Smoking big cigars

David Herd

  • Goodstone by Fred Voss
    Bloodaxe, 180 pp, £7.95, November 1991, ISBN 1 85224 198 5

The first collection from the West Coast poet Fred Voss takes its title from the mythical aircraft company which is an amalgam of all the Californian machine shops that Voss has sweated in for the past 15 years. From his inconspicuous position as a machinist on the factory floor, Voss describes the conflicts and frustrations which daily beset the American blue-collar worker. He does so in a voice so unassuming it is sometimes only barely audible behind his technical diction. He is rigorous in his resistance of polemics, and the result of this forbearance is a patient and perspicuous narrative which rarely betrays the immense pressures from which it is forged. As Voss explained to me during a reading tour of this country, he doesn’t want to do anything ‘stylistically’ which might ‘get between his subject and his reader’. This, as he is well aware, is what Whitman was prescribing when he urged the poet not to be meddlesome, but to allow experience to go from the composition without a shred of the composition. Whitman’s word for this is ‘candour’.

For Gregory Corso, Karl Shapiro and Gary Snyder, poets of the San Francisco renaissance, the need was for a poetry which was open, impartial and fair. It involved a reworking of Whitman’s long, expansive, Biblical sentence which reached out and embraced the margins of American society. Like Ginsberg, and Whitman before him, these poets celebrated their own willingness to move among the ‘roughs’. However, as Edward Field’s anthology A Geography of Poets makes clear, Ginsberg’s influence within California is largely confined to San Francisco and the north. To the south, and in Los Angeles, the dominant figure is Charles Bukowski.

Bukowski has spent the last 35 years giving expression to the experience of the American down-and-out. Typically his poems take place in a bar, or a bedsit, or at a race-track, involve several shots of whisky, a ‘typer’, a woman and a losing bet. He rarely strays far from the conventions of prose, having, like Raymond Carver, always written short stories in tandem with poetry, and though in his earliest writing he displays a toughened lyrical strain, he has tended increasingly to mistrust this type of response. In its stead he has evolved a terse, relentlessly sardonic voice which forces the reader into a confrontation with skid row. All he offers by way of relief is a keen sense of comic timing:

‘How do you feel right now?’
‘Oh, I’m fine, and I insist on buying you another drink.’

Another drink? He hadn’t bought the first one.
But maybe it was only a matter of semantics.
                ‘No Wing High’

Bukowski’s influence on the Los Angeles poetry scene has become institutionalised in the area’s many small magazines which, like his publishing-house Black Sparrow Press, have been nourished by his success. Through these magazines he enjoys direct access to an attentive audience, with whom he is characteristically to be found in conversation. Witness a recent issue of Wormwood Review:

this is a thank you poem, ladies
and gentlemen, for the fine
Nicaraguan cigars.

From this position Bukowski has provided inspiration for a number of writers – Gerald Locklin, Ron Koertge and Chris Daly – who, borrowing heavily from his mannerisms, have evolved a distinctive Los Angeles style. Though sometimes a little too keen to find the irony, these writers produce a series of wry, often scurrilous insights into the quirks of West Coast culture.

What distinguishes Bukowski from these followers is his intimacy with his subject. His stylistic strategies appear unsophisticated and imitable, but they derive from a deeply-held aesthetic which only occasionally surfaces in his writing. In his latest collection, Septuagenarian Stew, he declares war on those who ‘prefer their poesy to be/secretive/soft/and/nearly/indecipherable’:

we have come from the alleys
and the bars
and the
jails
we don’t care how they
write the poem
but we insist that there are
other voices.
        ‘The Rape of the Holy Mother’

Bukowski is calling here for a poetry which articulates the sensibility of the urban poor. Having lived this life, he identifies its sensibility with what Dos Passos called the ‘wants that crawl over the skin like ants’. It follows, for Bukowski at least, that if these wants are to receive poetic expression, that poetry must observe the cadences and the idioms which constitute them. It is for this reason that so much of his writing is so unflinchingly sexual. It constitutes, in fashionable terms, a poetry of the body, and it takes candour, in the sense of ‘outspoken’, as its controlling principle.

