Bukowski, Charles (Poetry Criticism)
Charles Bukowski 1920–1994
(Full name Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.) American poet, novelist, and essayist
Charles Bukowski was one of the most individual poets of the post-modern age. Influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, his poetry reflected both the despair of the 1950s' Beat movement and the rebelliousness of the protesters of the 1960s. Although Bukowski lived most of his life in California, he did not belong to or associate with any of the literary circles of Los Angeles or San Francisco, such as the Beats or the Bay Area school. He was a lifelong outsider who mocked the pretensions of the literary elite and developed his own freewheeling, raw, and belligerent style as a means of expressing his dissatisfaction with traditional, middle-class morals and values. His main character-type (which is considered to be a self-portrait), the hard-drinking, womanizing, tough-talking man who associated with the "little people" in bars, race tracks and cheap hotels, came to represent the "Bukowski image" of the isolated individual at odds with society. Such "shock" poetry made Bukowski a seminal figure in underground literature. Within the scholarly community, however, little attention has been given to his poetry and prose.
Born in Andernach, Germany in 1920, Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. was the only child of an American soldier and a German mother. The family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1922, and settled in a middle-class neighborhood, where Bukowski was teased by the other children because of his German heritage, making him feel as though he did not belong. Bukowski's father dominated his early life, controlling the household by way of unbreakable rules, reinforced with a strap or a ruler, that were imposed to maintain the façade of middle-class respectability. Bukowski hated his father and all that he represented: the economic and emotional success supposedly offered in return for hard work and patriotism: the American dream. Bukowski's disdain for his father and the lifestyle he embodied is prevalent in all of his poetry and fiction, as well as in his subsequent anti-authoritarian lifestyle. The beginning of the Depression coincided with Bukowski's entering high school, intensifying his father's abusive and tyrannical nature, and driving the young Bukowski to retreat into alcohol abuse. Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College from 1939 to 1941, but dropped out and spent a decade working at menial jobs while struggling with alcoholism. After being hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer in 1955, he curbed his alcoholism and turned to writing poetry.
From the late 1950s onward, Bukowski developed his distinctive montage style and published several long prose pieces in underground literary magazines. These experiments resulted in the irregular, disjointed, and fragmented form seen in Notes of a Dirty Old Man, and helped Bukowski to define his literary position as an arrogant, anarchistic, and defiant anti-hero aligned against the literary elite. The late 1960s and the early 1970s was a very productive and creative time for Bukowski, and much of the work produced during this time formed the basis for subsequent books, including Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts; Erections, Ejaculations, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness; and South of No North. The 70s saw a tremendous increase in his readership and a growing reputation. Focusing on longer fiction, Bukowski produced a number of novels and memoirs in a type of transmogrified autobiographical narrative similar to Kerouac's. In 1987, his novel, Barfly, was made into a movie starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, for which he wrote the screenplay. He later based a novel, Hollywood, on his experiences. Bukowski continued to write prolifically: his 1992 poetry collection The Last Night of the Earth Poems is over four hundred pages long. Bukowski died of leukemia in 1994.
Despite the number of Bukowski's early chapbooks, it was not until the collections It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) and Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965) were published in the early 1960s that his poetry attracted critical attention. In his preface to Crucifix in a Deathhand, critic John William Corrington characterizes Bukowski's poetry as "the spoken voice nailed to paper." Bukowski's reputation grew as his essays and short fiction were collected and published in Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969). His first novel, Post Office (1971), became a counter-cultural classic and helped to establish the "Bukowski image". The transformation of his novel Barfly from a novel into a successful film helped bring Bukowski to the attention of the younger "MTV" generation and again expanded his readership. Bukowski wrote prolifically throughout his life, and published poetry, short stories, and novels in underground journals and small presses. With the publication of Septuagenarian Stew (1990) and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992) came grudging acknowledgement by mainstream critics that Bukowski had earned a place in the literary canon. At the close of his life, then, Bukowski was perceived by the bourgeois critics he opposed as the patriarch and appointed spokesman of the newest generation of anti-establishment writers.
While small presses, literary magazines, and underground journals have published and reviewed Bukowski's work since the 1950s, academic critics and anthologists have largely ignored him. This is due in part to his producing a large number of small chapbooks, often containing only one longer work or a few short poems, rather than fulllength books. Other factors influencing the critical neglect of his work include his subject matter and his language, both portraying drunks, bums, and down-and-outs who are street wise and trashy. It is precisely these qualities that has earned Bukowski his large following that cuts across generation lines and includes predominantly nonacademic readers with eclectic and anti-establishment tastes. While his work has attracted such a diverse readership and a generation of imitators, acceptance and praise from the literary or academic establishments has been slow in coming, as Bukowski is seen as a writer of quantity not quality. His death in 1994 at the age of 74 has brought about the re-issuing of many of his books as well as a reappraisal of his position within the framework of midto-late-twentieth century American poetry.
Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail 1960
Longshot Pomes for Broke Players 1962
Run with the Hunted 1962
Poems and Drawings 1962
It Catches My Heart in its Hands: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1963 1963
Grip the Walls 1964
Cold Dogs in the Courtyard 1965
Crucifix in a Deathhand: New Poems, 1963–1965 1965
Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts 1965
The Genius of the Crowd 1966
True Story 1966
On Going Out to Get the Mail 1966
To Kiss the Worms Goodnight 1966
The Girls 1966
All the Assholes in the World and Mine 1966
The Flower Lover 1966
Night's Work 1966
2 by Bukowski 1967
The Curtains are Waving 1967
At Terror Street and Agony Way 1968
Poems Written before Jumping out of an 8-Story Window 1968
If We Take…. 1969
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills 1969
Another Academy 1970
Fire Station 1970...
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SOURCE: "Variety in Verse," in National Guardian, May 21, 1962, p. 12.
[In the following review of Longshot Pomes for Broke Players, critic and poet McGrath finds Bukowski's wry humor admirable, despite his reservations about the poet's style.]
Here's Charles Bukowski's Longshot Pomes for Broke Players. The misspelling in the title will probably cause one set of potential readers to shy off. But there is nothing arch about the book. It is an example of what the Beat was before it fell into holiness and hysteria. While much Beat poetry has gone dead or "commercial," it had in it once something of value which we can see clearly in Bukowski's work. Here is part of "The State of World Affairs from a Third Floor Window" offered as proof.
I am watching a girl dressed in a / light green sweater … / as her dirty white dog sniffs the grass /…. I am upstairs in my underwear, / 3 day beard, pouring a beer and waiting / for something literary or symphonic to happen; / … and a thin old man / in his last Winter rolls by pushed by a girl / in a Catholic school dress; / somewhere there are Alps, and ships / are now crossing the sea; / there are piles and piles of H-and-A-bombs. / … and the Hollywood Hills stand there, stand there / full of drunks and insane people and / much kissing in automobiles / … well, from the looks of things relax; / the bombs will...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
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SOURCE: "Charles Bukowski: Poet in a Ruined Landscape," in The Outsider, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring, 1963, pp. 62–5.
[In the following review of Bukowski's first three collections, Cuscaden discusses how the poet attempts to overcome despair through his verse.]
All of Bukowski's major interests and themes are in evidence in his first book, Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail: indeed, they are defined in the volume's title. These early poems are not equally successful; too much reliance is placed upon a dated surrealistic technique and in neglecting the use of the first person singular Bukowski fails to employ a strength which gives unity to his later work. Nevertheless, everything is here: the obsession with music (his three books mention Bach, Hugo Wolf, Borodin, Brahms, Chopin, Berlioz, Beethoven) and art (Carot, Daumier, Orozco, Van Gogh), and, most importantly, the sense of a desolate, abandoned world.
In his poem in the first volume entitled "I Cannot Stand Tears," the poet, always the non-participant, watches "several hundred fools / around the goose who broke his leg / trying to decide / what to do." A guard walks up, "pulled out his cannon / and the issue was finished." The details here are interesting. The crowd is composed of "fools", the goose implies the golden egg (poetry?), the (perhaps inevitable) guard has not merely a gun but a "cannon." And the issue is especially...
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SOURCE: A review of Poems and Drawings, in Polish American Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1, January-June, 1963, pp. 55–6.
[In the essay below, Swastek finds Bukowski's poetry eccentric but honest and authentic]
Polish-American poetry, written in English, has had a variety of male and female voices pitched in different keys. The masculine contingent includes Uriel Joseph Piduch (Autumn Leaves, 1920), Raymond Kresensky (Emmaus, 1931), Edmond Kowalewski (Deaf Walls, 1933), Alan Edward Symanski (Against Death in Spring, 1934), John H. Drechney (Nature Smiles, 1947), Joseph Cherwinski (No Blue Tomorrow, 1952), Zygmunt Kurowski (A Collection of Thoughts, 1953), and Conrad Lancucki (The House by the Sea, 1958)—to mention only the more notable writers and their earliest published collections of poems and verses.
Recently a new voice has joined this male poetic chorus, and it sings not only in a different pitch but also a melody distinctively its own. It is the voice of Charles Bukowski, poem-maker, convention-breaker, and presently the only Polish-American literary beatnik.
If this sounds wild, listen to what's coming. Bukowski was born August 16, 1920, in Andornach, Germany, but was brought to the United States at the age of two. His family had lived in Germany for some time back, but was originally Polish. In any...
