The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Somewhat confusingly, four different poems by Charles Bukowski in his prolific free-verse poetic oeuvre have the term “dogfight” or “dog fight” in their titles: “dogfight” in Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (1974); “Dog Fight” in Charles Bukowski’s Horses Don’t Bet on People and Neither Do I (1984); “dog fight 1990” in what matters most is how well you walk through the fire (1999); and “dogfight over L.A.” in Open All Night: New Poems (2000). Not surprisingly, as implied by this titular recurrence, the subjects of conflict, competition, antagonism, and aggression pervade these poems and Bukowski’s poetry in general.

The 1974 “dogfight” is a twenty-four-line poem dealing with an actual fight between two dogs, the blue-collar speaker’s and a white-collar professor’s, emblematic of the social conflict between the owners or owners’ social classes. The 1984, 1999, and 2000 poems all use the terms “dogfight” or “dog fight” metaphorically. The term for wartime combat between two opposing fighter airplanes, itself a metaphor, is applied in the 199-line 2000 poem to the speaker’s long-term contention with a nauseatingly popular, social, liberal, pacifistic, and romantically successful intellectual and aesthete, and in the 41-line 1984 and 1999 poems (the latter a revision of the earlier, with several small but important changes in details) to battle with other drivers in the traffic-laden streets in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

The 1984 and 1999 versions are identical in several ways, including their vivid plot and characterization, often key elements in the poems of this author, who is also a successful short-story writer and novelist. The speaker is challenged by the tailgating of another driver, and a combination of drag racing and power-playing maneuvering ensues through the freeways and streets of Compton and Inglewood, to the outskirts of Los Angeles International Airport. During the struggle, a third driver, in a Mercedes, becomes part of the fray, and the poem’s last three lines chronicle their changing position as the troupe approaches LAX, or Los Angeles International Airport:


“1” is the speaker; “2” is probably the Mercedes; and “3” is probably the original tailgater. In transit, the poem covers the subjects of American values, skillfulness, power, freedom, and the paradoxes of antagonism or aggression.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bukowski’s changes in the 1999 version of the poem generally soften and somewhat dilute the style—the diction and punctuation—of the 1984 version, making the later version less racy in several senses, the terse raciness of the style corresponding with the vehicular dogfight and its protagonists. The tailgater’s drawing “up against” (1984) the speaker’s rear bumper is more vividly aggressive than “up to” (1999) the rear bumper; the speaker’s “I can see his head in the rear view mirror” (1984) makes the repeated key feature of the main antagonist, his blue eyes, stand out more than “I can see his face in the rear view mirror” (1999). The speaker’s formal level of usage, as in “Iengage myself upon/ his rear bumper,” “he sucks upon a dead cigar,” or “he is/ upon my bumper again” (1984), suggests a humorous, ironic overtone of a knightly joust amid the modern urban environment and situation, which is lost in the revision for stylistic consistency, “Iride/ his rear bumper,” “he sucks on a dead cigar,” or “he is/ on my bumper again” (1999).

In both versions, the brevity and simplicity of sentence structure in many of the lines—for example, “I pull over. he passes, then slows. I don’t like/ this”—contributes, along with Bukowski’s refusal, like poet E. E. Cummings, to use capital letters in many conventional places, to the clipped, terse, familiar, colloquial quality appropriate to the racers’...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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