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.

Charles Bukowski

Despite having been used to sell Levi’s jeans in recent years, regardless of whether it is in any way related to denim, Charles Bukowski’s poem, The Laughing Heart is still a powerful example of the life-affirming effect of acknowledging mortality. In it, Bukowski urges the reader to embrace life fully, and with it embrace death and its inevitability. Poems such as this, which are popular among people who are not necessarily well acquainted with poetry and its conventions, particularly when a lot of its readership was exposed to it via a television advertisement, are occasionally dismissed as being too “pop-culture” and not intellectually heavyweight. However, in this instance, Bukowski uses The Laughing Heart to discuss pertinent and indeed universal issues relating to mortality in a way that is on the whole extremely positive, optimistic and uplifting.The poem is minimalist in form, written in blank verse, which embodies the spirit of freedom that is expressed in its message, which suggests that there is a certain degree of liberty implied when you realise the importance of life. Moreover, the majority of the lines are short in length, and often end in punctuation – most often a full stop. Bukowski uses these devices to create short, snappy sentiments that create the impression of a train-of-thought. The times when he does choose to use enjambment, however, are lines that offer hypotheses of particular poignancy. These are the first lines “your life is your life/don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission,” lines 6 and 7, it may not be much light/but it beats the darkness,” lines 12 and 13, “you can’t beat death but/you can beat death in life sometimes” and the final 3 lines, “you are marvellous/the gods wait to delight/in you.” In many ways, the ethos of the entire poem could be summarised in those nine lines, which encapsulate the carpe diem philosophy, the necessity of living life to its fullest in spite of the inevitability of death, and the uplifting ending.

Furthermore, Bukowski uses entirely lower case letters in The Laughing Heart, which could be seen as a protest against the rigidity of the possibly needless laws of language, and indeed the needless protocols of life, (reverence and anxieties) which Bukowski, in this poem, seems to advocate casting aside in favour of a freer life. This format, of solely lower case poems is most reminiscent of E.E. Cummings who, writing in the 1950s used this style to symbolise an egalitarian view of language, wherein no letter is invested with more importance than another. Bukowski, due to his role within the American “everyman” literary movement, similarly embodied this democratic and unrestricted access to poetry.

The very first line of the poem addresses the reader directly with a second-person possessive pronoun, as he announces, “your life is your life.” This ostensibly obvious sentiment immediately causes the reader to question exactly what meaning is being conveyed. This conjures questions in the mind of the reader regarding to what extent we are even in possession of something as person to us as our own life. He follows this with a cautionary imperative: “don’t let it clubbed into dank submission.” After affirming grasping-hold-of-ones-life message of the first line, the use of violent imagery of battery and the word “dank” creates a feeling of protectiveness. We are encouraged to take hold of our life, then threatened by a possible attack on it.

An image of optimism is created by Bukowski’s use of light and dark. He introduces the notion of this in line five, “there is a light somewhere.” He compounds this immediately afterwards, “it may not be much light but/it beats the darkness.” This suggestion that the darkness overwhelms the light in terms of quantity, but in strength the light is more powerful is reminiscent of the Alan Sachs quote, “Death is more universal than Life; everyone dies but not everyone lives.” The omnipresence of death, and the ubiquity of darkness, increases the need for individuals to live life fully, and to grasp onto even the smallest ray of light.

This point is reiterated in the twelfth and thirteenth lines, “you can’t beat death but/you can beat death in life sometimes.” Bukowski again reminds us of the certainty of death, but suggests that the only way to escape this morbid prediction is to live life as well as you can. The (often grating) phrase du jour, “YOLO: You Only Live Once”, could well be flipped to “You Only Die Once – you live everyday” in agreement with this poem. Whilst death is inevitable, it is a finite instance, whereas life is an on-going process, a mentality that makes the question of mortality seem almost trivial.

The Laughing Heart also hypothesises that the more often you learn to beat life in death, “the more light there will be.” This message of positivity underlies the entirety of this poem; it is at its heart extremely optimistic. The poem’s ending, which comes full circle by addressing the reader directly just as in the beginning, announces “you are marvellous/the gods wait to delight/in you.” This is the only instance of religion or spirituality in its most recognisable form, as the rest of the text refrains from discussing theology or faith, despite discussing a topic that is so often inseparable from it. However, using the plural form of “gods” and continuity to use exclusively the egalitarian lower-case, although the writer lived in America which was a mostly Christian nation at the time, makes it inclusive to people of monotheist and polytheist faiths.

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