Happy Birthday, Charles Bukowski! (America’s filthiest, lowlife poet)

In high school I hid his books from my mom and the nuns. In college, it was the nuns and my English Lit professors.

Though we may all be hanged or hangable, Bukowski was born with more than his fair share of original sin. He picked fights, threw stuff out of windows, kept company with go-go girls, ran his liver into the ground by drinking, and wrote for Hustler. His work is vulgar, blunt, painful, and full of carnal imagery. His titles alone can have you reaching for the exit, titles like: “To the Whore Who Took My Poems”, “I Wanted to Overthrow the Government but All I Brought Down was Somebody’s Wife”, or “You and Your Beer and How Great You Are.”

And yet, his publishers claim he is the most imitated poet on the planet.

Out of the thousands of poems Bukowski had published, typical subjects include the workplace, women, urban life, hardship, flowers, drinking, writing and art, failure, horses and gambling, cars and driving, classical music, and death. His thoughts are obsessive and repetitive. His poems are often narrations, full of conversation, and his endings when not ambiguous, contain a line or two of brilliant, cosmic insight that comes across as accidental.

Armed with a grim childhood, alcoholism, a sex drive only a goat would admire, and a lack of academic grace, Bukowski set himself apart stylistically. His style is free form strewn with garbled syntax, an absence of capitalization, inconsistent punctuation, and an abundant use of anaphora. It leans toward short lines and single words spilling down the page one after the other as in:

when you wait for the dawn to crawl through the screen like a burglar to take your life away

the snake had crawled the hole,
and she said,
tell me about
yourself.

and
I said,
I was beaten down
long ago
in some alley
in another
world.

and she said,
we’re all
like pigs
slapped down some lane,
our
grassbrains
singing
toward the
blade.

by
god,
you’re an
odd one,
I said.

we
sat there
smoking
cigarettes
at
5
in the morning.

And it is exactly his content and his style my professors insisted was a mockery of everything an English degree stands for. It’s true, nobody’s going to flip through his volumes and accuse Bukowski’s poems of screaming, “I am poetry!” My professors dismissed his work for being adolescent, asinine, misogynistic, and banal.

Yet his poetry remains endearing and essential to our understanding of the human condition and how hard it is to live.

Some call him the Poet Laureate of Skid Row. He lived where his poems took place—in the armpit of Los Angeles—surrounded by drunks, prostitutes, criminals, the jobless, the homely and the witless. Hecklers and the insane. Based on his poetry (which some critics call nothing more than short anecdotes), any one of these types could easily describe Bukowski himself. He was his own subject matter. A type of Everyman, but it is his empathy for the common laborer–because he was one–that remains engaging:

blue collar solitude

picking up two six-packs
after work
to hell with dinner
going to the apartment
and stripping down
to your shorts
throwing your clothes
on the floor
climbing onto the bed
no shower
no bath
sitting up against
the pillow
and cracking open
the first tall beer can
lighting a cigarette
nothing to do
nobody to talk to
looking at the wallpaper
yesterday’s dishes
stacked in the sink
look out the window
the room getting darker
open the second can
of beer
no wife
no tv
no children

sitting in your
underwear
drinking beer
alone

everything’s gone
the foreman
the time clock
the grocery store clerks
the newspaper
the coffee shops

the phone rings
you listen
and listen and
listen

until it stops

another beer

hearing the breath
whistle up your
nostrils

wiggling the right
toe

watching
it.

I think of Bukowski as the poet without pretense, privilege or sheen. And like him, I didn’t grow up among manicured people either. I come from farmers. Like Bukowski’s working-class people, my people lack a grand education. My father never went to school past the sixth grade and my parents have no lofty aspirations for me. The fact that my brothers and I can read and write is good enough for them, though I admit my parents made me take organ lessons as a kid in case I wanted to make a name for myself in the ecclesiastical world. Unlike Bukowski, however, I had St. Francis of Assisi for a father and Florence Nightingale for a mother. I was loved and cherished every single day of my childhood. Bukowski was beaten weekly. Also unlike Bukowski, my family believes that spilling your guts is as attractive as it sounds and shouldn’t be done.

