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What Can We Do? Analysis

Author: poem of Charles Bukowski Type: poem Views: 5

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at their best, there is gentleness in Humanity.

some understanding and, at times, acts of


but all in all it is a mass, a glob that doesn't

have too much.

it is like a large animal deep in sleep and

almost nothing can awaken it.

when activated it's best at brutality,

selfishness, unjust judgments, murder.

what can we do with it, this Humanity?


avoid the thing as much as possible.

treat it as you would anything poisonous, vicious

and mindless.

but be careful. it has enacted laws to protect

itself from you.

it can kill you without cause.

and to escape it you must be subtle.

few escape.

it's up to you to figure a plan.

I have met nobody who has escaped.

I have met some of the great and

famous but they have not escaped

for they are only great and famous within


I have not escaped

but I have not failed in trying again and


before my death I hope to obtain my


from blank gun silencer - 1994


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||| Analysis | Critique | Overview Below |||

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There are numerous reviews, books, films, and documentaries that center around Charles Bukowski and his writing, that he becomes a Los Angeles local mythological anti-hero, the dirty old man, the barfly, the skid row genius. This one dimensional portrait of Bukowski does a great disservice to the author. In the opening of a Michael Gray Baughan's biography on Bukowski, he writes, "The myth of Bukowski as the wildman laureate of skid row (and nothing more or less) has robbed him of both his essential humanity (the right to be mutable, complex, even hypocritical) and a well-earned place in the canon of twentieth-century literature"(Baughan 2). One of the most prolific authors of the American Literature, he wrote thousands of poems with fierce cynicism and yet his poetry finds ways to show sincerity that is unparalleled. The poem titled "what can we do?" made an appearance originally in a small press magazine, blank gun silencer No. 9 in 1994.
The title of the poem sets the backdrop in which a problem is posed. The speaker raises the question, “what can we do?”, with respects to Humanity. This relationship with Humanity is the central theme of the poem. What does the speaker mean by Humanity? Is it Them, is it Him, or is it Us? This topic of dispute has great significance because it exemplifies the different viewpoints that the reader can assume to create the poem's meaning. Through the use of literary elements such as: form, simile, metaphor, personification, as well as the use of voice, the poem's tone concerning the theme of Humanity is constructed.
Like all strong art, the artist leaves space for the reader to do some of the work and bring themselves into the piece. The poem's attitude towards the theme of Humanity is open to be interpreted in subtle ways. One may read Humanity as "Them / They" and get a very critical and cynical poem. Or one may read Humanity as "Me / I" and get a very intimate and revealing poem. Or one may read Humanity as "Us / We" and get a very promising and even hopeful poem. It is in this context that the question of what can we do with Humanity gives rise to the conflict between the poem's promise of an answer and the candor scrutiny of Humanity. This ambiguity is not a fault of the poem but a strength that allows the reader to better engage in it's meaning.
Corresponding with the ambiguity in meaning, the poem is not confined by any formal closed structure, which follows a certain pattern that is usually based on meter. Rather, it is an open structure of free verse in which it can explore and develop the theme and conflict unhindered, as the poem proceeds. Without the constraints of such strict structural rules, the speaker is free to focus on the narrative aspects, allowing increasingly more control over how the poem shapes the way the reader may feel towards Humanity.
It begins with earnest admiration. The first three lines express the best that Humanity has to offer, the virtues of gentleness, understanding and courage. Followed by sharp contrast in the next six lines, it outlines the darker side of this Humanity. Highlighting though not at it's best but that it is "best at brutality, /selfishness, unjust judgments, murder"(9). On line ten the speaker asks the central question of the poem, " what can we do with it, this Humanity" (10)? Following the question is the speaker's answer," nothing"(11) From lines twelve to seventeen, it continues to caution the reader of this Humanity when it begins to unfold the real answer - you must escape. The goal is difficult and the responsibility is squarely on each and every one of us. Though the speaker has failed to fully escape he is committed that this is the only thing one can do with this Humanity, ending with it's most promising line in the poem to fulfill it's answer, "before my death I hope to obtain my life"
Bukowski’s aesthetic in words aims towards brevity to the extent of maxims. The rhythm and sound of the words themselves contribute to this aesthetic as they are read aloud. To emphasize the brevity as seen on the page, Bukowski uses a layout that is designed to isolate certain phrases and surround them with white space. The phrases: "nothing"(11), it's up to you to figure a plan"(20), and "I have met nobody who has escaped"(21) are given a special place on their own lines to emphasize the imagery of these words. As John Lye, Associate Professor & Associate Dean of Humanities at Brock University writes, "These figures of speech extend the imaginative range, the complexity and comprehensibility of the subject. They can be very brief, a word or two, a glistening fragment of insight, a chance connection sparked into a blaze of understanding"(Lye).
The speaker, also utilizes the use of simile and metaphor as a literary device throughout the poem to describe Humanity. In lines six and seven, the speaker compares Humanity to a large animal deep in sleep. Latter in lines thirteen and fourteen, he warns us to, " treat it as you would anything poisonous, vicious / and mindless." the speaker connects Humanity to a wild beast that though appearing ever dormant, we should never turn our backs on. This portrayal of Humanity as something hostile that reacts with no reason reveals the speaker's fear of Humanity.
But it is this thinking that overpowers us. As numerous people become increasingly aware of what we, as the history of humanity, have done, whether viewed as commendable or contemptible, we can become paralyzed by the sheer size of it all. How can we avoid it? How can we escape it?
The use of simile and metaphor sets the context for the use of the term of Humanity, but what gives the question posed in the poem such great strength is how the speaker personifies Humanity. This abstract term is given human traits. As we read, we are lead to believe that we somehow can interact with Humanity as we would interact with a boss, an ex or just some crazy bum in the middle of the street on the way to work. Interpersonal conflicts happen between two people, but not versus humanity as a whole. How can we do anything with regards to Humanity, it is a social construct. It is not you or me or even the idea of all of us, but this something extra that is created when one thinks of the collection all of us as if it were a whole.

| Posted on 2010-02-27 | by a guest

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