Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2477
Bukowski, Charles 1920–
Bukowski is a German-born American poet of rough-hewn ferocity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
Charles Bukowski wouldn't even know what you were looking for if you mentioned the philosopher's stone. He is, and has been for more than a dozen books, at the level where all dreck is gold itself, providing it issues from his own self…. From his prolific lucubrations, Bukowski is one of those people who must have said to himself sometime, fatally, "Gee, I read Cummings once and Whitman, did I read Whitman? and I listen on the radio to 'symphonic music,' I don't like working, but I do like to be in despair when I'm hung over on dusty Sundays looking out of torn window shade apartment—I must be sensitive, if only them bums knew how much, and I have always been on the move, sort of snarling (in poems) at cops and boozing it up with real people in bars—and pretending to like women, taking them on for a feed and fuck," which is mere hypocrisy on his part, judging from his talk about women in Mockingbird Wish Me Luck….
But the awful thing is that you can have 150 pages of flat stuff without one insight, without one flare-up of language, without an interesting emotion, or even the attempt to devise a poem structured to be conductive to an emotion, without … well, one could list more withouts, adumbrating thereby an implicit poetics—yours, mine, anyone's.
The question is, however, not those withouts, but—with what does Bukowski work? With very little, I guess, except the primitive will to scribble self-consciously. I am not sure he wants to project the presence he does: a vain, irritable, miserable, self-indulgent and self-commiserating presence. All those selves, because perhaps he wants it that way. A mean-minded, beery ghost damply haunting the place where he is, in the present, before the person has even been terminated. And, after twelve books of this guff, to seem to some people a plain-speaking poet! There is somewhere here an element of incipient horror, just as there might be an incipient poetry. The horror is what you'd feel sitting an hour among a bunch of winos on a bench on the beach in Venice, California: a flat, dull, stupid, morose horror. Or pick your bums on the Bowery stoops. But the poetry? In the notations Bukowski derives from his memories, which could, for the sake of discussion, be made into poems, if there were a poet present. As it is, there is mostly botched butcher paper. (pp. 230-31)
Jascha Kessler, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1973.
[In Life and Death in the Charity Ward] Mr Bukowski is obviously following that age-long principle of writing down anything and everything which comes into his head, and he no doubt thinks of himself as the true heir of Shakespeare in never having to blot a line. It becomes increasingly clear in a reading of these stories that he has no critical sense whatsoever, since his talent is a matter of hit-and-mainly-miss. This leads to some vulgar and prosaic passages, since a writer who is not self-aware is condemned to be continually looking over his own shoulder. Bukowski's themes were fads some time ago, and it is now practically impossible to make sex and violence interesting. Of course a man who lives in the past is always the one who has the most to hide from the present, and Bukowski suffers from an inability to perform as much as he promises. Only a bad poet labels himself poet, and only a frustrated man writes about sex with such prurient abandon. A dull character finally emerges, and it is a dullness which spreads through these stories like a stain. (p. 711)
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 30, 1974.
The last impression I want to give [in this review of Life and Death in the Charity Ward] is of an honest and original work mangled, like Barbary Shore, by a reviewer's vulgar prudery. As far as originality is concerned, Mr Bukowski is on a very well-travelled path with these picaresque tales of pussy-hunting and boozy male camaraderie in and around Los Angeles. A long way up ahead is Henry Miller (at one point Mr Bukowski wryly acknowledges the distance between them), and throughout there are clear echoes of that huge, under-edited and rather passé mob of US chroniclers of dope dreams and groovy pranks, ranging from Kerouac and Tom Wolfe down to the egregious Dr Hunter S. Thompson.
I would imagine that Hubert Selby, Jr figures very prominently in Mr Bukowski's pantheon too; indeed to the extent that if he had any goal it was to make a sort of west-coast Last Exit to Brooklyn out of his violent, would-be shocking anecdotes. The reach exceeds the grasp, and it is in comtemplating the two so-unequal books that the charge of prudery can best be disposed of. I still find my imagination haunted by some of the images and episodes in Selby's important work…. What made Selby's vision so frightening, however, was not the precise details of each sordid event, but the overpowering sense that they were being revealed reluctantly and only because the author was a remorselessly honest man who could not help himself plunging deeper and deeper into the dark recesses of human life.
