how to survive the coming night: the poetry of john yamrus

The kind of poetry John Yamrus writes is what most people would tell each other over drinks at three o’clock in the morning if they were conscious enough or literate enough to talk like that. This is not a poetry of metaphor and simile. This is not a poetry of rich literary allusion. Or, lets put it this way, this is a poetry of bare bones literary allusion, the stuff needed to get you through the day or night. Heroes like Steinbeck and Bukowski and though I don’t recall a mention of Gerald Locklin, I think Locklin must mean a lot to John Yamrus. The one thing Yamrus’ poetry is definitely not is academic. This is not MFA / writing school poetry. Instead, it’s the stuff that’s ground out of the blood and the bone of everyday existence.

Though the spirit of Charles Bukowski inhabits these poems, John Yamrus’ poetry has a voice and style that is entirely his own. It struggles with Bukowski. It struggles to define itself in the very real light of the myth of Charles Bukowski. But it wins the right to exist because it acknowledges a debt to the man, a large debt owed by a whole generation of poets.

For as long as I can remember I have been reading poems by John Yamrus. Back in the typewriter font and mimeograph day I used to see Yamrus’ poetry all over the map. And, i was never disappointed. And, still am not. What Yamrus learned early and well is how to write a poem that needs to end somewhere and sometime soon. He never over writes, he never under writes. He has always known just where the poem comes to a dead stop, like the end of a breath or a head on collision. Isaac Babel once said that a sentence should end with a period that is more like a black wound in the heart. This is what Yamrus has learned.

Bukowski’s property
this poem
isn’t mine these
thoughts aren’t
mine these
sentences aren’t
mine these
mine these
lines aren’t
i do
or think
or write
is mine.
it’s all filtered down
through you
Mr. Bukowski…
and i wish
come here
take it back.

from One Step At A Time, p. 71.

While there are several poems in both collections which mention old Hank, “Bukowski’s property” works for me as a kind of key to what Yamrus is doing, at least in these two books. Most obviously, Yamrus admits in this poem that Bukowski has been a major influence on him. Essentially, what he says is that Bukowski has made such an important impact on poetry that he basically owns the language and that Yamrus, in this poem and very likely in most of his work, is pretty much borrowing Bukowski’s language just to write the poetry that Yamrus is driven to write. He is doing what so many contemporary poets neglect doing. Yamrus is fessing up to the influence and fessing up big time. In a sense, this is very much like stealing the language from the gods or at least one still very powerful god, even though he is dead. Looked at this way, it is an act of bravery.

However, because “Bukowski’s property” is a key John Yamrus poem, lets take this analysis just a little further. The lines in this poem are not the classic lines that you would find in a Charles Bukowski poem. Most of the best of Bukowski’s work is usually more long lined, though later in life he did write some short liners. Yamrus’ lines in this poem are never more than four words long. Which means this isn’t typical Bukowski. In fact, it comes closer to the kind of poem that Lyn Lifshin might write. The lines are short and more often than not broken in places that you wouldn’t expect. And, there is the kind of poem that I write. The major difference is that I never use stationary titles. My titles mostly leap into the poem and race down from there the way the rest of this poem scans down the page quickly and reads like a close to the bone conversation with a very severe poetic self.

One influence that John Yamrus has not mentioned is Gerald Locklin. As I stated before, I have read through both books carefully and can’t find a mention of his name anywhere except in a blurb on the back cover of One Step At A Time. The fact is, I find as much Gerald Locklin in these poems as I do Charles Bukowski. Equal parts to be exact. But, I do not mean these remarks as a diminishment of John Yamrus’ poetry. In fact, what I am suggesting is that Yamrus, maybe from early on, had somehow found a way to synthesize the styles of Charles Bukowski and Gerald Locklin. This is no mean feat when you stop to think about it. Bukowski met life headon and with no reservations. He was the rowdy, the tough guy, the down and outer slouched over a drink at a bar. Locklin, on the other hand, continues to write a kind of dialed down poem, full of failed attempts and attempted failures, a man who loves jazz and books, a poet who prefers meditation to action, a poet who lives the nondramatic life and who writes from a stance of self effacement.

And, it is this mix of meeting life headon along with a certain amount of self effacement that you will find in “Bukowski’s property” and also in many of the poems in these two books. What I am getting at here is that by synthesizing the styles of Charles Bukowski and Gerald Locklin, John Yamrus has somehow gone beyond both poets and has arrived at a voice and a style that is uniquely and ingeniously his. The irony is that by writing this way John Yamrus has somehow gained title to “Bukowski’s property” and to something I would like to call the John Yamrus poem. Not many contemporary poets can lay claim to that distinction.

John Yamrus

has been a fixture in American poetry for four decades. Since 1970 he has published 2 novels, 15 volumes of poetry and more than 900 poems in magazines around the world. Selections of his poetry have been translated into several languages including Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Japanese and (most recently) Romanian. His newest book, SHOOT THE MOON, is available online from and more on John Yamrus can be read here…

Todd Moore’s

work has appeared in over a thousand magazines and literary journals. His style has been called pared down and noir. He’s one of the founders of Outlaw Poetry and his work is featured in THE OUTLAW BIBLE OF AMERICAN POETRY. His long poem DILLINGER has been critically hailed as”hypnotic when read, cinematic in scope.” He has just finished a novel called DREAMING OF BILLY THE KID and his new collection of poetry is entitled LOVE & DEATH & TEETH IN THE BLOOD.

Note: A selection of Todd Moore books are available for purchase in our shop here…

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