Charles Bukowski’s Poem, ‘hello, how are you?’

Surprise, a Charles Bukowski poem spoke to me yet again at a time when I was listening for a poem to do just that. I’m an optimist and a humanist. But there’s a part of me that Charles Bukowski’s rotting corpse chain smokes and binges alcohol in. That part of me wonders at times, am I a corpse nobody recognizes as a corpse yet? Like, you know how they beautify (and I’m sure funeral homes have a more technical word for it) a corpse for showing at the funeral, if it’s an open casket? Do you ever feel like you’re in that end stage, and the only thing missing is the deceptively not-cushiony casket? That maybe, if you linger around too long, people will start to notice the smell of death emanating off of you?

If these thoughts do not occur to you, please don’t pass go and collect your sanity card; you don’t have a Bukowski demon inside your bones.

Otherwise, enjoy this poem, hello, how are you?

this fear of being what they are:

at least they are not out on the street, they
are careful to stay indoors, those
pasty mad who sit alone before their tv sets,
their lives full of canned, mutilated laughter.

their ideal neighborhood
of parked cars
of little green lawns
of little homes
the little doors that open and close
as their relatives visit
throughout the holidays
the doors closing
behind the dying who die so slowly
behind the dead who are still alive
in your quiet average neighborhood
of winding streets
of agony
of confusion
of horror
of fear
of ignorance.

a dog standing behind a fence.

a man silent at the window.

I don’t know where I got this from, but somewhere around my early teens, the idea of the “normal” life seemed repulsive to me (strong word, but I was a budding teen). The idea of doing the usual things — going to college, getting a wife, a house, kids, and the normal 9-5 job — was repulsive to me. I wanted to explore, be free, roam the country, find myself. The usual lofty ideals. There’s a built-in monotony to the “normal” life that seemed unnerving to me. Or, as Bukowski seems to be saying here, a built-in sense of inevitable decay.

That, in some sense, people in that world are living in an almost a television/magazine/movie projected bubble of what the Good Life™ is. This is what we’ve been told the Good Life™ is, well, all of our lives, and so here it is on a paper plate.

In the years since I had that thought, I think I’ve softened some on it. I still don’t think much about marriage or a obtaining a big house and I’m certainly still repulsed by the idea of a 9-5 job, but I don’t look at people who do choose that life, or at least, think it’s the best path forward given the circumstances, as mindless drones as the aforementioned image implies. That’s rather unfair, to say the least, right? To assume you’re the liberated mind and they are the mindless drones. I’m grateful to have matured out of that budding teen thinking as it relates to others.

The title of the poem is brilliant, too, though, “hello, how are you?” as I interpret that to be the generic greeting we give each other. In most cases, nobody actually wants to know how you truly are; it’s being polite and greeting someone. That’s all. It’s superficial, but manners are still worthwhile ends in themselves. But that gets to Bukowski’s image of, well, this life being an image and the real life is somewhere lurking behind it, and the parked cars and the green lawns and the little homes with the little doors.

His analogy gets more concrete with “a dog standing behind a fence/a man silent at the window.” Bukowski sees this life as a caged life, as putting a dog behind a fence or a man at the window, wondering what else is out there beyond the scope of the window.

What do you think of this poem? It conjures up a lot of talking points for me, as you can tell.

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