I have just finished Run with the Hunted, a Bukowski reader culled from twenty Sparrow Press books and edited by John Martin, who started Sparrow for Bukowski (Harper Collins, copyright 1969, last copyrighted 1993).
As an LA poet I have long had a running feud in my head with Charles Bukowski but had never before steeled myself to read five hundred pages of his work. In this I am reminded of Ezra Pound's poem to Walt Whitman, when he finally makes artistic peace with the whitebeard:
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root
Let there be commerce between us.
Ezra Pound, 1916 (Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry)
Alas, I cannot extend the same olive branch to Mr. Bukowski, hence this essay.
I don't particularly like Whitman either, for some of the same reasons I don't like Bukowski, although Whitman is far and away the more accomplished poet. Both are archetypically American in their embrace of the individual ego and almost exclusive use of the first person, but whereas Whitman attempts to merge with the world as a transcendent ego (on the heels of Emerson), Bukowski simply reports, as an isolated consciousness, in painful and sordid detail, what happens around him. In view of this it is difficult to say which poet is more personal or impersonal. If I accept the judgment of some critics, the Walt Whitman of Leaves of Grass is more a persona than the private citizen, Walter Whitman, but when I read his verse this distinction often escapes me. In Bukowski's work, however, it is clear that no separation between author and persona exists except insofar as Bukowski's memory may be unreliable. His lack of persona is his lack of art. I think his regard as a possibly major poet represents the nadir of American poetry precisely because his rants are life masquerading as art, no more, no less.
Now a critic is best served by a catholic taste in literature and best performs when he puts aside anachronistic prejudices and embraces, insofar as possible, the work of the artist under consideration. I have tried to do so with Bukowski, but in so doing my opinion of his contribution has not changed since a poem I penned to him several years ago:
To Charles Bukowski
Your shadow follows me
like an oil smear on asphalt.
I carry your shrunken head in a paper bag.
No one mistakes it for wine.
The factory label reads:
"Do not cut threads between lips."
After 45 fucking books and a funeral
it's still not safe
because you took democracy too far.
Now anyone with a spray can
thinks he's a poet
just look at our streets.
(previously published in Pif and The Alaska Quarterly Review)
Without reviewing all the historical antecedents that brought Bukowski to this poetic nadir, I should first remind the reader that he may be the best known American poet in Europe today, and for two reasons: 1) His language is simplistic; and 2) The attitude in his main body of work matches the prevailing atheistic pessimism among intellectuals on the continent. It is not Bukowski's renown I question, an unreliable indicator of quality in any case, but 1) His lack of craft; 2) His lack of transcendent values; and 3) As above, that he represents the final breakdown between life and art in poetry.
Taking the last point first, a recent award-winning biography of T.S. Eliot employs his poems as a key to understanding his life, always a shaky premise, but in Eliot more rewarding, perhaps, at least to those who never realized how much of himself he put in his verse. It would be hard to imagine anyone but an academic become London bank teller writing "Prufrock," for instance, but "Prufrock" remains art, not life as art, because although the persona Eliot creates no doubt resembles his own (at that age), the poem nevertheless preserves the tradition of the requisite Greek mask, as does his other work (which, I might add, can be conveniently contained in two books, one for poems and plays and one for criticism, unlike the forty-five books credited Bukowski).
In Bukowski's poetry, by contrast, one finds virtually no persona other than the author, thinly disguised as "Henry Chinaski" in his stories (Bukowski even went by "Hank" in real life). If readers doubt this assertion, I urge them to consider the details in his stories like one lover's bad teeth, red hair, speed habit and trash-filled Camaro, or the blue Volkswagen Bukowski drove around LA (one hopes occasionally sober). Bukowski exceeds the so-called confessionalist poets: his life is his only art, much less fictionalized or metaphorically transformed than Plath's or Sexton's, for instance.
With regard to my second point, Bukowski's lack of transcendent values, this is not unusual during the age of what I call existential poetry, and could be a common criticism of more accomplished artists. Nevertheless, Bukowski made his reputation by unashamedly and non-judgmentally recording a lifestyle of fatalistic, atheistic hedonism which is really not hedonism but its opposite, a sort of terminal anhedonia medicated with booze and sex as distractions an attitude not far removed from the Marquis de Sade, who believed "Whatever is, is good."