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SOURCE: "Charles Bukowski and the Savage Surfaces," in Northwest Review, Vol. 6, No.4, Fall, 1963, pp. 123–29.
[In the review below of It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, Corrington characterizes Bukowski as a "surface" poet who "is capable of producing a poetry of pure emotion in which idea, information, the narrative or anecdote, is held to a minimum. "]
The recent publication of Charles Bukowski's selected poems [It Catches My Heart in Its Hands] marks a kind of watershed in the career of one of the West Coast's most striking poets….
As those who know his poetry will testify, Bukowski's poems go well enough one by one. But there is no substitute for reading a man's work in bulk….
Faced with several score of Bukowski's best poems, the illusion of ignorance or perverse and directionless crudity dissolves like a tar-doll in August sun. Individual poems merge to form together a body of work unrivalled in kind and very nearly unequalled in quality by Bukowski's contemporaries.
Perhaps the most crucial failure of Bukowski's critics is their general blindness to the sort of thing represented by his poetry. It is a vain error to damn oranges because they do not taste like apples—and it is equally profitless to decry what I call a "poetry of surfaces" because it fails to investigate and recreate the depths of human experience....
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SOURCE: "Paying for Horses," in London Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 5, December, 1974, pp. 35–54.
[In the conversation below, Bukowski discusses his literary influences, the critical response to his work, and the "Bukowski image."]
- What were your parents and your childhood like?
- Oh, God. Well, my parents were of German extraction. My mother was born there; and my father's people were German, although he came out of Pasadena.
- My father liked to whip me with a razor strop. My mother backed him. A sad story. Very good discipline all the way through, but very little love going either direction. Good training for the world, though, they made me ready. Today, watching other children, I'd say one thing they taught me was not to weep too much when something goes wrong. In other words, they hardened me to what I was going to go through: the bum, the road, all the bad jobs and the adversity. Since my early life hadn't been soft, the rest didn't come as such a shock.
- We lived at 2122 Longwood Avenue. That's a little bit west and a little bit south of here. When I first started shacking with women, I lived near downtown; and it seems like through the years each move I make is further west and further north. I felt myself going towards Beverly Hills at...
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SOURCE: A review of Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window, in West Coast Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, February, 1976, p. 41.
[In the excerpt below, Newton notes Bukowski's equation of individualism with isolation.]
Poems written before jumping out of an 8 story window is not Bukowski's best book; it is too hurried. But it does contain all his familiar subjects: his drinking, writing, and sex; he haunts dirty bars, cheap hotel rooms, and the night streets of Los Angeles. The classic Bukowski characters are the whores, bums, and the solid bartenders. All this occurs at the brink of modern society: Los Angeles. In fact, Los Angeles is very important in his poems, because the poet who takes this bewildering location as his home will almost surely confront the modern complexity in his poems. Bukowski presents everyone as modern man who has come to know everything, yet at the same time he is so very ugly. Bukowski is certainly ugly. He is even miserable enough to believe that, just as every place is becomjng like Los Angeles, everyone is becoming worldly and ugly like him. In "The Millionaire" just such a change takes place:
Look at him
a withered man
they say he was worth millions
Another of Bukowski's theories is the notion of individualism which seems to mean isolation, and another is...
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SOURCE: A review of Dangling in the Tournefortia, in The American Book Review, Vol. 4, No. 5, July-August, 1982, p. 6.
[In the following essay, Locklin praises Bukowski's work and declares that he is "undeniably a chronicler of politically significant phenomena. "]
Let me at once admit my bias: I think Bukowski is a writer of at least the stature of a Henry Miller. I also think he has been mistreated—or treated to a conspiracy of silence—by the American literary establishment and by factions outside the establishment as well. But he hasn't gone away. To the contrary, he and his American and European publishers have prospered. Films of his work are beginning to appear in Europe, where he seems to have become one of the best known, if not the best known, of contemporary American writers. A best-selling underground (or dirty old) man—talk about your oxymorons! Those who despised him as a drunken bum, now despise him as a drunken rich bum.
I am not a Bukowski idolater. Even Bukowski (maybe Bukowski most of all) knows that his work is uneven. His defense is that it's his job to write and the job of others to edit and evaluate.
Those who enjoy Bukowski do not have to be persuaded to read everything of his that appears, but I would not have recommended to the uninitiated a couple of his most recent collections because a reader could hit a run of...
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SOURCE: A review of War All the Time and Horses Don't Bet on People & Neither Do I, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. V, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 34–6.
[Here, Locklin claims that, in his mid-sixties, Bukowski is reaching his prime, composing narratives comparable to those of Ernest Hemingway.]
