Find what you love and let it kill you — Charles Bukowski
If you walk into any reputable bookstore nowadays and head to the (most likely) minuscule poetry section, there is always one name you can rely on being there. Charles Bukowski is the best selling American poet in the last 80 years. His works are either adored by his fans, who see him as the one true voice in poetry, or reviled by his detractors, who despise his languid, free style and repetitive subject matter. There is no middle ground.
It’s easy to take pot shots at Bukowski. He was an alcoholic, a drug abuser, a misogynist, an adulterer who verbally and physically abused his girlfriends and wives, he spent a good portion of his life dismissing the very art form that served him so well and he refused to change his ‘style’ for anyone. Many of his works are simply him writing down his train of thought with little or no poetic feel.
But here’s the thing. Despite his many flaws, Bukowski was able to spit out beautiful line after beautiful line, almost effortlessly (maybe why he was so disliked in the more haughty poetic circles). He never seemed to break sweat, yet some of the poems he wrote are regarded as the height of beauty. Take this extract from ‘Some People’ that highlights both the mundane nature of some of his lines and the true beauty and insight of others;
I’ll feel much better,
sit down to toast and eggs,
hum a little tune,
suddenly become as lovable as a
some people never go crazy.
what truly horrible lives
they must lead.
It is interesting to note that the excerpt comes from the end of the poem. Bukowski was the master of the close, needing just a few sparse lines at the end to transform and transcend what came before it. Take the closing four lines of ‘For Jane’ one of many poems Bukowski wrote after the death of his sweetheart;
what you were
will not happen again
the tigers have found me
and I do not care
What comes before that is pleasant enough and well written, but Bukowski takes the last four lines and tears at your heart. It’s clever, clever writing and leaves people with the lasting impression of a good poem, even if it was preceded by nonsense.
One thing that I have always loved Bukowski for is his accessibility. There is no pretension here, no molasses thick language or cryptic meaning. This is just a man, with faults and perversions like everyone else, cutting out chunks of himself and pasting them onto a page. Bukowski never flinched in his appraisal both of himself and the world around him. He was angry, hate filled and world weary. As another great poetic mind, Leonard Cohen once said ‘He brought everyone down to earth, even the angels’.
Bukowski’s poem ‘So you want to be a Writer’ has been hailed as one of the greatest pieces ever written on the creative process. He famously never suffered from writers block and argued that if creativity is there; it will come pouring out of you. Don’t find it, it will find you when it is ready;
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it. unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it. if you have to sit for hours staring at your computer screen or hunched over your typewriter searching for words, don’t do it.
I have this poem in full printed on my wall. It serves as the ultimate inspiration to me.
Here is the true beauty of the man. As nations fell and economies burnt (Bukowski lived through the Great Depression and took a great deal of inspiration from the suffering it brought to him and others) he just sat, taking it all in and writing. He lived, more so than most, and he shared that life with you. When he writes about being homeless, or drunk, or driving across America in a convertible with girls on either arm, he is giving you his true story. When you have done so much, it becomes easy to write. His poems are personal, honest and at times brutal. But there is always beauty underneath.
I am a series of small victories and large defeats and I am as amazed as any other that I have gotten from there to here.
And he summed up life better than anyone.
But what do you guys think? Was he a terrible poet and an awful man? Or was he the only true voice in poetry?
Let me know below.