There are some writers who getting wrongly pigeonholed. Leonard Cohen, for instance, is seen as some kid of harbinger of doom when, in fact, he’s one of the funniest lyricists around. Charles Bukowski is another such writer.
Bukowski is usually seen as a talentless, drunken bum. While the last part of this description is true, he is far from talentless. He’s usually regarded as only being cool with hipsters who want to pretend to be drunken poets and for this reason his persona is seen as an act. While this may be true of the hipsters (just as Jim Morrison is loved by many purely because of the sex and drugs), this is hardly Bukowski’s fault. The drunken poet persona is not an act. He was a poet and he was usually drunk. He also wrote some wonderful poetry as well as some novels and short stories that are at once laugh-out-loud funny and poignant.
Of course, Buk was no saint. He could be nasty, as only belligerent drunks can be. But being an (occasional) son-of-a-bitch, doesn’t negate the talent. Ask Picasso. (Who was ALWAYS a son-of-a-bitch!)
With Bukowski, there was no front. He wasn’t playing the part of the alcoholic writer. He lived the life. And despite what his critics might say – and unlike his acolytes – he never glamourised the life. He simply wrote it as he lived it. It was very rarely pretty but it was the life he had chosen. To be honest, all Bukowski ever really wanted was to be left alone to drink, to bet on the horses, and to write: “What I really wanted was only a soft, hazy space to live in, and to be left alone.” Or as he put it in the poem, “don’t come round but if you do”:
“go away, it is not the day
the night, the hour;
it is not the ignorance of impoliteness,
I wish to hurt nothing, not even a bug
but sometimes I gather evidence of a kind
that takes some sorting”
Had his work been discovered earlier, he might have had the means to do this. Because success didn’t happen for him until later in life, he had to work for the means to do it.
That meant – amongst other numerous jobs – ten years working in the Post Office, something he wrote about with disarming honesty and wonderful humour in his novel Post Office. As far as the humour goes, some of the titles of his poems themselves are enough to crack you up “the night I f**ked my alarm clock,” “eating my senior citizen’s dinner at the Sizzler” and “who in the hell is tom jones?”
But while he could be bawdy and oftentimes very un-PC, he could also be very poignant, as in the poem “For Jane: With All the Love I Had, Which Was Not Enough”:
“I pick up the skirt,
I pick up the sparkling beads
this thing that moved once
and I call God a liar,
all her loveliness gone,
and I speak to all the gods
they will not
give her back to me.”
In truth, the details of Bukowski’s life are often hilarious, often tragic, but always interesting. For anyone interested in reading about his life, I would recommend Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes. However, whether or not you agree with his lifestyle, I would certainly encourage everyone to read his writings. A good primer is Run With the Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader Or you can read some of his poems for free online here.
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