“‘Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today’: The Poem That Gave Birth to Bukowski’s Introspective Platitudes”

Now, let’s be clear about something: this is not a tastemaking call to arms to start hating Bukowski. As the literary theorist Roland Barthes once said, “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” and Walt Whitman once said “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast, I contain multitudes.” Similarly it is with people, I think: nobody is allowed to sit out any part of life, so to get through some of the unsavory, humid five in the afternoon with your shirt sticking to you type parts, we beg and borrow a little bit, all of us. Of course, the structuralist theorists would say that all writing is a borrowing. [1]
One thing is for sure though: American blackness is not a borrowing from whiteness; it’s usually the other way around, and with “Look for you Yesterday, Here You Come Today,” solidly splatted on p. 14 of SOS / Poems 1961-2013 from Amiri Baraka, you get a case in point of that. Is “Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today” true blackness? Hmm, I can think of other Baraka poems which I’d classify as black-er (the extent to which that intrinsically makes them better being at least debatable) — pieces that carry more spunk moxie… eh, I’ll say it. Anger.
“Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today” is a piece about some perky things like “grim calls from drunk debutantes,” but it also handles ennui: “Morning never aids me in my quest.” The key stanza, though, comes later on as the poem gradually gets more abstract and metaphoric, and builds its own brand of kinetic energy: “terrible poems come in the mail. Descriptions of celibate parties / torn trousers: great poets dying / with their strophes on. & me / incapable of a simple straightforward / anger.”
K. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three prominent angles to take on this. The first is like I said it undoubtedly embodying a deep-running source of what Bukowski would eventually mime. The style alone could arguably be a dead giveaway: the lower-cased words, lack of rhyming, frequent line and stanza breaks and direct discourse moving from concrete to abstract. What I look to in specific, though, is the “incapable of a simple straightforward / anger” — Bukowski would do this exact same thing, ascribing righteous, even sovereign attributes to emotions as juxtaposed with their human aspiring wearers, in saying things like “Be righteously angry when you get a flat tire,” or something like that (which could also be a Baraka-ism except that New Yorkers typically don’t drive, unless they’re leaving town with ladies’ purses). [2]
To be clear, I would never accuse Bukowski of copying just based on the style alone matching Baraka’s, but along with the coupled treatment of emotions as reigning there’s also the getting poems in the mail, which the California boy boasted of all the time (hence somewhat justifying his poetic sycophancy, I suppose, but that’s another story). [3] He even takes the same brutish, virile active voice tone in denoting the proceedings: “terrible poems come in the mail”… that’s something I can definitely see Bukowski saying, and truly at this point it became hard for me to believe that it was not actually one of his poems. I was literally shocked not to see Bukowski’s name at the top of the page.
The third thing I’d like to say about this poem is its own thematic allusion to what I’d already proffered as my point about black expression: that it not only encourages but perhaps REQUIRES anger. I’ve always liked Baraka for his bouncy style and the fact that you just never know what’s going to come next: and it’s always grounded in this conversational, street vernacular (I’m really not sure if such a thing can ever truly be quintessentially black, just thinking about that phenomenon is like getting a steel I-beam to the face)… one thing is for sure, when the anger rendered thematically slowly dissipates, the vernacular becomes whiter, and for that reason, probably, more usable on the part of the California loner-beat. [4]
Baraka is probably my favorite poet of all time, but I like Bukowski better than Wallace Stevens, so I’m really not entirely pro-black (I am a white man, by the way, for those of you reading). It’s just more human. But blackness is something intriguing to decipher here too when we see that Baraka brings in Tonto and the Lone Ranger: per that seemingly unexplainable cultural trend to introduce cartoons and general American pop culture themes toward getting their point across. It makes me think of Method Man saying “My favorite sh** is the smurfs” (just lunging toward endorsement of any race of people which isn’t white, I guess), and also Baraka’s earth-shifting beat poet delivery in The Roots’ “Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” in which Stepin Fetchit is mentioned. Stepin Fetchit was a black “comedian” famous around the time of the Great Depression, but whose entire shtick lay in the endeavor of self-effacing, essentially degrading the black race so that they could continually be the butt of white jokes, and/or justifiably their socioeconomic subjugates. Anger has no place in the “comedic routine” of a Stepin Fetchit — he’s the verbatim materialization of who the white man wants the black man to be. And yet, name me an individual angrier than Chris Rock who isn’t on death row.
Getting back to Bukowski, before I tuck this little diatribe in for good (pipe dream), I consider myself lucky that my first exposure to him was Tales of Ordinary Madness, a truly singular and captivating collection of short stories, and to this day I consider him a better fictional author than poet. With his poetry, when it’s at his best, per let’s say Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit, it’s when he as IDEAS that it works with the most shining moxie, like having a discussion between two lovers about their on-the-side sex practices devolve into a dog barking, and surely, his ability to depict scenes in L.A. outside his window. That’s good too. But that still allows for borrowing of style from Baraka. For the short stories, i don’t really see him as borrowing from anybody, though he does amusingly retain Baraka’s habit of leaving first letters in lines, or sentences, in this case, uncapitalized. But this gets back to my point: Bukowski has more real life experiences than he does ideas, and no doubt, the best Tales are the autobiographical ones, so here we see how these two literary men have their own distinct specialties.
[1] This discussion becomes even more intriguing when one observes that Invisible Man is written in an almost entirely white vernacular.
[2] For what it’s worth, Bukowski could be pretty da** racist at times, whether or not it was just the antiquity talking, saying things like how it was good if a Mexican and Negro boxed each other b/c they’d beat he** out of each other, and stuff.
[3] It’s almost as if once you’re good to a certain amount then copying becomes appropriate or even necessary, like if the Rolling Stones would have exactly mimicked “Last Dance with Mary Jane” or something.
[4] I make an interesting analogy between Bukowski and Jack Kerouac: what Kerouac needed a whole country and a boatload of time to accomplish, Bukowski does from the seat of his own den.

13 thoughts on ““‘Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today’: The Poem That Gave Birth to Bukowski’s Introspective Platitudes”

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