Bukowski may not have had a college degree, but he was a well-read man. Between jobs, he spent time at the library reading and was influenced by more than one professor-approved writer: Whitman, Hemingway, Neruda, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, George Orwell, and Bukowski’s favorite, Robinson Jeffers, referring to him as strong, and dark, modern and mad. His god. Bukowski too acknowledges an appreciation for John Fante, whose novel, Ask the Dust, he also discovered in the library, giving Bukowski the idea to portray in his writing, the solitary, isolated man as a subjective narrator.

The result of these influences is an openness of line, the celebrating of the direct experience and the intimate use of “I”—at once a wonder and a curse. In a weird, Emily Dickinson kind of way, he is always looking out the window into the world, watching and recording. Retreating.

Bukowski’s writing remains an embracing of what we cannot control or waited too long to avoid. He’s not only for the working-class laborer, but for anyone who’s had their life derailed. His voice speaks of the American dreamers who don’t get it right, and worse. The ones who get it wrong over and over and over.

His weaker poems display limited perceptions of men and women, otherwise known as stereotypes, where you can witness shallow thoughts and behavior, the sneering, the judging, and the dismissals that follow. But the best of his tender poems value companionship and empathize with imperfection.

His world revolves around women but they are a species he’ll never understand. When he writes about them, his narrator is wounded and befuddled.

I made a mistake

I reached up into the top of the closet
and took out a pair of blue panties
and showed them to her and
asked “are these yours?”

and she looked and said,
“no, those belong to a dog.”

she left after that and I haven’t seen
her since. she’s not at her place.
I keep going there, leaving notes stuck
into the door. I go back and the notes
are still there. I take the Maltese cross
cut it down from my car mirror, tie it
to her doorknob with a shoelace, leave
a book of poems.
when I go back the next night everything
is still there.

I keep searching the streets for that
blood-wine battleship she drives
with a weak battery, and the doors
hanging from broken hinges.

I drive around the streets
an inch away from weeping,
ashamed of my sentimentality and
possible love.

a confused old man driving in the rain
wondering where the good luck
went.

The old man would have been 92 today if he were alive. “I made a mistake” is a reminder that age does not always bring wisdom. And that, for me, is part of the draw. He’s sooo human.

His poems have him floundering in love’s quicksand. He writes about love’s magic, love’s betrayal, love’s loneliness, love’s hurt, love’s sting, and love’s dizziness caused by an overload of emotion and desire. Love, to Bukowski, is often an inescapable plague. With no cure. And oh yes. Love is also a dog from Hell.

And yet, feeling pain means we’re alive. Pain from loss may be the worst and loss in old age becomes unbearable because, we realize, we will not have time enough to recover from it:

For Jane: With All the Love I Had, Which Was Not Enough:

I pick up the skirt,
I pick up the sparkling beads
in black,
this thing that moved once
around flesh,
and I call God a liar,
I say anything that moved
like that
or knew
my name
could never die
in the common verity of dying,
and I pick
up her lovely
dress,
all her loveliness gone,
and I speak to all the gods,
Jewish gods, Christ-gods,
chips of blinking things,
idols, pills, bread,
fathoms, risks,
knowledgeable surrender,
rats in the gravy of two gone quite mad
without a chance,
hummingbird knowledge, hummingbird chance,
I lean upon this,
I lean on all of this
and I know
her dress upon my arm
but
they will not
give her back to me.