Unfair or not, Mr Bukowski gives the impression that he is in it only for the shudders. No pioneer probing the edges of experience, but a whipper-up of creepy-crawly frissons for jaded appetites. One wouldn't mind even that if only he wasn't such a wretchedly inept whipper-up. But … the only possible response to [his] level of blowhard bathos is surely angry laughter…. (pp. 838-39)
Peter Prince, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 6, 1974.
Certainly no poet in America as deserving of recognition [as Bukowski] was so long buried, ignored, and even despised by establishment critics, readers in droves, Rolling Stone, The Whole Earth Catalogue people, granters of American Poetry Society Annual Awards, etc. I remember how jolted I was when I first read him: I was teaching at the University of California at Riverside and had been given a copy of Crucifix in a Deathhand. I carried the book to a string quartet concert one night, began reading it before the concert began, experienced chills, elevations, charismatic flashes, barberpole exaltations, fevers in the groin, etc. I had not read such poems since discovering Dylan Thomas for myself in the fifties. Christ, something awe-thentic at last, I exclaimed, nudging my companion who thought I had gone out of my mind. No poet I was then teaching or reading marched so directly into the poignant grosseries of life, into the depths of soul-body-mind, painted it up quivering and wriggling on the wall, and let in drifts and wafts of compassion to sweeten the dregs. Bukowski was unafraid of life's terror meat-slabs, and he made the angels sing….
To me, he was a super-poet, the best I knew…. He made Lowell, Snodgrass, Wilbur, Olson look like dilletantes. (p. 24)
Bukowski has written no better poetry than appears in [It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) and Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965)]…. In these early poems, the act of writing is for Bukowski "to get … feelings down." Now, that's not news, of course; it sounds like warmed-over Shelley and Keats. The crux is the nature of the feelings: are they surface, deep, sentimental, universal? In Bukowski's head, the urge to write, which for him (since he's done so much of it) must be as necessary as defecation, is prompted by his pain. The pain, somehow, is externalized by the writing; or rather, an image allows him to translate pain into a larger testimony of the human spirit. And there is also, he says, "madness and terror" along "agony way." Both are alleviated by the act of the poem. There's something like a time-bomb ticking inside his chest, and if it doesn't go off as a poem it will go off in a fit of drunkenness, dope, sensuality, despair, vomiting, rage. It's as if he's saying that as long as he writes he leashes his terror in its cage. "Beans with garlic" is exactly about this. A terrific idea, beans as loves! And stirring them has to do with writing your poems—words as beans, etc. The idea almost works. (pp. 25-6)
At his best Bukowski produces (invents) his own special rhetoric. Then he is never fatiguing, as he becomes in his later raconteur, gab/barfly manner. Too often his recent voice sounds like one of his army (located primarily in southern California) of inept imitators. His best poems discharge themselves with an Olsonesque energy. One is touched by a vital creative mind loving the creative act, prizing it, despite the booze, etc. This special energy is what earns Bukowski a front rank place among contemporary poets. Call it originality if you will; for, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot on Tennyson, Bukowski has (had) originality in abundance.
