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Analysis of Poem "The Shoelace" by Charles Bukowski

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski and A Summary of the shoelace

the shoelace is a poem that focuses on madness and the small things in life that can drive a human insane. Bukowski specifically mentions a shoelace that snaps / with no time left as the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Trivialities are the things that unhinge us, not the major concerns such as death and murder. Well, that's a subject for hot debate but there does come a time in everyone's life when a fly lands in the honey you're about to eat, or a button drops off just as your taxi awaits.

It was first published in 1972 in the book Mocking Bird Wish Me Luck and has since become a popular choice for Bukowski fans and admirers.

  • the shoelace is free verse, has no set consistent metric beat and is a kind of narrow stream of consciousness broken into short lines.
  • it's autobiographical, as are most of Bukowski's poems, but note there is no first person I - instead there's an observant speaker relaying thoughts on the topic of the causes of mental instability.
  • essentially it's a list of those small and not so small things in life that annoy, irritate, bamboozle, get under the skin. Death we can handle, but having that lace snap in two just when we're already under pressure is sure to make us go nuts.
  • The speaker goes through a series of events, failures, oppressions, observations and minor agonies that nearly all of humanity suffers from at one time or another.
  • These build up, pile up, become mountainous molehills - life is going to bring some major tribulations our way but please, why does a snapped shoelace take on so much significance?

There are an increasing number who wish to reappraise the German/American's poetic output. For too long he has been seen as a dark, ugly monster capable only of misogyny and ranting.

Supporters will point to the plain honesty of his poems, the bleak reality, the hilarious dark reflections and down to earth crudity; they will praise the street language, the candid, open approach to life's taboo issues; they will relate to the inner struggle of the humble creative man, battling against the mundane world, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Others will dismiss Bukowski as an ego gone astray, overly concerned with booze, sex and gambling, repeating his existential woes ad nauseam in lines that are only broken bits of random prose.

Yet his poems persist, his readership 'the defeated, the demented and the damned' (Bukowski) putting aside academic criticisms to acknowledge a unique take on low-life existence and masculine angst.

'Without trying to make himself look good, much less heroic, Bukowski writes with a nothing-to-lose truthfulness which sets him apart from most other autobiographical novelists and poets.'

Stephen Kessler, San Fransisco Review of Books.

the shoelace

a woman, a

tire that’s flat, a

disease, a

desire; fears in front of you,

fears that hold so still

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you can study them

like pieces on a

chessboard . . .

it’s not the large things that

send a man to the

madhouse. death he’s ready for, or

murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood . . .

no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies

that send a man to the

madhouse . . .

not the death of his love

but a shoelace that snaps

with no time left . . .

the dread of life

is that swarm of trivialities

that can kill quicker than cancer

and which are always there –

license plates or taxes

or expired driver’s license,

or hiring or firing,

doing it or having it done to you, or


speeding tickets

rickets or crickets or mice or termites or

roaches or flies or a

broken hook on a

screen, or out of gas

or too much gas,

the sink’s stopped-up, the landlord’s drunk,

the president doesn’t care and the governor’s


light switch broken, mattress like a


$105 for a tune-up, carburetor and fuel pump at

Sears Roebuck;

and the phone bill’s up and the market’s

down and the toilet chain is


and the light has burned out –

the hall light, the front light, the back light

the inner light; it’s

darker than hell

and twice as


Then there’s always crabs and ingrown toenails

and people who insist they’re

your friends;

there’s always that and worse;

leaky faucet, Christ and Christmas;

blue salami, 9 day rains,

50 cent avocados

and purple


or making it

as a waitress at Norm’s on the split shift,

or as an emptier of


or as a carwash or a busboy

or a stealer of old lady’s purses

leaving them screaming on the sidewalks

with broken arms at the age of



2 red lights in your rear view mirror

and blood in your


toothache, and $979 for a bridge

$300 for a gold


and China and Russia and America, and

long hair and short hair and no

hair, and beards and no

faces, and plenty of zigzag, but no

pot, except maybe one to piss in and

the other one around your


with each broken shoelace

out of one hundred broken shoelaces,

one man, one woman, one

thing enters a


so be careful

when you

bend over.

