I have to admit that I don’t know a great deal about Charles Bukowski beyond the idea that his work and life is centred around the notion of the literary outsider, concerned with the more ordinary and sometimes unappetizing aspects of life, that booze comes into it somewhere, and there’s a sense that one could criticize a lot of his poetry as being prose set out in very short and seeming randomly cut lines. That’s how ignorant I am, and I hold up my hands. I’ve not read much of it, so I don’t have much more than rumour to go on. I do know, I suppose, that one of the main tenets of the Bukowski faith is to write about pretty much what happened, in more or less daily language, and not to pull too many, if any, fancy poetry tricks. I suppose one would also expect a certain vitality of language, a disdain for the pleasing patterns of what, for want of better words, one might have to call “conventional poetry”, and something of a Beat, or a near-relation to, a Beat sensibility. I’m making all this up, on the hoof as it were, but I’m pretty sure I’m not far away from the right ball park.
And I think the influence of Bukowski is evident in K.M. Dersley’s “Between The Alleyways At The World’s Fair”. I’ve got, I think, all of Dersley’s books from way back since the early days of mimeographed little booklets and on into bigger, glossier affairs. He’s always been one hell of an individual, paying scant heed to poetry fashions, and cutting his own path through the British small press poetry world. In some ways, I could understand if someone were to say that Dersley is an acquired taste: at times his blend of classical elegance, mythic reference, and ordinary language from an Ipswich council estate could be difficult until you’ve got used to where it takes you, and how it’s one way in which the poet does one of the things I think poets should do, which is to make a world. This style has always also leant a certain dreamy quality to Dersley’s poetry, a strange, down to earth unearthly lyricism, laced with humour and wit and ingenuity, that is uniquely “the Derz”.
But this dreamy quality, and the lyrical quality, are largely missing from this latest collection, and I know Dersley is a fan of Bukowski, which is why I started off by mentioning him, because I think the influence looms large here, and I’ve never sensed it as strongly before. It’s present in the manner of the poems, and in their form.These are mainly poems that tell local tales of the poet and his acquaintances, slimly fictionalised as far as names go, I suspect, but otherwise as it happened. Here’s “The Prospect of Glynis” –
ran into chain-smoking Glynis,
attractive with a
definite talent for not working.
a chap she’d met
at Blue Horizons Psychologically
Disturbed Club wanted
to go out with her but she
didn’t fancy him.
he’d bought an oven
and wanted to help decorate her flat.
wanted to go out with her.
big like Frankenstein’s ward
but I told her
if he’s bought an oven
you might get a fridge yet; if he’s
hooked he’ll go to any lengths.
(but the man ought to have known
that he was onto a loser:
Glynis happened to have been married
and in the original box
she kept the wedding dress
which every so often she’d go up
for not much more
than an hour or three.)
Which I think is very readable, and it has moments that make me smile, and I wonder a bit about the line-breaks and lack of capitalization and what-not because I’m sad like that, then I turn over the page and read the next poem, which is about personal ads in the local paper. I think most if not all the book happens in Ipswich, and it’s cast of characters are all Ipswich characters, if you discount the few digs at visiting poets who, for example, “had these feeble lines done out phonetically, and they’d gone down well in London circles.”
The book is, I think, of a piece with the prose journal Dersley is currently running on his Ragged Edge website – “The Diary of a Romantic Imbecile”. Of a piece, but different. And it’s interesting to compare the prose style and the poetry style: their similarities and their marked differences, even as they treat somewhat of the same subjects. The poems have to work quicker, of course: prose can just amble along as it pleases, but a poem is this “thing”, and people come to it with expectations, and perhaps treat it in a special way. Who knows? Which kind of throws open for debate (albeit not here, not today ….) what happens when you adopt a knowingly prosaic style for your poems, and you sure as hell know (as Dersley does) how poems work and can be formed, and you choose to do this, to say sometimes very ordinary daily things as “a poem” – it’s not at all radical, but it will still perhaps upset some purists, and you are, still, “writing a poem” and exercising a poet’s control over the mechanics of the whole poet/reader encounter. It’s literary and non-literary at the same time, which is, as I said, not particularly radical, but Dersley is a very individual lyric stylist, and always avoids anything like the banal or sentimental, even when the subject matter almost begs for it, and as such he deserves attention. It’s refreshing simply to read someone who doesn’t sound much like anyone else.
But, and there is a but, I miss the dreamy mythic dimension of earlier Dersley in these poems. Whether or not its absence marks a significant and permanent shift in his method, or if it’s just something that pertains to this book, I have no idea. This is my reservation, and it’s a wholly unfair and selfish one. I know that. I enjoyed the book, and recommend it -- but.