And in “an almost made up poem” he offers us an epistolary love and why there is sad safety in the distance of letter writing:

I see you drinking at a fountain with tiny
blue hands, no, your hands are not tiny
they are small, and the fountain is in France
where you wrote me that last letter and
I answered and never heard from you again.
you used to write insane poems about
ANGELS AND GOD, all in upper case, and you
knew famous artists and most of them
were your lovers, and I wrote back, it’ all right,
go ahead, enter their lives, I’m not jealous
because we’ never met. we got close once in
New Orleans, one half block, but never met, never
touched. so you went with the famous and wrote
about the famous, and, of course, what you found out
is that the famous are worried about
their fame –– not the beautiful young girl in bed
with them, who gives them that, and then awakens
in the morning to write upper case poems about
ANGELS AND GOD. we know God is dead, they’ told
us, but listening to you I wasn’t sure. maybe
it was the upper case. you were one of the
best female poets and I told the publishers,
editors, “ her, print her, she’ mad but she’
magic. there’ no lie in her fire.” I loved you
like a man loves a woman he never touches, only
writes to, keeps little photographs of. I would have
loved you more if I had sat in a small room rolling a
cigarette and listened to you piss in the bathroom,
but that didn’t happen. your letters got sadder.
your lovers betrayed you. kid, I wrote back, all
lovers betray. it didn’t help. you said
you had a crying bench and it was by a bridge and
the bridge was over a river and you sat on the crying
bench every night and wept for the lovers who had
hurt and forgotten you. I wrote back but never
heard again. a friend wrote me of your suicide
3 or 4 months after it happened. if I had met you
I would probably have been unfair to you or you
to me. it was best like this.

By living among could-have-beens and has-beens, he associates himself with the mad, the poor, the agonized and the powerless, sharing their suppression and their suffering. In his autobiographical poems, he’s working marginal jobs when he’s not getting fired from them. I don’t think that he was against work per se, but rather, like many of us who have had a crappy shift job and get tired of taking orders, he just believes that he’s meant for something better.

the blade

there was no parking near the post office where
I worked at night
so I found this splendid spot
(nobody seemed to care to park there)
on a dirt road behind a
slaughterhouse
and as I sat in my car
just before work
smoking a last cigarette
I was treated to the same
scene
as each evening tailed off into
night—
the pigs were herded out of the
yard pens
and onto runways
by a man making pig sounds and
flapping a large canvas
and the pigs ran wildly
up the runway
toward the waiting
blade,
and many evenings
after watching that
after finishing my
smoke
I just started the car
backed out of there and
drove away from my
job.

my absenteeism reached such astonishing
proportions
that I had to finally
park
at some expense
behind a Chinese bar
where all I could see were tiny shuttered
windows
with neon signs advertising some
oriental
libation.

it seemed less real, and that was
what was
needed.

The men in Bukowski’s life are alienated and fractured. Incomplete. Always clawing for solid ground and failing to live up to the expectations of somebody. Of themselves. They are men bogged down with irrevocable discord.  He sums up this notion with

and soon it will be too late for me
and I will have lived a life
with drugstores, cats, sheets, saliva,
newspapers, women, doors and other assortments
but nowhere
a living man

Bukowski’s individual narrator—a voice pondering the disappointment of a man failing—dissolves into us all as human beings of fear and desperation, where being alive means confronting our fallibilities. It means wondering how flaws affect our work as artists. Will our shortcomings lift art up or contribute to its deterioration? In this poem, we see in others our own humbling humanness:

to weep

sweating in the kitchen
trying to hit one out of here
56 years old
fear bounding up my arms
toenails much too long
growth on side of leg

the difference in the factories was
we all felt pain
together

the other night I went to see the
great soprano
she was still beautiful
still sensual
still in personal mourning
but she missed note after note
drunk
she murdered art

sweating in the kitchen
I don’t want to murder art

I should see the doctor and get that thing
cut off my leg
but I am a coward
I might scream and frighten a child
in the waiting room

I would like to fuck that great soprano
I’d like to weep in her hair

and there’s Lorca down the road
eating Spanish bullets in the dust

the great soprano has never read my poems
but we both know how to murder art
drink and mourn

sweating in this kitchen
the formulas are gone
the best poet I ever knew is dead
the others write me letters

I tell them that I want to fuck
the great soprano
but they write back about other
things
useless things
dull things
vain things

I watch a fly land on my radio

he knows what it is
but he can’t talk to me

the soprano is dead.

