What’s with Bukowski?

When I was at an impressionable age (I think I maybe still am) my first poetic influences were the Beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Orlovsky, and the total outsider Kenneth Patchen. Later, I turned on to the Black Mountain School – Olson, Creeley et al. Later still, my American influences tended towards a non-school of poets; diverse writers, including Gary Snyder, Larry Eigner, Edward Dorn, Denise Levertov, Philip Whalen, William Everson. I didn’t encounter the poetry of Charles Bukowski until much later – maybe just 15 years ago or something like that.

I’ve read three of his collections – Burning in water, drowning in flame (1974), Love is a dog from hell (1977), and The last night of the Earth poems (1992). These are thick books, not slim volumes – he was very prolific. He wrote many other volumes of poetry, novels and short stories, and from about the mid-1990’s he has acquired what’s now labelled as cult status. His life style was chaotic, especially after leaving the US Post Office to become a full-time writer. Booze, sex, and betting on horses were major preoccupations, through which the poetry emerged. He’s an interesting writer, but not one whose example or style I’m tempted to follow. I can recall well-turned lines by Creeley, Barbara Guest, Levertov, but none by Bukowski. And yet he has his adherents, sometimes passionate ones. Maybe it’s a failing in me, but I just don’t get it. Somebody tell me what I’m missing.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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18 Responses to What’s with Bukowski?

  1. McGuire says:

    I love his writing, but I know why people find him problematic, quite simply, he writes in a very simple direct fashion.I think he attains a very striking and honest tone in his writing, even though that is only another artifice. He seems to be telling the truth, that’s all, in a very frank and no nonsense way. He is a self-mythologising loner. A stuant individualist but also a seriously wounded old man. He cuts through a lot of the poetic pretention. He is similar to Walt Whitman in many ways, a poet of the street, of the lost, the lonely, the insane. A prose writer more than a poet but he wields the two in his own fashion. I could go on, I mean his poetry is riddled with great lines and even terrible lines. I love his weaknesses too i.e. the sort of daft paradox that because he wasn’t a great writer and knew it, he actually was a great writer, by virtue of the fact, he wasn’t trying to be. He was just logging down his quitodian life which for many became a searing prayer of honest at how ‘dangerous’ humanity was and how ‘cruel and evil’ even the most common man was, even if he wasn’t aware of it. “The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidates who reminded them most of themselves. I had no interests. I had no interest in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape. At least the others had some taste for life. They seemed to understand something that I didn’t understand. Maybe I was lacking. It was possible. I often felt inferior. I just wanted to get away from them. But there was no place to go.”—Ham on Rye, 1982He is easily dismissed a preposterous. For one, I sometimes call him a ‘Commodity Poet’ much like the Beats, in that they have now been hijacked by consumerism, and provide the youth with a way to view life i.e. Drug Culture, Antidisestablishmentism, Alcoholism, Fuck You culture. Commodified rebel poets when in reality some great poets are professional, they write exceptionally well, but live lives that are humdrum and unassuming.

  2. Rachel Fox says:

    It’s true he has a lot of passionate followers. Some people seem to quote him all the time!I have avoided him completely – not on purpose, no reason, just never bumped into him. Obviously we drank in different establishments.x

  3. Colin Will says:

    McGuire: You’re absolutely right to mention Whitman – there are definitely similarities between the two. Many thanks for your very interesting comments. The other person he reminds me of, in a way, is the artist Jackson Pollock.Rachel: I think he’s very much a ‘guy’ poet. There’s a lot of testosterone going on in his poetry.

  4. deemikay says:

    I think it’s that testosterone that puts me off. It’s also maybe a bit too much like getting stuck next to a drunk on the bus. He also seems a bit of a lifestyle poet to me… he’s read by some for what he represents rather than what he actually writes. (See Byron for another example…)So I’m with you Colin… don’t really get it.

  5. McGuire says:

    His mythology my out live his work, but I first read Bukowski before I had any idea what he ‘represented’ and I was immediately overwhelmed by the brutal honesty of his voice. And the sharpness of his seeming through away lines and phrases that came fast and furious.What he actually writes is of a very personal and private world of working class America, what he repreents for many, is this volatile alcoholic who didn’t give a shit. Both are true. He was a volatile egotist, but he was also a highly sensitive man, who catalogued the ‘cruel human condition’ with an unflinching honesty. With a style as universally approachable and as useful as the corkscrew.

