Yes, the man was prolific, having written some 5000 poems and scads of prose. Does that count as virtue, or logorrhea? I find myself wishing he’d have spent more time editing and less generating endless lines. His famous aphorism “Don’t try” too often seems to have been tantamount to “First thought, best thought.” Spontaneity has its advantages. Wordsworth, that genius of reordered retrospection, had his “spots of time,” letting the creative unconscious body forth moral feeling, insight, and the disquietude of a spectrum of emotion. And the “lowlife” for which Bukowski, the illustrious barfly, is notable could, hypothetically, have been made available for a less merely self-involved half-canter among friends in low places. In the right hands, the lowlife feels like the high life.
Bukowski, who sometimes cites Villon but without achieving that famous reprobate’s outrageous, poetically savvy grandeur, didn’t invent representation of the down and dirty; he just downgraded it, robbing it of any possibility of touching the sublime, that complicated philosophical category that mixes wonder and terror. Or in Villon’s case, mirth and mystery. Rather, he tended to offer Eliot manqué, the whimper without the bang. A not inappreciable number of my students comes into my Poetics class leading feistily with a declaration that Bukowski has the answers, and it is up to the world (and me) to prove wrong his thesis that “real life,” existence worth rendering as poetry, happens at the dog track or among bars full of “whores,” those topoi where he figures among the most notorious habitués.
The problem is, his devotees’ appreciation comes with a fetishizing of the biographical man, his “life story” of drinking, draft evading, being rejected in love continuously, serving a short prison sentence, getting overlooked by editors, hating on little magazines as almost uniformly pretentious enclaves. Their own sense of (usually premature) grievance is bolstered by having this small, secular saint to whom they can pray, burning off their resentments and self-justifying a self-involved, spontaneous overflow of shapeless stanzas with invariantly predictable, nay, monotonous line breaks. Bukowski as a poet, in most cases, ranks well below Jim Morrison, who at least didn’t constantly recycle the same handful of stale, predictable images and could also sing with an exciting sense of rhythm. Both men’s verbal lyricism rose to approximately the level of that of an average college sophomore. It is their reckless, self-destructive personae, as much as the “lyrics” themselves, that have solidified them as bohemian poetic avatars and made their graves a destination, which also helps establish the followers’ own street cred as “real” poets.
What I find most troublesome about this looming, boozy figure is that for so many it stands in the way of the works of Keats, Dante, Adrienne Rich, Wilfred Owen, Justin Phillip Reed, César Vallejo, Elizabeth Bishop, Friedrich Schiller, Sappho—make your own list. Beyond that, the biggest shame is that Bukowski could have been so much more (in theory). Not so, you argue. Then he would have ceased to be himself.
The man was well read and in his own fashion, even worldly. In the best of his poems, there is the streak of a genuine satirist.
In “Ezra’s pretty tough,” his gimlet eye observes to good effect.
there are thousands of English lit grads
who think they will replace Ezra
or e.e. or T.S.
when the best thing that will happen
is that they will end up cashiers
in a Safeway checkout line
and they will ask you
(under company directive)
“How are you today”
and get no answer at
One could accuse him of simply being mean, but his observations are accurate. That is what we most ask of the satirist, that s/he observe absurd human situations with excruciating clarity. If the phrase “How are you today” is replaced by “Did you find everything you were looking for?” (a phrase that begs to become a Zen joke) that poem could have been written today. Its evergreen simplicity efficiently shows that not much has changed on the human scene. It would have made Alexander Pope smile.
Bukowski’s poem “My groupie” ends with a sterling finish and exemplary self-deprecation, after he details a real or imagined disturbing encounter with an audience member at one of his readings, after she attacks the stage with lust and is forcibly carried off by two other women.
maybe, I thought, I should have
taken her on the stage in front
of all those eyes.
but one can never be sure
whether it’s good poetry or
One is never going to be scintillated by Bukowski’s prosy, three-chord rock rhythms. The poetry is all about plain speaking, a lack of subtlety and an eschewal of “fancy” words that Everyman might not immediately understand, therefore turn away from the miscreant minstrel who so wants to be understood, thus valued, by every last person (except the editors and professors he hates).
Discouragingly, these flashes of sharp wit happen all too seldom among reams of largely repetitive poetry, in which the poet feels sorry for himself, and dismally tries to laugh the situation off, by reducing to blunt caricature his perceived enemies—mainly women and academics (e.g., “squares”) who either aren’t “real,” (in the latter case) or won’t sleep with him (in the former).
