the bottle and his pursuit of the gutter which fueled the undesirable brilliance he shone darkly on everything most of us cannot fathom or, if we can, refuse to recognize.
His brilliance spawned unnervbing titles of his books: Mocking Bird Wish Me Luck, Last Night of the Earth Poems, and Love is a Dog from Hell, my personal favorite. He wrote a poem in 1972 called, “I Can’t See Anything” that closes with one my favorite Bukowski lines: “most of our heroes have been wrong.”
I think it’s a warning fitting for any age. It’s appropriate at any point on our respective time-lines, though I think the warning’s profoundity increases with age. But it’s not really a statement we reflect on all that much as we move through our lives. Our heroes change. Sometimes heroes are more about fashion than substance. Adored for a few tick-tocks of time, they fade away as new ones appear.
But I am not referring exclusively to the fashionable heroes. I include Picasso, Descartes, Neruda, Joni Mitchell, and Hank Chinaski among mine, along with others not on our shared list of heroes: my father, a teacher named Lund, a friend named John Cserny with whom I co-wrote a chapbook entitled, Poems for a Lucky Dog. The only red carpets they walked on were in hallways and discount motels.
John died too soon and undiscovered like so many other heroes. I was certain his fiction would rival the work of Raymond Carver, if not Hemingway’s. But it didn’t and had he lived a long life, who knows if his short stories would have adorned the walls in airport bookstores. Had he lived, I wonder if our friendship would have grown and prospered or dissipated as time changed everything between us.
What if Bukowski was right? What if most of our heroes were wrong? Which leads to other questions. Which ones? Why were they our heroes in the first place? How did all that wool end up covering our eyes?
What if the beautiful wisdom of my father turned out to be mostly folly? What if Neruda’s eloquence was fabricated by a translator wanna-be poet? What if my teachers were wrong, especially about me? That Bukowski line can mess with your head, but that’s his point, his intention, his rankling call to action.
It’s a statement with implications beyond its literal meaning. What if what we are doing to help people is harming them? What if charity is as much as about divisiveness as it is about empathy? What if the greatest barriers to resolving intractable problems are those who make their living as problem solvers?
This is not really a review about the poetry of Charles Bukowski, but I imagine you knew that a while ago. I don’t even read him anymore but remain grateful for, and impacted by, his heresies and castigations and how he pointed at alternative truths, so that we might join him for even the briefest of moments and breathe in the scent of our collective bullshit.
What if all our heroes were wrong?
What if we were wrong about them?
What if the notion of “hero” is a recipe for failure?
What if our words actually speak volumes about our inaction?
What if the truth to be embraced is residing in a rooming house, sitting in torn boxers on a dilapidated kitchen chair with rusted chrome legs, sucking on a salvaged cigar, typing madness on an old manual American Standard, while the tenant next door is making whale sounds on a tuba he bought a pawn shop?