Bukowski seldom commented on his own work, as most of his readers know that virtually all the novels, short stories, and poems are thinly veiled approximations of his actual life. Indeed, his highly acclaimed novel Ham on Rye (1982) is not only his autobiography but also an American portrait of the artist as a young man. Literary critics find his work difficult to interpret because it so closely resembles the actual day-to-day routine of an unapologetic, hard-drinking, womanizing gambler who loves playing the horses and brawling in barrooms. His work records the despairing lifestyles of the poor and infamous in Los Angeles in unrelenting detail. In Hollywood, his alter ego, Henry Chinaski, announces himself as “a historian of drink” who has no peer and wryly adds that he has outlived his drinking companions principally because he “never gets out of bed before noon.”
The great French playwright and novelist Jean Genet called Bukowski “the best poet in America,” words of high praise from an artist who rarely commented on another poet’s work and is considered the archetypal “underground” writer of the twentieth century. Bukowski’s themes are the same in most all of his poetry, novels, and short stories: violence, despair, poverty, hopelessness, alcoholism, suicide, madness, and how alcohol, sex, gambling, and, most important, writing can intermittently relieve the agony of these lives of dramatic desperation. He is among the United States’ best-known existential writers and, many would claim, the most influential and imitated American poet. Bukowski owed allegiance to no one for the success of his work except the persistent integrity of the small presses that first published his work and especially Black Sparrow Press. The only literary assistance he ever received was from the books he read in his local public library.
Bukowski continued his work in spite of the psychological or physical traumas he was experiencing at any given moment; his fictive alter ego, Henry Chinaski, always finds time to jot down a few lines of a poem on the back of an envelope or a paper bag. What motivated Bukowski’s commitment to the life of the imagination was his unflinching realization that without it, his life would be as meaningless and absurd as the rest of the trapped creatures he writes about. Wallace Stevens, one of the most important poets of the twentieth century, defined the imagination as the “violence within that protects us from the violence without.” There is little doubt that Bukowski viewed its function in exactly the same terms, yet in an even more profoundly personal way. He survived on the mean streets of Los Angeles, after all, not (as did Stevens) in the comfortable safety of the office of vice president of one of the United States’ largest insurance companies.
One of the more compelling poems from what is perhaps Bukowski’s best-known collection of poetry, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills, concerns the plight of a poor man who discovers his beloved wife’s infidelities and proceeds to castrate himself in her horrified presence, flushing his testicles down the toilet yet continuing to drink his wine while holding a bloody towel between his legs with a look of utter indifference on his face. The poem is called “Freedom.” The ruling passions of the poor, the ugly, and the hopeless are, in Bukowski’s view, much more significant to them than those of the wealthy are to them, simply because they are all that the poor have. In one of Bukowski’s finest collections of poems, It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, he presents a world in which the young are “fenced in/ stabbed and shaven/ taught words/ propped up/ to die”—an existence in which “you and I ain’t living well! or enough.”
Critics often compare Bukowski to several of the so-called Beat writers (such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg) but fail to mention that Bukowski’s is a working-class background. He never had the opportunity to attend such prestigious universities as Columbia or Harvard, as did the other three writers. A number of his public school friends’ fathers committed suicide during the Depression, while many others drank themselves into early graves. Though Kerouac emerged from a working-class New England background, he attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, while Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs came out of college-educated families with traditions of reading and culture.
Though Bukowski is frequently compared to Henry Miller in his graphic depiction of drinking and sexual freedom, one never feels that Bukowski is in any way romanticizing that lifestyle. Miller’s characters could, if they chose, move on to an economically more rewarding life and, because of their intelligence, charm, or sexual prowess, find any number of amorous partners in countless cafés of the Latin Quarter of Paris during the 1930’s.
What brings people together to form couples in most of Bukowski’s works is that nobody else wants them; they are social outcasts who are desperate for sexual contact or for any kind of momentary intimacy that will temporarily assuage their empty despair. In the novel Post Office, the transient sexual liaisons with Betty, Mary-Lou, Joyce, and Fay do not last long, but they are vital in creating a meaningful life for Henry Chinaski (though he never thinks of his life in anything but temporary terms, because people are going mad or dying around him constantly). There is no aunt back East like the one to whom Sal Paradise, the fictive alter ego of Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1957), continually returns for solace, comfort, and forgiveness, Bukowski’s heroes are denied the luxury of despair because there is literally no physical place to indulge in that kind of self-pity.
The desperate and unvarying patterns of lives that Bukowski presents in most of his novels, short stories, and poems can be summarized quite bluntly in an excerpt from his volume of poems titled Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981): “it was 11 a.m. and I was puking/ trying to get a can of ale down/ the whore in the bed next to me/ in her torn slip/ mumbling about her children in/ Atlanta.” It is these stark imagistic scenes, repeated in book after book, that call to mind the literary advice from another stark poet, William Carlos Williams, and his rule for writers: “No ideas but in things.” Bukowski’s action immediately moves into image with no intervening philosophical speculations; his language records with unflinching accuracy scenes that tell all.
The critic John William Corrington captures the effect of Bukowski’s direct language when he calls it “the spoken voice nailed to the paper.” Not all of Bukowski’s language, though, is so brutally naturalistic. He regularly offers a bittersweet comic side to the dreary life of cheap boardinghouses and the eternal quest for the rent check. In a poem titled “The Tragedy of the Leaves,” he talks about the necessity for laughter in spite of depressing circumstances:
what was needed nowwas a good comedian, ancient style, a jesterwith jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurdbecause it exists, nothing more;. . . . . . . . . . . .and I walk into the dark hallwhere the landlady stoodexecrating and final,sending me to hellwaving her fat sweaty armsand screamingscreaming for rentbecause the world has failed usboth.
There is also in these lines an empathetic quality of the poet as spokesman for all members of his tribe of down-and-outers, the losers in this world. The cadences are reminiscent of a bardic voice. One could certainly view Bukowski as the bard for his people in the poorer sections of Los Angeles where he originated. Bards have traditionally been viewed as the voices of their people but always of people in a very specific physical locale. Allen Ginsberg and William Blake project bardic voices and attempt to reconnect their readers to the truth of their own experiences. Bukowski’s bardic voice, like that of William Carlos Williams, functions in a much more specific geographical place using the energies of the local, depleted though they may be, to generate utterance.
Though his message is consistently pessimistic, it is not the hopelessly bitter pessimism of his poetic idol, American poet Robinson Jeffers. Even in the midst of violence and death, Bukowski continues to offer hope. In lines reverberating with E. E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams,...
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