In At Terror Street and Agony Way (1968) a deterioration of Bukowski's talent sets in. His paranoia, traceable in earlier works, is heightened. His temper grows discernibly nasty…. It's as if B. wants to spit in your face, dear reader. The situations of the poems become more extreme. It's as if Bukowski is aware that a syncophantic [sic] public expecting outrageous cartwheels and titillating obsenities applauds his showing off. There is a discernible and regrettable drifting from the superb humanity and tenderness of the earlier poems. And there is a troublesome, boring loquaciousness; the finely turned work of the early manner is usurped by rambling, grotty passages of prose masquerading (cut into lengths) as poetry. I continue to read Bukowski nevertheless, because there are still surprises. He remains one of the most readable of poets; and the appearance of any of his books is an event. A core, primitive almost, resides in first-rank poetry—a core of empathy, depth, wisdom-via-suffering feelings. This has shrunk almost away in Bukowski's current work, replaced in part by a regrettable nastiness. (pp. 26-7)
I call [his recent] loquaciousness GAB POETRY. And GAB POETRY seems to be Bukowski's favorite genre these days, particularly if one included the numerous prose pieces, stories and otherwise. The GAB POEM is related to the old fabliaux of Chaucer and the medieval poets, a connection I'm sure Buk will (would) delight in…. A travelling narrative (with Chaucer at times presented in skillful verse), garrulous, in which you feel nothing is left out, a sort of gab accompanying spitoon [sic] sounds in some down and out bar. Also, the illusion that the narrator, much in his cups, is loading your ear as you lean beside him sniffing his loaded breath and working up your own inebriation. (p. 28)
Charles Bukowski is an easy poet to love, fear, and/or hate. He works at developing his own legend as loathsome person, lush, woman-devourer, etc. And he has a winsome, almost childlike, ingratiating side which various people have experienced and enjoyed, frequently to their surprise. He can be the best-behaved poet around, and one of immense charm. Obviously, by discussing his personality I fall into the trap of confusing the personality of the poet with the poetry…. And it doesn't matter—none of it—except for the work. My reason for writing this piece is to cut through some of the ordure appearing about Bukowski—much of it sentimental and unabashedly devoted to increasing his celebrity status. He remains a considerable poet who has for the present moved into something of a decline. Yes, say other readers, "but as his poetry worsens his fiction grows better." Perhaps. My own feeling is that poetry remains a more durable and demanding art than fiction, that the depths of the human spirit declare themselves better in poetry than in prose, and that the superior poet is equally the superior man. Buk, climb back up on that fence, grab your beer and your paper and pencil, gaze off over the landscape, and give us a fresh stampede of tremendous poems. (pp. 28, 69)
Robert Peters, "Gab Poetry: The Art of Charles Bukowski," in Margins (copyright © 1975), January, 1975, pp. 24-8, 69.
Whether or not Charles Bukowski's "poems" are actually poems is open to legitimate debate, even after the loosening up of our ideas about poetic form that has occurred in the past ten or fifteen years. Certainly they have nothing musical or metrical in their language. But it is also legitimate to evade the question altogether by looking at them simply as chunks of writing, in which case one sees that most of them are really very good. When you compare them with similar chunks—a paragraph from Henry James, say, or one of the portraits from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales—you find the same tension, the same inner unity of image and feeling, the same fully charged language—no gimmicks, no bombast. In terms of language Bukowski is an honest writer.
In terms of substance he is perhaps less than honest, since he idealizes everything dreadfully. His poems are full of stock figures from American romanticism: noble drunks, sensitive whores, downtrodden artists, etc. Everything is seen through a narcotic mist of self-pity and pessimism. Nor has Bukowski added anything new to the mélange, though he has given it a "flavor" of the 1960s and '70s. His strong point is the way he writes clearly about a particular uneventful event—a day, a night, an afternoon at the track, a drive on the freeway—and draws from it a recognizable mood and an understandable meaning…. [His poems] are worth reading.
Hayden Carruth, "Images," in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the March 31, 1975 issue by special permission), March 31, 1975, p. 4.
Charles Bukowski will probably survive as the closest thing to a truly damned poet that our, or any, culture has produced. For some twenty years now he has been a moral spokesman for the American lumpenproletariat, a chronicler of our urban degeneracy, whose dingy furnished rooms, drinking, and fornications are neither bohemianism nor self-indulgence, but a way of life. He writes almost exclusively of violence, dirt, sickness, hopelessness, but with a stoicism and self-honesty, even a sort of good humor, that defeat the implications of such things and make him, or his poetic persona, an improbable hero for our times. A man who has, above all, come through, he demonstrates that human creatures can not only succumb to an ultimate sordidness, but abide there in something resembling dignity. He is like a Henry Miller without epiphanies, or, better still, like a Céline with a moral sense. He is also an excellent poet. (pp. liv, lvi)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).