Analysis of the shoelace

the shoelace is a poem that sets up an argument, a proposition, a collection of thoughts the reader comes to midstream. Here is a speaker thinking out loud in a bar, or talking to a stranger one late, rainy Sunday night when everyone's gone home and the gutters are overflowing.

Look out for the similes:

like pieces on a chessboard....

mattress like a porcupine.

Irregular lines, repetition and plain earthy language reinforce the idea that here is a speaker who is not that happy in life, whose routine is haphazard and who is more often than not wearing slippers and a dressing gown.

This is a poem about mental collapse, how one seemingly trivial thing can cause a man to snap. It is a reaction against the capitalist world, in which dental treatment can cost hundreds of dollars; against the physicality of life; against domesticity. It's an inner struggle expressed as a rant.

Bukowski isn't it a great wordsmith, he's not a craftsman, his poetry doesn't resist the intelligence, it grabs hold of the heart, insults it, smacks it, gently tries to embrace it following trauma. His poems are either loved or hated; he tends to divide people.

the shoelace focuses in on the small details in life, the trivia that we all have to live with, experience then move on to bigger and better things. But it also tags on more pressing physical issues: toothache, constipation, body lice. And while you're here let's add deceitful friends and messed up officialdom.

Fear, tragedy and dread also enter the scene, as do one or two countries the USA has historically not seen eye to eye with. One thing can lead to another and before you know it you're snapping another shoelace.

A man can get bogged down in the mire, cross the threshold of sanity, become overwhelmed by that swarm of trivialities buzzing through his head. Not to mention having to pay the mechanic's bill and so on and so forth.

In the end this incessant torrent becomes a little too much - we can't get no relief - wave after wave building up as the shoelaces break and the madhouse calls ever louder.

Finally comes the warning. Be ready when you bend over, be sure your laces are strong because if one happens to snap you never know where you might end up.

Analysis of ther shoelace - Structure and Tone/Mood

the shoelace is a free verse poem with no rhyme and no consistent metric beat to the lines. It has 4 stanzas and a total of 89 lines, mostly short and clipped. Some lines taper down to a single word.

You wouldn't expect a poet like Bukowski, who deals with urban life and raw emotion, to structure a poem formally or give it a regular meter (metre in British English). Formal lines would constrain his intense and offhand approach to the subject matter.

In this sense he owes much to William Carlos Williams, the master of the short line, things and everyday urban observation.

The tone is conversational and ironic - the speaker could be the guy next door giving his opinion on why life's smaller issues and events are the ones to drive you crazy. It pulls no punches but reflects a mind that is a little all over the place.

© 2019 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on April 04, 2019:

Bukowski divides people that's for sure! the shoelace is one of his most popular and least offensive. Appreciate your visit.

Mark Tulin from Palm Springs, California on March 30, 2019:

Great choice in poem. Love Bukowski’s poetry. So honest, real and quirky.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on March 28, 2019:

I understand your wariness Verlie Burroughs. Charles Bukowski has a reputation rightly earned for raw, desperate and often hard-hitting poetry full of angst and bitterness. He ain't pretty, he ain't an angel; his syntax fouls up, his content stinks. Yet he does have sensitivity and a neat way of phrasing what he feels. And some poems of his are clean, believe it or not! But it's the personality behind the poem that has to be somehow separated out - or not. That's for each person to judge. For me I think this might be the first ...and last...Bukowski poem analysis I attempt.

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on March 28, 2019:

Hello Andrew, I am one of those who often cringe at reading a Bukowski poem, too gritty and male centric for me, but I enjoyed your sympathetic analyses of 'the shoelace', and your giving this poet his fair dues.

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