The Laughing Heart

Tiny - Posted on 04 September 2011

One of the annoyances about going to the movies is the advertisements one is forced to endure while waiting for the feature to begin.  It is not enough that our old theaters—majestic and elegant—have been demolished and converted into health clubs or latte stands—but the movie-going experience has become an assault on our senses, a corporate design intent on appealing to our every impulse—be it killing via the US Army or videogame—or by foods that hasten the onset of obesity, diabetes and/or high blood pressure before the age of 30.


I recently saw a movie called “Horrible bosses” at the Metreon Theater in San Francisco.  The storyline follows 3 men whose lives are being made miserable by their respective bosses.  Prior to the movie were various commercials—selling automobiles, the virtues of the US Army and a new sitcom that looks as bad--if not worse--than the one’s that are currently seen by millions.  I sit through this imposition, hoping it passes quickly.  I then see an ad—this time for Levis.  The ad shows youths moving about in various situations—protests, walking about, pulling up a pant leg, and floating on what looks like some sort of raft—images flashing by as a narrator speaks.  As I listened to the words, I realized it was a poem written by Charles Bukowski called: The Laughing Heart.  I sat as the images of the young—fist pumping, raging against the powers that be—flashed across the screen, flirting with the impending image of the Levi’s corporate logo.  I don’t own a pair of Levis.  The commercial ended and “Horrible Bosses” began.


“Horrible Bosses” is a comedy but for Charles Bukowski it was cinema verite minus the screen.  Bukowski has been called the poet laureate of skid row.  His poems focus on loneliness, despair, isolation, drinking, women, the race track (which he saw as a metaphor for living and writing saying, "You can't win if you don't gamble) and the hopes of working class people.  He had a disdain for precious or delicate poets saying:


I hate precious poets

I hate precious audiences too


Henry Charles Bukowski Jr. was born in 1920 in Andernach, Germany to an American father and German mother.  The elder Bukowski moved the family to LA after the war.  The younger Bukowski learned early in life what being an outsider was—being made fun of because of his slight German accent—and the fact that his parents were poorer than others in the neighborhood—a fact that the elder Bukowski tried desperately to hide.  The younger Bukowski was afflicted with a horrible skin condition called acne vulgaris—covering him with boils—resulting in ridicule from schoolmates. 


In his memoir “Ham on Rye”, he recalls going to the hospital for his condition.  He recalled being looked over by the doctors, hearing their insensitive remarks as he stood before them—as if he were part of a circus freak show.  He recalled their comments—said aloud—to which he thought, “Don’t these dumbfucks realize I can hear them?”  It was then that the medical profession became #1 on his shitlist.  His father believed in the American/capitalist dream.  He rode his son at what he perceived was his lack of “Get up and go”.  He derided his son’s dream of becoming a writer, insisting that he become an engineer.  He once found a drawer full of manuscripts and became so disgusted that he threw the stories—and the typewriter—out the window. 


The father beat his son for various infractions—including but not limited to—mowing the lawn.  He insisted that his son cut every blade of grass…that not a single hair of grass be left sticking up…not a single hair!  He was routinely beaten with a razor strop.  The beatings caused him to become withdrawn and sarcastic.  Through a school friend he was introduced to alcohol, which emboldened him to stand up to his father— recalled in his poem, “The Rat”.


With one punch at the age of 16 ½

I knocked out my father

A cruel shiny bastard with bad breath

And I didn’t go home for some time; only now and then

To try to get a dollar from     

Dear mama



From school he went from job to job—where he encountered bosses—“Strange paper-faced men” who pissed all over his hours.  He observed his coworkers, many of his parent’s generation.  He was unimpressed with their lack of life, lack of fire.  He saw the 8 hour work day as slavery—a soul draining machine meant to beat the individual into submission, with no escape. It was a system he could never accept.  He was fired frequently, spending his time in the bars—resulting in hospitalization for internal bleeding that nearly killed him.  He rode the barstools, trains, greyhound buses, park benches.  He was arrested for not going into the army during WWII.  Through these experiences he learned humanity and found his literary voice. 


His voice was that of the outsider—the worker not paid enough to live on, the woman who couldn’t afford to send her sick child to the hospital, the person dying alone in a lonely room, the man working the factories with broken lives, broken feelings, broken spirits.  He saw the whole of society as a set of institutions intent on breaking the spirit.  From the poem "Genius of the Crowd"


There is enough treachery hatred violence absurdity in the average

Human being to supply any given army on any given day              

And the best at murder are those who preach against it

And the best at hate are those preach love

And the best at war finally are those who preach peace


I was introduced to Bukowski’s poetry by my uncle, the poet Al Robles.  It was during a time when I was trying to find my own voice as a poet.  Bukowski helped me find that voice through the honesty and humor of his writing.  It helped me get through work and the senseless games and dehumanization that is so prevalent in the day to day grind of the workplace. 


The first book by Bukowski that I owned was “Septuagenarian Stew”—a gift from my uncle.  I recall the humor of the poem “Yeah”—about that great work hero, Farmer John.


Just heard a commercial

Which told me

Farmer John smokes his own


Now, there’s one tough

Son of a



Through Bukowski I realized that my life was not my job, that earning a living had very little to do with living.


Which bring me back to the commercial before the movie “Horrible Bosses”   In it a voice recites Bukowski’s poem, “The Laughing Heart”. 


your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.


The narrator wasn’t Bukowski (who died in 1994).  The voice was fairly capable, mustering a passion reminiscent of Peter Coyote (I would have preferred Charlie Sheen—sorry Martin).  The voiceover accompanied images of young people with the requisite age appropriate energy and angst—an angst that seemed more to do with their pants than anything else.


“You are marvelous…the gods wait to delight in you”.  That is, of course, provided you wear the right pair of pants with the correct corporate logo.  I sat through this bad commercial, a commercial that takes the man’s words—his poem, his life—out of context, as most commercials do.  Bukowski didn’t like TV or movies, didn’t like the canned laughter, the canned lives portrayed.  The realness of bukowski doesn’t lie in a pair of jeans—it is in his poetry.  The young folks portrayed in the commercial appear self-satisifed.   “You are marvelous” Bukowski says, but he also said that many of the young he observed were “terribly young” and “mirrors without reflection”.  Bukowski saw this self-satisfaction and comfort as death—death of the soul, of feeling, of spirit—of life.


I don’t know if Bukowski’s widow or publisher sold the rights to the poem.  But he deserves to be honored in a much better manner than as part of a commercial selling blue jeans.

(Editor's note: Poor Magazine published another Bukowski-related piece about ROTC.  See:

The preview commercials were much better than the movie.

To say that Bukowski was born in 1920 and moved to the US "after the war" implies WWII, which further implies an at least cooperative attiude toward the Nazi regime. Acually, the Bukowskis moved to LA in 1923, in the aftermath of WWI.


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