In his introductory note, Bukowski's editor writes, "These poems and prose pieces, taken together, serve to chronicle this writer's inner and outer life, from childhood to the present and an astonishing and heroic life it is." I reject this characterization with great umbrage; I think the last phrase should read, "and a tedious and antiheroic life it is."
Now the root word for hero comes from the Greek "to protect," i.e., to protect others, and the man revealed in Bukowski's writings, whether the inner or outer man, seems less heroic than even Prufrock, who at least tries to protect himself and the ladies in question from tea time embarrassment. Bukowski couldn't even protect himself because he didn't value himself, much less anyone else. Life, in his account, is very much something that happens to him. He loses women and possessions and residences like cigarette wrappers. His chief virtue is that his is not the voice of a victim but a coincidental survivor. As an example, when his only child disappears to New Mexico with her mother in a "story," he does nothing, although he seems genuinely attached to her. To borrow Winnicott's term from developmental psychology, a "good-enough father" might have pursued his daughter if he had been even a little heroic, but Chinaski (Bukowski) throws up his hands and says in effect, "What can I do, anyway?" and drinks. At best Bukowski is an antihero who values distraction while enduring without long-term hope condemned, like Camus' Sisyphus, to struggle vainly, or like Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, to go on waiting for Godot.
When I speak of Bukowski's body of work, I mean to exclude his last decade of relative tranquility, when he married a woman who managed to limit him to wine, introduced him to the care of cats, and in general did all she could to preserve his health and productivity. In addition, he purchased a house, which provided him with the luxury of his first study with a permanent desk for his manual typewriter. His poem, "life begins at 65" sounds one of the first hopeful notes in his work and makes a nice bookmark between the early and late Bukowski.
Although he began writing stories in his early twenties and poems at thirty-five, it took thirty years for him to achieve a measure of peace, but his reputation, like that of so many poets, is based mainly on his "early" work, which easily comprises the lion's share of his writings. Consider these two passages as typical prior to his qualification for Social Security:
from we ain't got no money, honey, but we got rain
my father, never a good man
at best, beat my mother
when it rained
as I threw myself
the legs, the knees, the
"I'll kill you," I screamed
at him. "You hit her again
and I'll kill you!"
god I got the sad blue blues,
this woman sat there and she
are you really Charles
and I said
I do not feel good
I've got the sad sads
all I want to do is
and she laughed
she thought I was being
and O I just looked up her long slim legs of heaven
I saw her liver and her quivering intestine
I saw Christ in there
jumping to folk-rock
all the long lines of starvation within me
and I walked over
and grabbed her on the couch
ripped her dress up around her face
and I didn't care
rape or the end of the earth
one more time
to be there
her panties were on the floor
and my cock went in
my cock my god my cock went in
I was Charles
This poem, like nearly all his poetry, really needs no comment. But compare this furious flight from himself, his fame and his feelings to one of his very last poems:
there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see
there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
stay down, do you want to mess
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there
so don't be
then I put him back
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
Without descending into psychobiography, and without maligning the raw simplicity of this poem, it is clear that Bukowski underwent a sea change late in life. I'm not saying he ceased being a bastard, if ever he was; my task is to merely to illustrate his questionable achievement, as it rarely rises above journal-jotting.
To return to my first point, his lack of craft, a few examples will suffice:
sitting in a dark bedroom with 3 junkies,
brown paper bags filled with trash are
it is one-thirty in the afternoon.
they talk about madhouses,
they are waiting for a fix.
none of them work.
it's relief and foodstamps and
How this opening differs from lazy journaling, what with its passive gerunds and sloppy line breaks, is beyond me. Later on in the poem he introduces literary lights:
they pulled Ezra through the streets
in a wooden cage.
Blake was sure of God.
Villon was a mugger.
Lorca sucked cock.
T.S. Eliot worked a teller's cage.
Most poets are swans,
Here is sloppy metaphor, reductionist history and uncertain sense. Does he mean that these poets were exceptions, like himself, suffering indignities? Or that their lives were distinguished from the ordinary, especially by indulgence in the sordid? Does he mean they dived lower in the gutter, or in Blake's case, flew higher? And what do egrets add to swans as a trope? Egrets stand above the muck while swans glide on the surface hardly the best equivalent for cock-sucking, mugging, and dehumanizing work (perhaps Bukowski's twelve years at the Post Office gave him some sympathy for Eliot.) My best take on this passage is that Bukowski names these poets as exceptions and identifies with them as somehow "real" as opposed to "silver spoon" poets like Tennyson, Auden or Hart Crane. Whatever the case, this poem is also flawed by a somewhat atypical air of self-pity, to be fair, not Bukowski's usual voice.
