By Jay Dougherty
© 1995-2014. All rights reserved.
Of course, this new author's work at first finds outlet only through self-publication or the underground magazines and presses. But word spreads quickly among readers excited by the vitality and newness of approach and language. Despite this undeniable popularity, however, and his influence on countless younger American writers, established American critics, the New York publishers, the professors of American literature all refuse to recognize this new voice. At first, he was simply too shockingly new to be taken seriously. Only after the author's death do the articles, the dissertations, and the books begin to examine this phenomenon. Only then does the author's work begin to appear in all the major anthologies and to be taught regularly in courses on American literature. The established authors of the time gradually fade away, and the ones that were true mavericks and undeniable influences take their places permanently in the major anthologies of American literature.
Charles Bukowski's career is a paradigm of the scenario outlined above. He thus joins some illustrious company, like Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg--all now considered major figures in American literature, and all either ignored or denounced early on by the literary establishment. But if an author's popularity and influence outside of the New York publishing houses and the departments of English is the yardstick, then Charles Bukowski will also become an unavoidable part of any discussion of post-war American literature.
Born on 16 August 1920 in Andernach, West Germany, Bukowski was brought to the United States at age 2. His mother, a native German, and his father, an American serviceman, met during the American occupation of Germany at the end of World War I. According to Bukowski, his mother's family was like most after the war, poor and undernourished and resentful of American soldiers that had plenty of meat and took it for granted. One day, according to the story, Bukowski's father knocked on the door of his mother's family's living quarters, a floor above the quarters occupied by the father's division. He offered the family a piece of meat, and the mother, indignant at what she had seen of the Americans' wastefulness, spat on the father's shoes. Thereafter, understanding the severity of the German family's plight and the depth of their resentment, Bukowski's father stole away each evening with a piece of meat garnered from the division's supply and offered it to the German family. Touched by this gesture, Bukowski's mother's feeling softened toward the man, and they eventually married. Bukowski's father was apparently fairly fluent in German, but the couple returned to the United States at the end of the father's term in Germany, seeing in the U.S. the possibility of a brighter future.
This bright future, though, soon evaporated at the onset of the Great Depression. Bukowski's father, like many other fathers at the time, was more often than not unemployed, and no doubt much of the frustration of that experience was taken out on Charles. For most of the memories that Charles Bukowski has of his father, recounted in many poems and such stories as "The Death of the Father" as well as the novel Ham on Rye, are bad ones. Mention of the father in Bukowski's work usually entails stories of beatings with a strap, verbal abuse, and a blind resentment of other people. "Wherever we went he got into arguments with people" (26), says the narrator of Ham on Rye.
Bukowski's childhood and adolescence were, then, anything but pleasant. At home, the situation was exacerbated by an extremely bad case of acne vulgaris that produced boils all over Bukowski's face and back, boils so painful that they had to be surgically drilled so that they could drain properly. "Acne Vulgaris," says one of the doctors who works on the young Bukowski in Ham on Rye, the autobiographical novel that provides the only thorough account of his childhood, "The worst case I've seen in all my years of practice!" (131). This malady was of course impossible to disguise--indeed, Bukowski was permanently pock-marked by the ordeal--and it made emotional escape into adolescent friendships or cliques, where appearance plays so often a vital role, next to impossible.
These two conditions of Bukowski's early life--his father's abusive tendencies and Bukowski's disfigurement-- molded his role as a perpetual outsider. As a loner he bore daily witness to the cruelty, shallowness, and lack of sympathy in human interaction. Because only "the poor and the lost and the idiots" (Ham on Rye 155) seemed willing to befriend the young Bukowski, he later became their spokesman throughout his work, their honesty and hard-won dignity contrasted constantly with the phoniness and superficiality of the indifferent masses.
But instead of harboring bitterness for a tumultuous and solitary childhood, Bukowski has used the experiences and insights gained from his position on the outside to his advantage. As is the case with many reclusive adolescents, Bukowski early on discovered the solitude and magic of the word. "I would take a little light in my bed," Bukowski says in a High Times interview of 1982, "put it under the covers and read, and it would get suffocating under there and hot, but it made each page I turned all the more glorious, like I was taking dope: Sinclair Lewis, Dos Passos, these are my friends under the covers" (98).
