Charles Bukowski, Betting on the Muse: Poems & Stories (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1998), 402pp
"the word / raw on the page, / the similarities of / our hells."
-- 'The Luck of the Word'
Betting on the Muse is the first collection of Charles Bukowski's poetry I have read, but I was immediately relieved that it was the same, familiar voice I'd heard in Post Office and Ham on Rye. Although I should point out that it is not just poetry but also peppered with short stories, and even some of the earlier poems read more like short stories. Both the poems and the short stories are well worth a read, and there are many outstanding pieces. That said, like any collection or anthology, there are some duds that would have been better left on the editing floor. But Bukowski always writes well, even in the duds, and so you never feel frustrated if you come across a dud because it's over before you know it.
In picking up some Bukowski poetry I have, in effect, started at the end, as this is a posthumous collection of his final writings. There is a somewhat paradoxical sense of uplifting melancholy about many of the pieces, particularly towards the end of the book. Here, Bukowski becomes less cynical, focusing less on the hardships and bullshit of life and more on the poetic, eternal rest promised by encroaching death. As he says in 'Betting on Now', "I've reached the pause before the full stop." These final pages contain such bittersweet pieces as the magisterial 'Let it Enfold You', 'The 13th Month' and the peerless 'The Laughing Heart' (the presence of this latter poem being the only reason I chose Betting on the Muse as my first Bukowski poetry book). Maybe it was the editor's decision to reorganise the poems into such a sequence, but I like to think Bukowski wished for such a suitable thematic coda to his work. After 'The Laughing Heart', we are treated to a final confrontational, defiant-to-the-last 'A Challenge to the Dark' before concluding with a touching piece of ubi sunt, 'So Now?', which ends with "Oh, I was once young, Oh, I was once unbelievably young!" It is a writer's fine sign-off to a body of work that I have only just begun to explore.
Personal favourites include: 'Me Against the World', 'The World War One Movies', 'This Dirty, Valiant Game', 'The Luck of the Word', 'The Suicide', 'Let it Enfold You', 'The 13th Month', 'So Now?' and 'The Laughing Heart'. (There is a great video of Tom Waits reciting 'The Laughing Heart' here).