  6. deemikay says:

    Well… I can’t remember the last time I used a corkscrew – and the times I have in my life is probably less than 30. Not something I have much need for. 🙂(And that’s true… not flippant.)

  7. Scotch and Salad says:

    some people like asparagus some people don’t.having worked lousy jobs for most of my life i find it easy to identify with a lot of what he writes about.i’m also drawn to his simple unpretentious style of writing.i can certainly see how someone a little more idealistic might think differently. or someone who simply prefers metaphor over cut-and-dry narrative.there’s nothing wrong with you. you just like what you like.

  8. Colin Will says:

    Interesting debate. As far as plain speaking goes, I love Raymond Carver’s deceptively simple style; very few adjectives, never mind metaphors. And yet he had emotional depth.

  9. apprentice says:

    Carver and Levertov are my heros.I’ve read a wee bit of Bukowski, but it didn’t leave me wanting more the way reading Carver for the first time did.Perhaps that’s because Carver transcended his demons to find peace at then end of his life.

  10. McGuire says:

    I don’t want to become the defender of Bukowski, but what makes you think Bukowski didn’t ‘overcome his demons’? Much to his benefit, he began to meditate, he enjoyed the glory of seeing his only daughter marry and have a child, he too was a happily married man, and when he finally was diagnosed with leukemia. Bukowskis iconoclastic image almost makes the critics forget he was actually a real man. I suppose many of his readers transcend the words and dig deeper to find the man behind the caricature. Oddly, in a very real sense, we know only people in the manner of a caraciture, i.e. the majority of people we never know beyond superificality. Despire the fact, each person, generally speaking, have all their deminsions in tact.Oddly, Bukowski, like most people, never forces you to see beyond the ‘firs impression’ dimension, because quite simply – you don’t have too. Most remain strangers. He attained some peace in the end, some atonement, from what I understand, but his life was a tragic thing indeed.

  11. Scotch and Salad says:

    Mr. Will, if you’re implying that Bukowski lacks emotional depth I’m gonna have to whole-heartedly disagree with you (“Bluebird” would be a classic example. Also, the infinite amount of poems he wrote for his daughter and on death ((in his later years))). I also think it’s unfair to make that statement based on reading three volumes of a prolific poet.

  12. Colin Will says:

    S&S: Not my intention to imply anything. Read what I wrote more carefully please.

  13. Rob says:

    I think Bukowski is an engaging storyteller. He was also a brilliant self-publicist who gave the impression of beating against the establishment while raking it in. I enjoy reading a few poems by him now and again. He can be entertaining and hunorous, at his best.However, his poems have little range. He wrote a huge amount and seemed to have no quality-control intenal censor. Too many of the poems tread the same ground over and over. He didn’t believe in revising and it shows, in a bad way, too often. Most of his work could be written out in prose and lose little of its impact – his linebreaks seem entirely arbitrary to me.This thread is just classic – < HREF="http://www.everypoet.org/pffa/showthread.php?t=3843" REL="nofollow">http://www.everypoet.org/pffa/showthread.php?t=3843<>

  14. Ray Heinrich says:

    Great comments. I happen to love his stuff,but I can certainly understand why people wouldn’t.Cut and pasted this from some web comments after his death (rec.arts.poems???):“Have always loved Bukowski. Such a wonderfully simple, crusty, lyrical, egomaniac. Truly self-made.A haphazard, drunken, liar of truth.”Ray—————————————————————–Every once in a while you can account for taste, but most of the time I can’t. —————————————————————–(if this posted twice, sorry)

  15. Dragan Veselinovic says:

    Without ‘dressing-up’ the words, Bukowski universally speaks the language of the common man. It’s not surprising he reached far across the globe, more than any western poet/writer with his style. He tells us the things about life, we already know about. Except – he tells them, little bit better, then we could.

  16. Curbstomp My Enthusiasm says:

    There’s nothing to “get” about Bukowski. you either relate to it or you don’t. no big deal. people tend to over analyze poetry.

  17. deemikay says:

    Well, I’d say “relating to” and “getting” are pretty much the same thing in this context…

  18. buddhism101 says:

    i think bukowski is a genius

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