And through the word he found an outlet through which to express what he had seen of the world. He turned experiences that may have made the average person bitter or destructive into lessons concerning his art. Bukowski says of the repeated floggings that he received at his father's hands,
when they beat you long enough and hard enough you have the tendency to say what you really mean; in other words, they take all the pretenses out of you. If you can get out of it, whatever is still there is usually something genuine. Anyone who gets severe punishment during childhood can get out of it quite strong, quite good, or can end up being a rapist, a killer, end up in a madhouse or lost in all kinds of different directions. So you see, my father was a great literary teacher: He taught me the meaning of pain--pain without reason (High Times 98).
And the acne vulgaris, too, by dint of its having made the young Bukowski a social loner, placed Bukowski at a vantage point from which he, with his talent, could make frank observations and condemnations of humanity without fear of losing a job or being excluded from a clique or political faction. Ernest Fontana has aptly noted that "because of his acne (Bukowski) will never be able to look at his society from the point of view of an insider. His acne is not only the literal source of his alienation, but his disfiguring and offensive boils are themselves metaphoric equivalents to Bukowski's own writing, which expresses the offensive, `acned' reality of Los Angeles working and sub- working class life without stylistic ointment of clothing" (6).
Convinced, then, almost from the outset of the hopelessness of humanity and lasting friendship, he largely rejected the goals after which most strive. Instead, he found solace in alcohol. "Getting drunk was good," Bukowski says in Ham on Rye. "I decided that I would always like getting drunk. It took away the obvious and maybe if you could get away from the obvious often enough, you wouldn't become obvious yourself" (189). Drinking and remaining "unobvious" thus became Bukowski's vocation, until, that is, he started writing seriously around 1960. Then drinking, remaining "unobvious," and writing were his vocations, and remain so to this day. Necessitated by the fact that none of his vocations paid enough for him to survive, he worked as dishwasher, truckdriver and loader, mailman, guard, gas station attendant, stock boy, warehouseman, shipping clerk, post office clerk, parking lot attendant, Red Cross orderly, and elevator operator, among other things (Contemporary Authors 109).
Bukowski worked at a Los Angeles post office for eleven years, the longest term of employment he ever held. And in 1969, having had some hard-earned success as a writer through the little magazines and small presses, he made the difficult decision of quitting the post office and trying to make it as a writer. He was forty-nine and on the verge of emotional collapse; he was paying child-support and living in a rented house. Steady or sufficient income through writing was far from certain. In an unpublished letter to Carl Weissner, dated "sometime nov. 1969," Bukowski explains that "I have one of two choices--stay in the postoffice and go crazy...or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve." Soon thereafter he finished his first novel, Post Office. And through Carl Weissner, a young German editor with whom he had frequently corresponded regarding little magazine publications, he sold the West German rights to Notes of a Dirty Old Man. His income was still poor but sufficient to allow him to write full-time.
And write he did. To date, he has published over sixty books--poetry, short stories, novels--and he has been translated into all the European languages, including Greek and Serbo-Croat. In some European countries, like France, Brazil Spain, Italy, and West Germany, newspapers and magazines scurry for Bukowski-related stories. In 1984, three of Bukowski's books were on the bestseller list in Brazil at one time. And in West Germany, where his audience has from the outset been the most enthusiastic and prodigious, much more so than in the United States, his books have sold over three million copies.
Indeed, Bukowski's European success, which his American critics conveniently ignore and his fans gloat knowingly over, is a phenomenon yet to be systematically explained. Gerald Locklin has suggested that Bukowski's "flouting of the conventions and proprieties of a `bourgeois' literature" repels readers in America. "Where but in the English- speaking countries," Locklin continues, "could manners become elevated to such a powerful aesthetic criterion in the first place?" (159) In an unpublished interview, Carl Weissner, Bukowski's West German translator, points out that "mostly the (West German) critics stress the fact that he's hugely enjoyable..., (and they like his attitude) of aloofness and an unwillingness to be accepted into the fold and be a good citizen...But I think Bukowski expresses something which is shared by a lot of people: the unappetizing aspects of life and a willingness to sometimes overdo it, mostly in a funny way." Bukowski himself in a letter to the author explains his European success this way: "I believe that the (European) public is more open to gamble and new ways of presentation. Here in the U.S. a more staid and safe literature seems preferred. Here people don't want to be shaken or awakened. They prefer to sleep through their lives. To them, what is safe and old seems good."
