Finger Painting With His Chin

Posted by on November 7th, 2010 at 9:12 AM

I had no idea Charles Bukowski was so bad. All right, I’ve only looked at a few of his things, so I should say I had no idea he could write such bad stuff and have it published and sold along with his potentially good stuff. But I was reading around in Betting on the Muses, a collection of poems and stories from 1996, and in Sunlight, Here I Am, a collection of his interviews, and it’s hard to believe he was anything but a knobhead, a baby, a conceited ass and a klutz. His writing was about on the level of finger painting, but he was such a botch artist that if he had done any actual finger painting he’d have wound up using his wrists, forearms and chin. Then he would have gone on German TV and complained about the tenured fat asses of the nursery school establishment and how they didn’t understand his raw engagement with the material.

I thought Bukowski was supposed to be a literary bad boy and rebel, which is bad enough, but instead he was a parody of a literary bad boy and rebel. He had so much natural banality inside him that his self-description sounds like a Time cover profile. From an interview:

“I get letters from madams of whorehouses: ‘Come up, I’ll give you free drinks or anything else. We run a fine house up here.’ … So horse players read me, and the whores. Mad men. College professors …”

Now here he is in a poem assessing the “university profs” who don’t like his work:

what they do and who they
are and what they want
and what they say and what
they write
has no interest for me
and, unfortunately for
them, no interest to most others
living, dying or about to be
born, uh

How can anyone sound like such a typical chip-on-the-shoulder outsider litterateur? It’s like some flossy New Yorker writer went around saying “One adores the semi-colon, don’cher know?” So I think the profs are on to something. I think anyone flat-brained enough to write this poem (it’s called “It’s Difficult for Them”) has too little going on for his work to be of any interest. And so I found on looking here and there through the rest of Betting on the Muses. He writes like a kid in junior high who has heard about adult life and is convinced it’s all about bar stools and jutting chins. The theme of his work is you’ve got to be tough and everybody is so cold. “It’s hard to believe that there are people as cold as you bastards are!” says a boy to some tough guys. Son, you don’t know the half of it: “yeah, he said, pay me. / hey buddy, I said, step closer. / he did. / yeah, he said. / go fuck yourself, I said.” Favorite lines, for one reason or another: “He drained his drink and nodded Blinky the Barkeep in for a refill” and ” ‘I don’t like to play marbles,’ I told the voice” and “there’ll be no more split decisions for that son-of-a-bitch.” Yeah!

I should note that the last quote is from a poem and that I bundled the lines into one line. The poem, “Last Fight” is about an old, broken-down “handler at the gym” (I think he does clean-up), and he misses when he was young and a boxer, and soon he will die (“the rounds are / finished”). And you know it’s all sad because the poor guy is standing there with “a bucket and a towel.” You can’t miss it.

Imagine that, an artist with the sensibility needed to see that an old man will miss being young. It’s sort of the ground floor for exploring the situation, one would think. But that’s all Bukowski manages. His writing is so blunt that it reminds you why nuance is a good thing. All he has is outline, no detail: A fight between dog and man, man and wife, or pimp and barfly will all read pretty much the same. When he wants to be important, he puts the gory bits alongside a big-sounding phrase. A car accident: “the wheels have stopped spinning. / it was just one of those things which happen / like the fall of the Roman Empire.” The dog-bites-man incident: “the dog came in low, / 11:32 a.m. / Wednesday in the year of / our Lord”. The end of the poem: “it was 11:39 a.m. / in the year of our / Lord.” And the title of the pimp-vs.-barfly story is “The Unaccommodating Universe.” I guess this is called portentousness.

Normally an artist is supposed to have something extra going on in his or her brain. But Bukowski’s special feature, the big thing he had to share, was how undeveloped he was. Not simple or stark or uncompromising, just dinky and uncomprehending

Two million copies sold in Germany. Well … fuck him.

Daily proverb. A roller coaster goes nowhere.

Stan says. You asked for it – cried for it – demanded it! … Well, The Crypt of Shadows is now on sale! That’ll teach ya!

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One Response to “Finger Painting With His Chin”

  1. ctcam says:

    his poetry is just lame. as a teenager i was really into his short stories and his novel ‘post office’. i thought i was just unsophisticated to appreciate his verses and avoided them like the plague. somewhere in the back of my mind i had this hope that maybe he was the jerry lewis of germany, a misunderstood literary genius.