I Don’t Bother to Defend Bukowski

Posted by on November 9th, 2010 at 2:17 AM

Charles Bukowski has been one of my favorite writers since my youth but I feel no need to defend him.  The apparatus of literary reputation has been pretty resolute in its rejection of him since he came to public notice and after 40-odd years you have to assume that the rejection is final.  That academics will refrain from to screw jobs out of him is a testament to their sincerity (and what a bleary-eyed enterprise a Department of Bukowski Studies would be).  It’s an amusing phenomenon, really.  Rejected from entry into the House of Literature, Bukowski breaks in through the back way and squats in one the disused rooms, declaring himself a lord of the manor.  Time and again the landlords will issue an eviction notice, but there he stays, playing his radio loud, throwing wine bottles out the window, typing all hours of the night and generally annoying all the paying guests.  One can only imagine the consternation of the contemporary poet fraternity, committed as it is to turgid, unreadable pap, watching helplessly as this dirty, cheating usurper writes about things that matter to people in language they can comprehend under the name of poetry.  And it may well be that Bukowski’s poetry is essentially prose with an overactive return key.

Admirers of writers like Bukowski will typically overcompensate by overselling.  He certainly has his limitations; I think Aram Saroyan put his finger on the problem when he pointed out that it tended to be a one-note performance.  Nevertheless I believe he’s a writer genuinely in the tradition of Diogenes, and I don’t understand why his detractors don’t at least recognize his humor.  The talent is evident in the titles:  Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horse Over the Hills, and (my favorite) You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense, to name a few.  I don’t know if there’s any writer who’s better on the experience of working for wages, and I tend to doubt a lot of his critics are in a position are in a position to understand this.  I’m not talking here in the conventional proletarian writer sense.  I don’t think I really understood who Bukowski was until I read Howard Sounes’ biography.  Sounes paints a picture of a permanently wounded individual insecure in his lack of formal education.  This had a lot to do with his incessant routine about how you had to be a drunken reprobate to produce genuine literature or even have any human worth at all, a self-defense mechanism that I believe plays no small part in the critical hostility towards him.  For all his self-mythologizing on the subject though, it was only a very brief period of his life that he was itinerant laborer bumming from place to place and in and out of jails.  As Sounes reveals, most of his working life was spent in Los Angeles as a low level clerical worker, first in light industry and then famously in the Post Office.  (Bukowski himself complained that if he’d dressed and acted as Mickey Rourke portrayed him in Barfly he never would have been able to keep those jobs.  I recently found out that my local post office is the one he worked in.)  In this he was living the life a lot of us live, selling the better part of our lives to labor we have no interest in so that we live as we want the best we can in the remnant left to us (in Bukowski’s case, a drunken reprobate).  I think this is what has created the bond with his readers, and what a lot of the literary world is poorly equipped to understand.  Even the freelancer, though he may be living an existence as marginal as Bukowski’s barring the trouble Bukowski made for himself is spending his life doing something he wants to do.  It may be as well that the attacks on the conventional literary world that alienate critics form a bond with a readership that feels itself outcast and disdained.  This may well be a meretricious appeal, assuming that the judgments of the world are true and righteous altogether.

Bukowski ducked official literature’s one-two punch of indifference and disdain by developing a readership, and it’s the readership that made him invulnerable.  The foundations of the fortress were laid when one of his readers became his publisher thereby both escaped the mundane existence fate had decreed for them.  I suppose a detractor willing to lower himself to nut-punching could try to make a parallel to Rod McKuen, but the bard of Stanyan Street was number one a creature of commercial publishing and number two fell off the edge of the Earth around the same time as Richard Nixon.  (I imagine anyone under the age of 35 furrowing his brow saying “Rod Who?”)  The Bukowski industry on the other hand only seems to grow and the man himself continues to publish new work after his death like a rap artist.  It’s hard to imagine a heart so hard that it wouldn’t warm at a man cheating fate in this way, unless that hard heart is part of the fate he cheated.

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7 Responses to “I Don’t Bother to Defend Bukowski”

  1. vollsticks says:

    The Sounes biography is a great book. Glad you mentioned “You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense”, “My First Affair With That Older Woman” is the only poem to have made me weep.Nice little article, Mr Fiore!

  2. Bob Levin says:

    I don’t feel competent to judge Bukowski as a poet, but his dialogue and his sex scenes were great. Some of his short stories (“Six Inches” esp. comes to mind) were brilliant. He created vivid characters and a vivid world. Your take on him — and the style you brought to it — were terrific.

  3. Aaron White says:

    I’m not out to yuck anyone’s yum, but as I think about my own favorite poets (Adrienne Rich, Robinson Jeffers, James Merrill, Derek Walcott) I suspect none of them got fan mail from madams, which neither raises nor lowers them in my estimation. Turgid, unreadable pap? Sure, if you like. But the proles vs. snobs approach to lit-crit doesn’t seem particularly fruitful to this poor boy.

  4. Tom Crippen says:

    If you like him, maybe there’s something to the guy. How’s that for passive-aggressive?

  5. If a scatalogical loon like holden caulfield can be forced into my seventh grade conciousness by my english teacher, i don’t see why henry chinaski could’nt be impressed on some other poor hapless supertalented alcoholic bluecollar in for the ride of his life.Truth is even stranger than semi-autobiographical fiction.

  6. R. Fiore says:

    When I speak of “turgid, unreadable pap,” I speak not of the handful of good poets but of the great slobbering mass who are read only when taught, who send you lunging for the dial quicker than Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz any time they’re asked to “read a little bit of their work” on NPR, their natural habitat, and who seem to be readily granted the status denied to Bukowski. Leave us not let the bad hide behind the skirts of the good; there’s not nearly enough room back there. The difference between prose and poetry is that while prose in most circumstances is expected to be lucid, poetry is supposed to use language musically, and this can and does induce a multitude of sins. As I said, I don’t reject out of hand the argument that the Bukowski’s writings presented as poetry are not poetry at all, and I don’t even mean to categorically state that he isn’t in a sense cheating. (What part of “passive aggressive” do you not understand?) I think the phenomenon is equally amusing either way.

    One assumes madams tend to be a bit bourgeois, being management and all, but I can’t imagine a poet who wouldn’t feel flattered by a fan letter from a prostitute. The more high flown the poet the more flattering it would be.

  7. I like the illo by the above illustrator of the beret wearing beatnick looking over an otherwise bleak cleveland/brooklyn/autumn/dusk cityscape a leaf flitting lazily down as he he proclaims”This To Me Is Poetry”….yeah sure them books are full of leaves.But really to pine for some literati intelligencia to acknowledge as such belies the point.Bukowsky’s poetry is easy on the eyes because he wrote like he was talking, mining the music of conservation itself.The story’s told piecemeal, stops and starts,wanders as stories can be,orally.Especially after a coupl’a beers.