Bukowski not only laments the waste of talent but the way life wrecks the best of intentions. He’s also more concerned about the deceptions of intellect than the aftermath of an emotional storm. Again, it is with his uncluttered, economy of words and line that he tries to lay bare his belief that artists must be true to their art.

The poet also acknowledges being too close to his art, leaving him unusually exposed and not in control. With Bukowski’s poems, there is always a degree of ironic self-awareness. Between the American dream of making it big and being rich are poems of homelessness and of dismal failure. Society’s so-called “making it” is a perception. A phony utopia.

the crunch

too fat
too thin
or nobody.

laughter or
tears

haters
lovers

strangers with faces like
the backs of
thumb tacks

armies running through
streets of blood
waving wine bottles
bayoneting and fucking
virgins.

an old guy in a cheap room
with a photograph of  M. Monroe.

there is a loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock

people so tired
mutilated
either by love or no love.

people just are not good to each other
one on one.

the rich are not good to the rich
the poor are not good to the poor.

we are afraid.

our educational system tells us
that we can all be
big-ass winners

it hasn’t told us
about the gutters
or the suicides.

or the terror of one person
aching in one place
alone

untouched
unspoken to

watering a plant.

people are not good to each other.
people are not good to each other.
people are not good to each other.

I suppose they never will be.
I don’t ask them to be.

but sometimes I think about
it.

the beads will swing
the clouds will cloud
and the killer will behead the child
like taking a bite out of an ice cream cone.

too much
too little

too fat
too thin
or nobody

more haters than lovers.

people are not good to each other.
perhaps if they were
our deaths would not be so sad.

meanwhile I look at young girls
stems
flowers of chance.

there must be a way.

surely there must be a way that we have not yet
though of.

who put this brain inside of me?

it cries
it demands
it says that there is a chance.

it will not say
“no.”

Bukowski’s poems thunder with immediacy. They reflect his belief that life and art and work and relationships are not separate. From “The Tragedy of Leaves” we get

I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness;
the sun was still good, though,
and my landlady’s note cracked in fine and
undemanding yellowness; what was needed now
was a good comedian, ancient style, a jester
with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd
because it exists, nothing more;
I shaved carefully with an old razor
the man who had once been young and
said to have genius; but
that’s the tragedy of the leaves,
the dead ferns, the dead plants;
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
and screaming
screaming for rent
because the world had failed us
both.

Bukowski wrote regularly about work, even just the act of going to work is like going to battle:

Saying Goodbye to Love

no more stalling,
the war torch is lit
and all over the neighborhood
men rattle in their irons,
flares kite the sky
somebody rushes past,
a confused cock crows
and I strike up
a cigarette.

it is difficult to decide
where the enemy is:

I go inside
to wife and hound
both fat and soft
as peaches
under the
sun.

I shave by candlefat and lightning,
I shave by their holy silence
in a shattered mirror.

I put on my hat
and hug them both
like two jellychildren
lost in smoke;
then outside I go,
searching the West
(dim and hilly
I’m told)
with bright
mean eyes.

“Winter Comes to a Lot of Places in August” also represents the march of the common worker:

when we come over the bridge,
hundreds of us,
workers, like cattle
like Hannibal victorious, over the Mountain
winter comes in Rome, winter comes in Paris
and Miami
and we come
over the silver bridge,
carrying our olive lunch pails
with the good fat wives’ coffee
and 2 bologna sandwiches
and oh, just a tidbit found somewhere
to warm our gross man-bones
and prove to us that love
is not clipped out like a coupon

Artists create to keep the demons at bay and for Bukowski, the act of writing was no exception. It’s what helped him keep his lips above water. His dream of an empowered life can be read in

Seahorse

I own the ticks on a horse
I own his belly and balls
I own this
the way his eyes roll
the way he eats hay
and shits and
stands up asleep

he is mine
this machine
like a blue train I used to play with
when my hands were smaller
and my mind better

I own this horse,
someday I will ride my horse
down all the streets
past the trees we will go
up the mountain
down the valley

ticks and eyes and balls
the both of us
we will go to where kings eat
dandelions
in the giant sea
where thinking is not terror
where eyes do not go out
like Saturday night children

the horse I own and the myself I own
will become blue and nice and clean
again

and I will get off and
wait for you.