Like Locklin, Koertge and Daly, Fred Voss has benefited greatly from the attentions of the Hull-based magazine Bête Noire. In the past year John Osborne, the magazine’s editor, has published a hundred of the poems now included in Goodstone, and it is very much thanks to this exposure that Voss has secured a mainstream British publisher. In Osborne’s estimation Voss addresses factory experience with a directness which is ‘without parallel in Anglo-American verse’. In this sense he is central to the development of the Transatlantic blue-collar literature which Bête Noire is fostering so diligently. Like Bukowski, Voss writes about a male world, although he does distance himself from Bukowski’s persistent aggression, choosing instead to present the haplessly self-parodying aspect of machismo:

the machinist who wears a hat saying ‘US Male’
and smokes big cigars
and weight-lifts steel bars and arbors
while his machine runs.

The poet is smiling when he remarks that ‘being a man in a machine shop is not easy.’ This is the sort of punchline towards which Voss is always moving; and it works, when it does, because he has an instinctive feel for the rhythms of humour. He writes to the contours of a speaking voice, developing poems at the pace of a well-weighted joke. His poetry, like Garrison Keillor’s prose, is at its most persuasive in performance.

Following Bukowski, Voss works in the vernacular, restricting his subject-matter to the machinists’ many shibboleths, and his vocabulary to the technical jargon of the machine-shop. The poem ‘Uptight’ is typical of the collection:

The slab of aluminium he must cut is now anchored
to the machine table with more than twice the torque
required to keep extremely hard heat-treated tool steel
from moving under the force of cutting.

Reading such passages, one wonders whether realism really requires such fidelity to austere local idioms, whether indeed a more richly resourced language would necessarily distort the subject. Writing about the work of Roy Fisher in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, Donald Davie takes Fisher to be ‘restricting himself as self-denyingly as Larkin to the urbanised and industrialised landscapes of modern England’ and identifies a trade-off: ‘the poem is concerned with a social reality, to the exclusion of the human. And this must mean that it denies itself the possibility of tragedy, the better to render pathos. The poet is fully aware of the bargain he is striking, and agrees to its humiliating terms.’ Though they share a methodology, both ‘living so much by the eye’, it would be wrong to compare these poets too closely. Voss is as American as Fisher is English. However, Fisher’s poetry tests the limits of realism, and ‘self-denial’, the first term in Davie’s equation, is a useful starting-point for an understanding of Voss.

Bukowski is not at his best in working situations and so tends not to write about them. What he knows are the wide open spaces and terrifying depths of life on the dole. When confined by working practices he yearns, perversely perhaps, for the spaces, so losing sight of the matter in hand. For Voss it is the confines, and the way they delineate and constrict the individuals who work within them, that are significant. Throughout the collection he is concerned to catch the precision with which the machinists fit their environment. The knack of working at ‘Goodstone’ is to perfect a form of ‘consummate acting’ which gives the appearance of labour. What results is an immaculate masquerade sustained by a set of gestures honed to fit the space between the machine and the foreman. By remaining within the idiom of his situation Voss may deny himself more fulsome forms of expression but in so doing he imitates the effacement or denial of personalities by their work-roles.

The fit is also more brutally physical. In the poem ‘Victorious’, ‘the janitor’s body’ is ‘stooped’ with the ‘tens of thousands of times/he has stooped over’; it is ‘twisted’ with the way he ‘twists out of his scooter grabbing/trashcans’. By allowing no imaginative distance between the verb and the adjective it entails, the poet asserts that at this level of human activity there is no interpretative distance between cause and effect. The reality of the working situation is painfully transparent. As with the people who drift past Fisher’s eye in ‘City’, the janitor’s condition is too familiar to be tragic.

Part of Voss’s achievement with Goodstone is to have assimilated and developed, more than any of his West Coast contemporaries, Bukowski’s sense of the vernacular. He uses it to achieve the ‘narrative anonymity’ which he announces as his objective, so moving radically away from Bukowski, whose writing can sometimes seem overburdened by his ego. Not all Voss’s poems hit their mark, but this first collection is remarkable for the confidence with which it pursues its subject. A very clear-sighted poet, Voss makes no concessions to those who like their poetry ‘secretive/soft and/nearly/indecipherable’.