I felt that Bukowski returned to top form as a poet in Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981)…. . These two recent collections [War All the Time and Horses Don't Bet on People & Neither Do I] do not represent a falling off; on the contrary they present numerous examples of Bukowski at work in what has always been his strongest mode: the scenic or dramatic narrative (or more simply, the story poem with lots of setting and dialogue), but added to his achievements of the past is a diversity that should confound those who would parody the "typical" Bukowski poem of booze, horses, and sex.
In War All the Time there are poems of the working class, poems of the aspiring writer, poems of the aging writer, antiwar poems, antinuke poems, poems that move in and out of the bourgeois world, sports poems, television poems, European poems, and elegies for a cat and for the Los Angeles writer, John Fante. Of course there are still track poems, but why shouldn't there be? It's a world Bukowski knows intimately, one he can treat as a microcosm, one where...
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SOURCE: "Notes on a Dirty Old Man," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 60–3.
[In the essay below, Kessler defends Bukowski's writing from attacks by the literary establishment, arguing that his work displays "an increasingly persuasive truthfulness, a sense of honest simplicity which makes his books easy to read, offensive to some, sad and funny—in short, lifelike."]
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SOURCE: "Bukowski Unbound," in Poetry Flash, No. 238, January, 1993, pp. 1, 6–7, 9.
[In the following essay, Kessler offers a broad survey of Bukowski's work and describes the poet as "a human being of extraordinary character, an indomitable personality who has grown in stature with every document he produces."]
The photo in back of Charles Bukowski's latest collection of poems [The Last Night of the Earth Poems]—a four hundred page tome turned out as the author was approaching and passing seventy—shows a face seasoned by pain and suffering into an expression of tough equanimity, of weary compassion for the human dilemma. It is a face facing up to its own mortality: wise, gentle, kind. As anyone who's read his recent work is aware, Bukowski has lately lost his edge of angst; his comic meanness has sweetened into a humbly ironic gratitude for survival. The voice of the vicious drunk, while still vulgar in its raw frankness, has taken on a far more philosophical tone, an attitude of acceptance if not quite understanding. Despite the spiky white whiskers grizzling his chin in the picture, his shirt collar is crisply pressed, his fingernails look immaculate: the once disreputable poet/bum as clean old man.
Comfortably ensconced as a homeowner in middle-class San Pedro, chatting across the backyard fence with his neighbors, driving his BMW on the freeways, using his credit cards...
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SOURCE: "Gab Poetry, or Duck vs. Nightingale Music: Charles Bukowski," in Where the Bee Sucks: Workers, Drones, and Queens in Contemporary American Poetry, Asylum Arts, 1994, pp. 56–66.
[In the essay below, Peters detects a "deterioration" in Bukowski's poetry, but nevertheless celebrates his originality and earthiness.]
I once witnessed a Charles Bukowski first: the debut of the great raunchy poet as actor. The vehicle, "The Tenant," was a two character drama written by Linda King. Bukowski contributed lines of his own, better developing his own image in the play. This line was his addition, as delivered by Miss King: "You may be the greatest poet of the century, but you sure can't fuck." In a lively way "The Tenant" turns upon the problem of whether a super-poet should move in with his girlfriend, who would then, one would suppose, buy him his beer, give him bj's, and let him abuse her. The event was choice. An actor scheduled to read the Bukowski role was unable to show, so Buk took over.
There were twenty people in the well of the Pasadena Museum—sad, alas, because of the significance of the event. Bukowski, script in hand, trod the boards. The props were a telephone—used with nearly as much frequency as Barbara Stanwyck's in "Sorry, Wrong Number"; a mattress upon which King and Bukowski, scripts in hand, fell to enact their erotic comings after dismal separations. The...
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Dorbin, Sanford. A Bibliography of Charles Bukowski. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1969, 93 p.
Partially annotated primary and secondary bibliography through 1968.
Fox, Hugh. Charles Bukowski: A Critical and Bibliographical Study. Sommerville, MA: Abyss Publications, 1969, 121 p.
Fox offers a comprehensive study of Bukowski's work through 1968, and a comprehensive study of all published work and reviews from 1944 through 1969.
Cherkovski, Neeli. Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski. New York: Random House, 1991, 335 p.
Cherkovski presents a detailed biography of Bukowski.
Byrne, Jack. "Bukowski's Chinaski: Playing Post Office." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 5, No. 3. (Fall 1985): 43–51.
Surveys critical reaction to Bukowski's work, addressing the thin division between the author and his character Chinaski in Post Office.
Review of Crucifix in a Deathhand: New Poems, 1963–1965, by Charles Bukowski. The Carle ton Miscellany VI, No. 4 (Fall 1965): 92–3.
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