It's a matter of words and margins. Somewhere in between, there is a thin grey space of page. It smacks of an expert task: to use a mere handful of inches and words to make something far greater.
In our current moment, content is the new fever in marketing. It's a great hook for web-going shoppers, as either an educational tool or a navigational one. Yet, every writer wears a different skin, or so it goes. Novelists are writers are scribes are lyricists are journalists are copywriters are hacks and so on. Yet, poets do it better than anyone else, especially the dead ones. They make ordinary words sing and dance through a narrowed focus on their craft.
Charles Bukowski is one such folklore hero. He is a creature of urban life, known for his poetic explosions and his hoarse voice, both as he speaks and as he writes. He became, in his late life, a browbeat American heartthrob of lowlife poetry, writing a kind of vulgar, pseudo-rhythmic racket. He's a rough edge that his addictions, the over-romancing of whisky for example, couldn't soften. As a result, his worldview can read bittersweet. But his poetry still sings on highs, expertly aware of its goals to feel out the life experiences of its author (and those who live through him).
Yet, it's Bukowski's style that won over acclaim. His visions of 20th century America, as told through his poems, speak to a certain kind of stink. His work feels troubled, as much as amused, by his addictions to alcohol, unkind romances and a seedy American underbelly. This partiality to whisky, when alcoholism becomes a muse to art, nowadays reads like a dated trope about America's old-world stardom. This curious habit, drinking alone on a hardened stomach, was something that seemed to exclusively excite art for a while. Bukowski, through his imperfections, writes refreshingly with elements of honesty, truth and imagination.
What if he broke away from tradition and wrote a line (and then a few more) about drinking? It might read, predictably, as copy that feels more unglamorous than Heineken's slicker material; or not as traveled, or scenic, as European beer titans San Miguel and Peroni. Rather than the casual, if soft, oceanic settings, framed like wallpaper, the only thing blue in Bukowski's world would be that of an existential grief, an inner-blueness, like if sadness had a temperature, a color or a shape.
If Bukowski wrote for these brands, he'd offer up something cool and relaxed. Better yet, he'd be free from the kinds of repeating imagery that have been bothering the likes of ads—editorial, televised, etc.—for some time now. It would be a protest to our easy thinking about brand copy.
I imagine the lines, short and sharp and feeling out a kind of bitterness and satire:
I hold up a lens just to see,
it's through the bottom of my glass,
And I don't care.
Another scrappy American poet, Jack Kerouac circa late-1960s, bloomed as a star. His style was freeform, if a tad mutinous. Even lifted through his novels, his poetry was a delivery system for expression freed from its traditions. He was a celebrity for the "Beat" generation—which always felt as an unwelcome typecast.
He became, in a blurring of hours and days, the new avatar for American fiction. He wrote in an autobiographical hand with shades of psychedelia, à la Franz Kafka. Similar to Bukowski, or Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac was a layered scandal. He was a stylist and a comic one day; the next he would be writing against the hired tone of popular fiction in America.
Yet, it was Allen Ginsberg who would quickly become the poster child for poetry back then. His rapid-fire, singing expression, which at times reads near-rhythmically like jazz, grabbed attention and celebrity all the same. They were companions, or creative soulmates. These writers often traveled to excite, influence and motivate their work. They acted like roadside correspondents on this American feeling of loneliness, youth and insecurity.
The role of poetry, here, feels almost like a wink. Poems weren't curated into neat, handsomely bounded collections. Rather, poetry appears as impulsive, and lyrical, as live music sounds in the moment, the likes of jazz or blues. The material, written in "scrolls," or lengthy, unbound reams of copy, became so visceral as if it carried a pulse, a dull throb, an actual beat. They learned, with their craft, not to live in isolation, but to borrow, expertly, from a universe of influence.
And what if these poets wrote copy, too? It would be far from the fantasies of tourism. Travel, nowadays, is a postcard. The latest glossy entry on Condé Nast's Traveller profiles the exotic character of the foreign world—of arced trees, hot sand and drowsy beaches. The ever-pleasant Emirates, likewise, uses muscular planes over the tropics to encourage that self-same itch to travel to new places.
Kerouac or Ginsberg would write scattered, unclean copy that fights with page space and resists the easy reading of a script. It would, again, feel almost like a protest. It would scream and sing and hum and purr all the same.
The lines, as I imagine how they might read, sound fast and electric:
Travel is no common odyssey,
Like a wild dream, like a hot beam of jazz,
Where standing still is a bore.
These late poets wrote with a creative fury that felt like a kind of resistance, at once aware of the rules and always interrogating them. They represent the kind of freedom that's occasionally needed to challenge how we write: Here's a cool fantasy of creative escape. Ultimately, as an obsessive, I learned this: Crawling around in the other skins of writing can open up the page, especially when it's staring back you.