Too few of Bukowski’s poems speak of the reprieve he would like from the daily grind of life’s despair, but possible moments exist. Here’s an excerpt from “for the little one”:

I hear her singing
now it’s
very late night
and from here
I can see the
lights of the city
and they are sweet as
ripe garden fruits
and this room is
calm
so strange
as if magic had
become normal.

The possibilities exist but never quite manifest as seen here in this beautiful bit from the poem, “Verdi”

then too
I sometimes think of a
less stressful kind of
love—
it can and should be so
easy
like falling asleep
in a chair or
like a church full of
windows.

sad enough,
I wish only for that careless love
which is sweet
gentle
and which is
now
(like
this light
over my head)
there only to serve me
while I
smoke smoke smoke
out of a certain center dressed
in an old brown shirt.

but I am caught under a pile of
bricks;
poetry is shot in the head
and walks down the alley
pissing on its legs.

friends, stop writing of
breathing
in this sky of fire.

Bukowski had an underground notoriety first, and then was given the title, “Outsider of the Year” in 1963 by Loujon Press, putting an end to, as you might guess, being an outsider. By 1970 he was famous, popular especially in Europe. Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window sold over 50,000 copies in Germany alone.  His prolific writing life meant that he published, on average, a book a year until his death in 1994. When he lived in poverty, he wrote about that. Once the fame, money, and BMWs came, he wrote about that, with no less candor:

pull a string, a puppet moves

each man must realize
that it can all disappear very
quickly:
the cat, the woman, the job,
the front tire,
the bed, the walls, the
room; all our necessities
including love,
rest on foundations of sand –
and any given cause,
no matter how unrelated:
the death of a boy in Hong Kong
or a blizzard in Omaha …
can serve as your undoing.
all your chinaware crashing to the
kitchen floor, your girl will enter
and you’ll be standing, drunk,
in the center of it and she’ll ask:
my god, what’s the matter?
and you’ll answer: I don’t know,
I don’t know …

Every decade of his writing life, Bukowski spent a significant amount of time contemplating death and this poem, an epitaph really, is a good example:

Old Man, Dead in a Room

this thing upon me is not
death but it’s as real and as
landlords full of maggots
pound for rent I eat walnuts
in the sheath of my privacy
and listen for more
important drummers; it’s as
real, it’s as real as the
broken-boned sparrow
cat-mouthed, uttering more
than mere miserable
argument; between my toes I
stare at clouds, at seas of
gaunt sepulcher…and
scratch my back and form a
vowel as all my lovely women
(wives and lovers) break like
engines into steam of sorrow to be
blown into eclipse; bone is
bone but this thing upon me as
I tear the window shades and
walked caged rugs, this thing
upon me like a flower and a
feast, believe me is not death
and is not glory and like
Quixote’s windmills makes a
foe turned by the heavens
against one man;…this thing
upon me, great god, this thing
upon me crawling like snake,
terrifying my love of
commonness, some
call Art some call
Poetry; it’s not death
but dying will solve its power
and as my grey hands
drop a last desperate pen
in some cheap room
they will find me there
and never know
my name

There are a number of biographies out there on Bukowski. Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes, and Bukowski: A Life, by Neeli Cherkovski are two of the best, I think. They dissect the man, the myth, and the persona that became Bukowski’s stamp, and  I’ll leave that to them, and focus on the fact that, despite the profanity, the black-comedy, and bleakness, I like the shoes some of his poetry puts me in. He’s a social critic, a romantic, a recluse, an aggressive observer, and a conduit. There’s randomness and dislocation broken up by long bouts of nothingness. Yet, as he rummages through the lives of misfits and his own jagged existence, he clutches at something like hope that he’ll actually find a human being intact.