Charles Bukowski is a Western writer not by choice but by circumstance. Chances are, had he been raised in Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, or New York rather than in Los Angeles, he would be a writer of those regions and not the West. Unlike many Western writers, Bukowski is not concerned with exploring or exploiting the traditions of the West; he does not, as a writer like Edward Abbey would in Good News, discuss the American West ever with an eye toward its past, its immigrants, Indians, and unfulfilled or ruined promise of plenty. He does not, as Ernest Fontana has noted, "exploit the rich metaphoric possibilities of the diverse topography of Southern California" (4). Los Angeles is, simply, the place that Charles Bukowski has lived for most of his life. As he says in a London Magazine interview of 1974, "You live in a town all your life, and you get to know every street corner. You've got the layout of the whole land. You have a picture of where you are....Since I was raised in L.A., I've always had the geographical and spiritual feeling of being here. I've had time to learn this city. I can't see any other place than L.A" (38-39).
Thus, while he does not concern himself with the mythological possibilities of the West that an immigrant writer might be likely to exploit, Bukowski does, as the quotation above suggests, feel that Los Angeles possesses a unique "spiritual" identity. And this identity is as inseparable from much of Bukowski's work as are the Spanish bullfights and street cafes from the best of Hemingway. Rather than bullfights and street cafes, Bukowski's mileau is the horsetrack, the backstreet bars, and the rooming houses of Los Angeles.
And this is only logical, for these parts of Los Angeles have been Bukowski's life-long home, his stomping grounds. He apotheosizes these parts of Los Angeles like no writer before him. He argues, like Hemingway would of his world, for Los Angeles' distinctive culture and for its being the perfect testing ground for a brand of endurance that Bukowski respects, an endurance borne not of having played the games of the masses but of having avoided the games of the masses--two cars, a house in the suburbs, a steady job, a couple of kids--and having survived. Los Angeles, to Bukowski, contains more of these kinds of survivors than most cities, and it is a place where one can escape from others long enough to remain "sane." In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Bukowski exclaims, L.A., the greatest city in the universe. Where each man and woman had a special style and a natural cool. Even the fools had a certain grace. L.A. was the end of a dead culture crawled west to get away from itself. L.A. knew it was rotten and laughed at it. Ask Chicago, ask New York City, they still think they are alive. No good. ...While San Francisco chokes upon the glut of artists, L.A. wheels, stands at the corner of Hollywood and Western, munching a taco and enjoying the bluff and the sun..." ( ).
Charles Bukowski is above all a poet. Although his first publication, at the age of twenty-four, was a short story called "20 Tanks from Kasseldon," soon afterwards he gave up writing for ten years because he "thought there was no way of crashing through" (London Magazine 44) to publication with the large presses and slick magazines for a person who wanted to describe a less-pleasant side of reality in blunt, matter-of-fact terms. He was right. After a ten year hiatus and a near-fatal bout with alcoholism that took him finally to the L.A. County General Hospital, "blood roaring out of (his) mouth and...ass" (London Magazine 45), because of a stomach ulcer, he began writing poetry and submitting the poems to little magazines. This time his efforts were appreciated. And so began the gradual climb to his current status as the most highly- acclaimed poet in the history of the small press in America.
Bukowski's style and his approach to poetry have varied surprisingly little over the more than thirty-five years that he has been practicing the art. His first two full- length collections of poems, It Catches My Heart in Its Hands and Crucifix in a Death Hand, parts of which are still available in Burning in Water Drowning in Flame, illustrate that most if not all of the trademark Bukowskian qualities are present: a keen ear for the musical quality of natural, everyday speech; an ability to infuse significance into desperate, dreadful moments of his own life and those of others without becoming bathetic or sentimental; a tremendous facility of listing and juxtaposing details of everyday life with abstraction either to set a scene or to vivify a theme; an artistic distance from his subjects which allows him to find humor and nuggests of wisdom in even the most dismal scenario, his own or others'; and a propensity for the narrative poem, which he will exploit further in later books.
"the tragedy of the leaves," the first poem in Burning in Water Drowning in Flame, shows Bukowski at his tightest lyrically. The first line, "I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead," sets the reader down abruptly into a world as raped of hope and promise as Eliot's first line in "Gerontion": "Here I am, an old man in a dry month." But Bukowski's details remain close to home, not alluding to mythologies but the realities of the downtrodden, a permanent wasteland as much of circumstance as of choice: "and the empty bottles like bled corpses / surrounded me with their uselessness." The poem sets a scene soon to become familiar to Bukowski readers: stripped of hope for work and seeing less sense in struggling with the average man than dying as a no-sayer, the poem's protagonist remarks upon the daily struggles of the desperate, finding some comfort, finally, in the truths that allow him to understand their frustration.
Having received an eviction notice from a landlady, the poet records his encounter with her: 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.
