Charles Bukowski’s Poem, ‘Cut While Shaving’


To start a poem analysis with wrestling parlance: When something excites you in pro wrestling (whatever that is, something in the match, a surprise return of a pro wrestler, or a shocking storyline), that’s called “marking out.” You’re excited, and that’s manifest by cheering (or booing!) or in my case often, excited and delirious giggles. The excitement is as such that it simply bubbles out as giggles; I don’t know what to tell you.

That, my friends, is the reaction I gave to the latest dive into Charles Bukowski, and his poem, “Cut While Shaving.

Before I get rolling as usual, here is the poem:

It’s never quite right, he said, the way people look,
the way the music sounds, the way the words are
It’s never quite right, he said, all the things we are
taught, all the loves we chase, all the deaths we
die, all the lives we live,
they are never quite right,
they are hardly close to right,
these lives we live
one after the other,
piled there as history,
the waste of the species,
the crushing of the light and the way,
it’s not quite right,
it’s hardly right at all
he said.

don’t I know it? I

I walked away from the mirror.
it was morning, it was afternoon, it was

nothing changed
it was locked in place.
something flashed, something broke, something

I walked down the stairway and
into it.

First off, the image and concept right off the top connected viscerally with me: “It’s never quite right.” That connects to me on a deep level, on a superficial level, and every level in between. Life is a series, a continuation, of “never quite rights.” Much to the chagrin of the perfectionists in our midst, there is no such thing as perfection. Even the things that seem to have “gone off without a hitch,” … friends, there’s always a hitch. If something “went off without a hitch,” what we really mean to say is that it went off in spite of the myriad hitches.

We are messy, complicated, goofy, but beautiful, interesting creatures. Anything we do is bound to not be perfect, but I think I’m more optimistic about the implications of that than Bukowski is.

But goodness, the image: “these lives we live/one after the other/piled there as history/the waste of the species.” If you don’t conjure up an image of a landfill in your head, well, I did. That pungent smell isn’t the landfill, but the nihilism bubbling off the page, searing with every word.

That’s what got me “marking out.” The first line grabbed me because I connected to it so much, but as I kept reading the poem, it built and built — to the point where I had forgotten the poem is called “cut while shaving,” which can be taken both figuratively and literal with the themes of this poem — until you’re hit with, “I walked down the stairway and into it.”

In spite of the hitches, he walked down the stairway and “into it.” And I love the image of “into it.” A lesser writer might’ve said “back to it” or some variation therein, but into it implies perhaps more optimism than I first thought. That, again, in spite of the hitches, he persisted. Or perhaps it still is pessimistic, that he’s resigned to the fact of the hitches (“nothing changed/it was locked in place”), and welp, what else is he going to do but walk into it?

What do you think of this poem? Did it smack you upside the head (in a good way!) like it did me?

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