A smile to remember

A smile to remember

Everyone who has held a goldfish as a pet when they were small knows that this represents happiness. In the poem by Charles Bukowski, this goldfish plays an important role. This is an intense poem about the abuse of both a mother and a child.


Henry needs to be happy, according to the goldfish. However, as far as we know this, goldfish can’t speak. It’s us humans who come up with the words they are supposed to say. Or maybe the words we want them to say. Even children, no matter what their names are, know goldfish can’t speak. Bukowski uses this goldfish as an imaginary friend and a metaphor.

In this poem, written from the point of view of a child who partly understands what is going on, we get the chance to meet this child named Henry. Henry and his mother are victims of domestical violence (abuse). The goldfish tells Henry that he wants him to be happy, even when his father beats him.

When the abuse let to Henry being hurt, the fish is “poor.” When Henry realised that the abuse has gone too far, the fish is dead. In other words: the happiness that a child like Henry should be able to enjoy isn’t there and at some point, there seems to be no hope to recover from all of this. After the death of this fish, he was given a new one. By his mother, because she still believes that her son should be able to be happy, no matter what.

Henry is, in fact, no other than a boy named Heinrich, who moved to the United States. His father was an alcoholic and this had a great impact on his life. Therefore the poem is based on his own experiences. It’s also meant to warn others what abuse can lead to.

Although the abuse in the poem is present, there is also something else that needs to be addressed. What caused this abuse? Not only the fact that his father drank a lot. It was also caused by the many times his father was unemployed. Henry grew up in poverty. Finally, there seems to be something of compassion that “speaks” from this poem. That is the even greater demon that his father was battling: his depression.

The most striking of this poem are these words:

‘Henry, smile!

why don’t you ever smile?’

His mother wanted him to smile, no matter what. You might suggest that she turned a blind eye to the abuse of her son. That is a somewhat difficult conclusion. Then again, this isn’t just any other poem. It’s an intense poem that needs to be shared to see what abuse can lead to. It shows the greatness of this poet, Charles Bukowski.

A smile to remember


A smile to remember


we had goldfish and they circled around and around

in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes

covering the picture window and

my mother, always smiling, wanting us all

to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’

and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you


but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while

raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t

understand what was attacking him from within.


my mother, poor fish,

wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a

week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!

why don’t you ever smile?’


and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the

saddest smile I ever saw


one day the goldfish died, all five of them,

they floated on the water, on their sides, their

eyes still open,

and when my father got home he threw them to the cat

there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother



Charles Bukowski

A smile to remember
Article Name
A smile to remember
What abuse can do
Publisher Name
The Ministry of Poetic Affairs

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