This final statement of the poem is made without self- pity and without pity for the woman; it is matter-of-fact, a stance that Bukowski's artistic distance from the subject allows. As the poem's protagonist is drawn from Bukowski himself, the distancing is all the more commendable. He constantly avoids, at least in these early poems, overstating what he perceives as facts of life. After first receiving the landlady's eviction note, "cracked in fine and / undemanding yellowness," for instance, the poet calmly comments upon the situation: "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" (15). It is precisely the detachment of the speaker, the lack of overt melodrama, in these early poems that lends them their dramatic quality and that makes the general pronouncements of the speaker, like "pain is absurd / because it exists," believable rather than pompous.
"the life of borodin" is a fine early example of Bukowski's empathetic abilities, his practice of holding up facts and qualities in the lives of others as instances of an individuality and endurance through hardship that is admirable, and in which an obvious connection to the poet himself is evident. But Bukowski is no ordinary eulogist. As with "the tragedy of the leaves," Bukowski's abstinence from melodrama or overt praise saves the poems from being maudlin or obvious, as Bukowski himself would say. And in "the life of borodin," one also witnesses the skillful reliance upon telling facts that frees Bukowski from narrative flatulence. Remember, Bukowski quietly exhorts the reader, Borodin "was just a chemist / who wrote music to relax; his house was jammed with people: / students, artists, drunkards, bums, / and he never knew how to say: no."
Bukowski then recounts Borodin's childlike obsequiousness to his wife. And he hints, in the juxtaposition of details, that inner agony produces great art: "she told him when to cut his nails, / not to sing or whistle / or put too much lemon in his tea / or press it with a spoon; / Symphony #2, in B Minor / Prince Igor / On the Steppes of Central Asia / and he could sleep only by putting a piece / of dark cloth over his eyes." The telling details of Borodin's inner struggle are balanced perfectly in such lines with the stark details of the insidious persecution he receives at home. By the end of the poem, then, his fate is expected: "in 1887 he attended a dance / at the Medical Academy / dressed in a merrymaking costume; / at last he seemed exceptionally gay / and when he fell to the floor, / they thought he was clowning. / the next time you listen to Borodin, / remember...." But the emotional impact of the poem is not diminished. For here, as in many other empathetic poems, Bukowski does not tell but show; he does not, essentially, preach to the reader. The reader is left to interpret the poem, although of course led by the carefully selected facts, and the only overt authorial presence is the author's gentle recommendation to "remember" (19).
"borodin" is, finally, as much a comment upon art itself as upon Borodin. That is, at his emotional nadir, Borodin produced powerful symphonies. One should note that even here, at this early stage of Bukowsi's career, his theories of artistic merit were not only formulated but practiced. And he has continues to express them variously in poems up to the present. "art," the last poem in the 1979 book Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit, articulates one of the lessons that "the life of borodin" taught us. It reads simply, "as the / spirit / wanes / the / form / appears" (125). So, of course, with Borodin.
Yet there is an essential difference between a poem like "borodin" and one like "art," a difference that colors Bukowski's opus much the same way it does that of other influential modern poets, from Lawrence to Stevens and Moore. Taking "borodin" and "art" together, one can see that "borodin"--like most of Bukowski's empathetic poems--is illustrative of poetic theory, and "art" is explanatory. Bukowski uses poetry, then, like Lawrence did in many of the Pansies, like Stevens did in "Of Modern Poetry" and many others, like Moore did in "Poetry," essentially to explain both his method and message in the illustrative poems. Now whether this is a necessity is open to debate. Generally, illustrative poems are always better accepted critically, for they allow a degree of reader participation that explanatory or declarative poems prevent. They show rather than tell. Pansies, for example, were Lawrence's most critically denounced poems; Stevens' "Of Modern Poetry" and Moore's "Poetry" appear in most anthologies generally so that students can compare their "statements" with the practice evident in the poets' better-respected poems. "Art" may someday, too, be placed in anthologies for this very reason. The point I wish to make, however, is that Bukowski, contrary to what some of his critics would have readers believe, is a conscious craftsman with an ideology as well- developed as many of our most respected poets.
Bukowski has often said, as he did in a South Bay interview of 1981, that "Genius is the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way" (33). One could argue that the implications of the philosophy--that saying something in a "simple" way also entails its being said briefly--are what make Bukowski first a poet and second a writer of fiction. He would no doubt agree: "I don't mean to make (poetry) holy," he says in South Bay. "But it's #1. You don't play with it too much...There's a little more intensity in the poem because I have to say it in a shorter space" (33).