Sometimes he and his followers are referred to as the Meat School poets, poets whose writing is rough, tough, blunt, and confessional. Whether Bukowski intended it or not, his poems are culturally symbolic of working people, meaninglessness in day-to-day living, and a people not knowing what they want. People trapped in each other’s compulsions. Not committing themselves to life in order to avoid desolation. Like the people in Joyce’s Ulysses, they’re born, they go to work, reproduce, and die. Both writers allow the spectacle of being and decay to pursue its course. Critics be damned. Both recognize that the artist must have complete freedom to write about the world they’re born into, live in, or work in. Even if it’s the armpit of your home town.

“Dirty realism” will on some level, I think, exist indefinite in American poetry. Too many people are wasting the best years of their lives in the trenches of the workplace. Too many people have failing relationships and dismal bank accounts. “The basic realities of the everyman existence are seldom mentioned in the poetry of the centuries,” he said. Bukowski also believed that “as the spirit wanes the form appears.” He believed it’s what poets do when they’re not writing from the heart and try to hide that fact in formal, stiff structure.

I don’t know. I once hastily picked up a copy of Bukowski’s book, Notes from a Dirty Old Man at a garage sale. I don’t know what part of that title I didn’t believe, but it is by far the most obscene thing I have ever come across. Trust me. Don’t bother with it. Here are three of his poetry books I do recommend however: Dangling in the Tournefortia, Love is a Dog from Hell, and You Get so Alone at Times That is Just Makes Sense.

The nuns in my life didn’t get this, but it’s his blatant, unwavering honesty done up in some pretty insightful poetry that people like. It’s the way he reminds readers that connecting through books and music and art keeps us all a little more sane while we’re down here together on the planet. It’s the way he lets his tired heart cry out like some harpooned cat, and the way he blessedly finds temporary peace by listening to classical music and glimpsing women in gingham dresses that people like.  The way he can’t help admit there’s some good in the world and he lets it show through, though he’s subtle about it and if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it. One of his most optimistic poems, “one for the shoeshine man” carries these tender lines:

I am bitter sometimes
but the taste has often been
sweet. it’s only that I’ve
feared to say it. it’s like
when your woman says,
‘tell me you love me,’ and
you can’t.

Near the end of his life, Bukowski was plagued by concerns of incompleteness which, I think, may haunt the even the most successful in any field. Near the end, his poetry becomes even more skeletal looking. His sparse style reflects and supports the incompleteness he feels. The visual appeal for me of all that white space on the page is electric. It is space that acknowledges him as incomplete, as if language has abandoned him and he disappears altogether into the whiteness:

no help for that

there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled

a space

and even during the
best moments
and
the greatest times

we will know it

we will know it
more than
ever

there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled
and

we will wait
and
wait

in that

space.

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Poem of the Hour

my father

by Charles Bukowski

was a truly amazing man
he pretended to be
rich
even though we lived on beans and mush and weenies
when we sat down to eat, he said,
“not everybody can eat like this.”

and because he wanted to be rich or because he actually
thought he was rich
he always voted Republican
and he voted for Hoover against Roosevelt
and he lost
and then he voted for Alf Landon against Roosevelt
and he lost again
saying, “I don’t know what this world is coming to,
now we’ve got that god damned Red in there again
and the Russians will be in our backyard next!”

I think it was my father who made me decide to
become a bum.
I decided that if a man like that wants to be rich
then I want to be poor.

and I became a bum.
I lived on nickles and dimes and in cheap rooms and
on park benches.
I thought maybe the bums knew something.

but I found out that most of the bums wanted to be
rich too.
they had just failed at that.

so caught between my father and the bums
I had no place to go
and I went there fast and slow.
never voted Republican
never voted.

buried him
like an oddity of the earth
like a hundred thousand oddities
like millions of other oddities,
wasted.