Bluebird – Charles Bukowski Illumination

Samantha Harrison
Professor Alex Mueller
ENGL 606
6 February 2017

Workshop #1: Reflection on Illumination of Poem

I selected Charles Bukowski’s “the bluebird” poem because I have always loved the imagery it invokes in the reader. Bukowski is one of my favorite poets, mostly because of his simplicity and his tendency to write about both the despair and small pleasures of ordinary life. “The bluebird” in particular is one of my favorite poems because I find it to be very visual and heartfelt. The first line (that is repeated throughout) reads “there’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out”, immediately this provides an image of a small, wistful bluebird trying to escape the confines of red beating heart. The colors are striking as is the notion that a bird could exist inside the writer’s chest. One of the other reasons I chose this poem was because it does speak to the idea of a writer: someone who necessarily does not want to share his inner most thoughts with others but can’t drown the tendency to be emotional either. The third stanza says, “stay down, do you want to mess me up? you want to screw up the works? you want to blow my book sales in Europe?” As a writer, Bukowski seems afraid of his sense of sentimentality, as if his writing rests on an idea of controlling his emotions. I imagine from our recent studies in the medieval art of writing that this sense of control was of most important to those few who could write. They held a certain power over those who could not read, and even over those who read their writing. As was discussed in class, their writing itself was even controlled, often being formulaic in nature. Bukowski’s poem is it’s own kind of tug-of-war with the different versions of writing: formulaic or personal.
If I had any sort of drawing skills I would have liked to draw a bluebird trying to escape an anatomically correct drawing of a heart, as that is what I envision when I read the poem. However, my drawing skills are nonexistent so instead I chose to draw two bluebirds on each side of the pages. The bluebird on the left page is more in the forefront of the page so your eye is drawn to it. I think I chose to do this for some subconscious attempt to draw the reader into looking at that page first as that is where the poem begins. To this effect, I think that’s why illustrators of older texts often illuminated the first letter of the first word to appear on the page, to signal that that is where the text begins and to draw the eye there. Another drawing I added was a birdcage on the right page, in the upper corner so it appears to be hanging down, attached from somewhere above the page. I hoped this would make the page seem like it was endless, instead of how borders were typically seen on illuminated texts. The borders, to me, seem like they trap the text in which is very appropriate for formulaic texts, law books as they were, but for this poem it seemed like the page should reflect an openness as poetry is open for interpretation. Other images I added were a whiskey bottle being poured on the bird and a quill writing out one of the lines of the poem. Both of these images were meant to add a feeling of the writer’s influence over the page since he says to be the one who pours the whiskey and the one who is physically writing the poem.
This literal interpretation of the words is what I struggled with for the illumination process. I was stuck on portraying a literal interpretation of the poem in my drawings which seemed to make sense to me as I was sketching but looking at the illuminated poem now I’m not sure if the images add anything to the meaning of the poem that is not already in the words. With that being said, I don’t think adding a border of non-distinct shapes or patterns would add any meaning to the poem either but perhaps that is not the point of illumination, maybe it was not to add meaning but to just serve as decoration to texts that were for wealthy patrons or would be widely circulated. Meaning could have been far from the minds of the illustrators which brings to mind the “Intentional Fallacy” argument referenced by McKenzie in BHR: do we, as readers, interpret meaning from illustrations in books when the illustrator may not have had any particular meaning in mind? The activity has challenged my ideas that the illustrations in books directly add to the meaning of the prose since when I became the illustrator, I was not sure how my images elevated any more meaning than what the words already provided. However, I did see the advantage in having images decorate the pages as it might make it more entertaining for the reader to peruse. After this activity I am thinking of illumination as both interpretation and decorating and the exhausting notion that we may never be sure of the difference.

(861 word count)


Bluebird by Charles Bukowski


2 thoughts on “Bluebird – Charles Bukowski Illumination

  1. I think that your illumination suits this poem very well! I especially like how you incorporated drawings into the lines themselves, like the hearts and smoke and teardrops. By having the images integrated into the text, it serves as a visual reminder of the way that text and image are interconnected, especially in an exercise where the task was to illuminate a poem. I think the blue bird feather quill pen writing one of the lines from the poem also helps to demonstrate how the poem and the images are all tied together. The images also capture the tone of the poem very well and suit the imagery very nicely, especially the blue bird with the whiskey. I also like the point you made in your write up about the pouring whiskey and the quill pen reflecting the writer’s influence. That was a really good idea, and I think your illustrations accomplish exactly what you wanted them to. Great job on your illumination!

  2. I agree with Hannah that your “heart” illumination of particular words is a creative touch and one that reflects a medieval tendency to “historiate” initials. While I also agree that illustrations do not necessarily add to the interpretation of the text, I think yours certainly calls attention to the imagery of the poem, which may lead readers to a closer investigation of their significance.

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