Definitions of "shorter space," however, vary. Many of Bukowski's story or narrative poems, which he has written from the outset and which have brought him the most criticism from readers used to the artificially tight but poetically conventional diction of much modernist poetry, run for pages and pages. Characteristic of Bukowski's story poems are a deceptively easy, off-the-cuff tone, replete with qualifiers like "somehow," "very," and "rather," and plenty of simple sentences combined almost always with coordinating conjunctions. In short, Bukowski reproduces the language of the layman, the language one might use during an articulate evening while talking to a friend over a beer.
One of the earliest examples of Bukowski's narrative or story poems is "a literary romance" (Burning in Water 21- 22). The tone immediately distinguishes itself from tighter, more evocative poems like "the tragedy of the leaves." Here are the first four lines: "I met her somehow through correspondence or poetry or magazines / and she began sending me very sexy poems about rape and lust, / and this being mixed in with a minor intellectualism / confused me somewhat and I got in my car and drove North...." Bukowski proceeds North and tells a story about his meeting with the woman with the very sexy poems, who was "a virgin, 35 years old" and who had a life's work of "ten or twelve poems" which the poet had to read. The narrator then takes the woman to boxing matches, where he confirms that they have nothing whatsoever in common. He leaves her, "still a virgin / and a very bad poetess." The poem concludes, as most of Bukowski's story poems do, with a commentary upon the tale by the narrator. This time, it's "I think that when a woman has kept her legs closed / for 35 years / it's too late / either for love / or for / poetry."
The frank, street-level language and the looseness of tone, with line-breaks that seem totally arbitrary, along with a conclusion that could easily be seen as no more than a crude punchline, raised the brows of more than a few critics, and continue to do so to this day. Joshua Kessler, reviewing for Parnassus in 1973, called Bukowski's poetry "flat stuff without one insight, without one flare-up of language, without an interesting emotion, or even the attempt to devise a poem structured to be conducive to an emotion,... (230). Hayden Carruth, writing for Harper's Magazine in 1975, contended that "Whether or not Charles Bukowski's `poems' are actually poems is open to legitimate debate, even after the loosening up of our ideas about poetic form that has occurred in the past ten or fifteen years" (4). And even Robert Peters, one of the first serious critics to write sympathetically of Bukowski, laments the "tiresome loquaciousness" (28) that he saw as a recent development in Bukowski's poetry in an article for Margins in 1975. Peters charged that the poems moved as "narrative prose, cut up more or less projectively, into boozy breath-groups. Nothing much of interest (poetically) catches the ear..." (28).
It is true that in later books, especially in Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981), Bukowski turns more often to the narrative poem. But "a literary romance," taken from the very first full-length book of poetry, illustrates that Bukowski has practiced this kind of poem from the outset. And as this kind of poem shows the starkest break from the tenets of modern poetry, which seem in large part those to which critics of Bukowski adhere, they naturally cause the most consternation. Furthermore, as the quotations above amply demonstrate, in deciding whether such narratives as "a literary romance" can be categorized as poetry or whether they are emotive or "interesting," critics have invariably failed to define the terms upon which their arguments rest. They assume that the condemning abstractions against which they prop their arguments--i.e., what constitutes "emotion," "interest," or, indeed, "poetry" itself--are universal givens. And they are, in fact, not universal givens. Indeed, in pointing out that "our ideas about poetic form" have loosened considerably in the last fifteen years, Hayden Carruth unwittingly alludes to the shaky foundations upon which our too-often unspoken criteria rest.
More than anything else, Charles Bukowski's narrative poetry has reminded the literary public of just how man-made our notions of "good" vs. "bad" poetry are. This has occurred much to the disappointment of many literary critics and professors of English, who, of course, have a stake in being able to "profess" quality, to profess standards over which they preside. It has occurred, on the other hand, much to the delight of thousands of readers and writers previously soured by the theoretical, opaque, or allusive qualities of much serious literature before Bukowski. Countless little magazines of the present day are literally filled with poets originally inspired by the loosening up that poetry received at Bukowski's hands. And Bukowski does write serious literature; of that there can be no doubt to those who consider questions of class and sex relations, questions of conformity and rebellion, questions of what constitutes bravery, cowardice, love, and death of a serious nature. And that he executes poems exploring these themes to the satisfaction of arbiters of taste is attested to by his appearance in such widely-used college-level anthologies as The Norton Anthology of Poetry and A Geography of Poets. Theses and dissertations have now been written on Bukowski; one scholarly journal has devoted half an issue to his work; and academic articles on Bukowski are appearing in learned journals with ever greater frequency around the world.