“Garter belt” begins with:
She was a big Jewish
woman with marvelous
and she showed them
with a disintegrating grossness:
torn hose grasped by
a garter belt:
“Fuck you, Bukowski!
You can’t write worth a shit! Sex fuck fuck
And sex! All that dirty language.”
One scratches one’s head wondering what the woman’s Jewishness has to do with anything, though reading any few of Bukowski’s poems will quickly ratify his essential hostility toward women, and in this case being Jewish apparently only makes it worse and more animalistic. This opening gambit entirely cancels any possibility of his supposed self-aware jiu-jitsu move of defending his crudeness by having his accuser be a petty moralizer. One is rather more tempted to say, “She is exactly right.”
As I traveled through the rocky, arid terrain of his poetry like a knight-errant in a hostile desert land, I became increasingly aware of the mind-numbing repetitiveness of his themes—mostly sexual frustration, getting drunk, and insulting his perceived enemies. One could easily produce a “selected poetry” of ten to twenty of his 5000 poems and have an adequate sense of Bukowski’s poetic range. His ardent wish for one to be offended, e.g. provoked, by his truth-telling outrageousness simply gives way to boredom at the sense that he is writing the same poem over and over. All poets have their preferred themes and tropes, but few are so relentlessly uniform, to the point where—again—one cannot set aside the physical man who wrote them and conclude that he most excelled at petty griping.
It was not the whores and the literature and the poesy which
it was not the fine ladies who never fucked me because I was a
bum, it was not all the bad and cheap
wine, it was
Bukowski likes to feel sorry for himself. He brandishes his loser status like an improbable shield, convinced that none of it is his fault and all his bad attitudes originated somewhere outside himself. He seemed to have learned nothing, this well-read obsessive, from coinciding with the heyday of existentialism, which at least might have magnified his casual outrage to cosmic proportions. He could have benefitted from spending some jail time in a cell with Mersault, to be taught that rejecting humanity’s folly wholesale requires perspective and the rude contemplation that eventuates from enforced solitude. But this was not to be, as he had too many tiny personal axes to grind, and couldn’t pull off the combination of searing critical closeness and disinterested distance that makes the great satirists and moralists who they are.
In short, he worked hard yet he lacked discipline. Bukowski’s utter incomprehension of anything approaching form (even the intuitive moves within so-called “free verse”) relegates him to a prosaic, second-order carper, even while one with dedication can find scattered lovely moments among the tooth-grinding dreck. The most unfortunate aspect of his legacy is that he has spawned legions, through several generations, of self-satisfied poetasters who emulate his resentful disregard of the essentials of verse, sub specie poeisis mundi. Even spoken-word poetry, which can quite often be a scintillating display of the oral tradition, has been substantially marred by its overly loose strictures, its frequent disregard of criteria of quality, or even the idea that such a thing could exist.
One longs for a more sustained, thoughtful performance from Bukowski, whose intelligence suddenly shines through at intervals, the thinking man’s writer who, as below, knew how to begin in the everyday yet theatricalize himself beyond the banal with a knowing wink. He could at one and the same moment plunge us into his dirty world and slyly lift us out of it, into back door sublime. His frequent failure of imagination had less to do with a lack of creativity than a plain old paucity of discipline in marshalling his themes and situating himself within them, not as Charles Bukowski, the famous whoring drunk, but as personae.
anyhow, the helicopter keeps circling
and it is only one o’clock in the afternoon
but the night before it had circled and circled
shining its beam into the backyard
and into the crapper.
now it is back.
“what the hell?” I say.
I walk into the backyard.
there’s nothing out there:
walnut trees, bamboo stalks, a discarded sofa and grass 3 feet high…
I come back in.
“I feel like John Dillinger,” she says.
I walk to the mirror.
I look like John Dillinger.
but no woman in red dress would
finger me. I’m
Here, at least for one line, he dares to offer the rough lyricism of the backyard. Better yet, lower case aside, he figures himself as an epic criminal whose daring exploits urge us to overlook his trespasses and look on him with jealous admiration.
That Bukowski, I could read all day long.
Johnny Payne is Director MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles. He has published two previous volumes of poetry, as well as ten novels. In addition, he writes and direct plays in Los Angeles and elsewhere. His plays have been produced professionally and on university stages.