Analysis of Poem "The Shoelace" by 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.
a woman, a
tire that’s flat, a
desire; fears in front of you,
fears that hold so still
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
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
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
there’s always that and worse;
leaky faucet, Christ and Christmas;
blue salami, 9 day rains,
50 cent avocados
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
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