If Bukowski were not an icon but a member of a workshop to which I belonged, I might praise him for his raw power but explain to him that refinement by craft can render words even more powerful, a skill he never acquired. His poetry is very much the hit and miss of the inspired rough draft. He can slay you with a line like "Lorca sucked cock" but just as easily lapse into unforgivable cliché:
from hug the dark
don't forget the sidewalks
the worm in the apple,
the bars, the jails,
the suicides of lovers.
A word about Bukowki's prose: It moves well, with many short sentences, reminiscent of Hemingway except for a considerably reduced vocabulary, more liberal punctuation, and a lesser eye for detail. It is written at roughly an eighth grade reading level, but so are most popular magazines. There's not much more to say about his style; he tells us in his own words, with little embellishment or reflection, "This happened, then that," rarely rising above uninspired journalism.
As for the narrator's voice, it is virtually indistinguishable from his person, as already noted in my introduction. Henry Chinaski is Charles Bukowski for all intents and purposes, as the situations he describes ring true to life; we believe the speaker led the sordid life of an alcoholic in a big city. Which brings up the question of imagination: Did he imagine anything or merely describe it? Obviously, as court testimony proves, just the re-telling of experiences changes them; but from all I can gather it seems Bukowski's novels, stories, and screenplay are near pure autobiography. I sincerely doubt he invented a single character in all his works.
In his main body of work, the attitude conveyed by the speaker is not one of despair nor self-pity, but a molecule being battered about by Brownian motion; there seems to be no choice in his experiences beyond survival (and keeping a stock of booze, his addiction of choice), with the occasional need to hammer either his typewriter or a lady. I find an inhuman quality in his voice, reminiscent of a title from Mark Strand, "My Life by Somebody Else." Psychology calls this affective distance the defense of depersonalization, and Bukowski strikes me as essentially a stranger to himself and his feelings; he reports instead of acting; he feels instead of reflecting; he moves without planning. Run with the Hunted seems an ideal title for a selective anthology of his work; there is an inevitable yet sometimes frenetic quality to his debauches, fisticuffs, odd jobs, and relationships. In the end, the life told by his novels and stories is neither nightmarish nor heroic, merely banal: screw, drink, make the rent, survive a hangover, write a little, screw, drink, and so on, ad nauseam. For this reason I found excerpts from his book, Post Office, the chronicle of a "real" job he managed to keep for twelve years, more interesting than what AA members would refer to as his "drunkalogues." I found excerpts from his book, Hollywood, interesting for the same reason.
To return to his poetry, I think Bukowski proved that anyone could be a successful writer; by the same token, he significantly lowered standards for the craft of poetry. Indeed, he should be considered the father of performance poetry judged on gut feeling and audience reaction rather than the enduring values of form and substance. In comparison to Bukowski the beats seem almost academic, and should not be hailed as grandfathers of slam. Bukowski, for example, was known to belch, drink liberally, and fart during his readings, not to mention his frequent, sometimes gratuitous use of obscenities.
To be fair to his art I listened to a recording of Bukowski, and his wry humor does not translate well into the written medium; I found his spoken word performance much more engaging than his written work. He is a good stand-up comedian, a sort of Will Rogers of the Bowery. Perhaps this is his primary appeal; his poems are almost guaranteed to produce an emotional reaction, a reaction much heightened by the presence of an appreciative audience.
I love music, particularly rock, but in my lifetime have seen only a few bands that were really good onstage. If Buke were a band he would have been good live, though his studio work would almost certainly have been wanting. In contrast, if I judged Eliot solely by his recordings, I might think his poetry capable of putting an amphetamine to sleep.
I have often observed that we have three schools or venues for poetry today: spoken, print, and net. My essays seek to promote a via media, where poems are expected to succeed both orally and visually; I always tell aspiring poets to read their work out loud before posting or submitting, for instance. I also think the net the best venue for merging the extremes of performance and academic verse, making not a new hybrid, but restoring a neglected rose a goal I have previously discussed at length in my series on logopoetry.