Of course, Charles Bukowski [bukowski.net] has long since passed away--in two months it'll be twenty years, in fact. What drew me to him? A small cult movie called Barfly, directed by Barbet Schroeder--a movie my family accidentally rented. The script was written by Bukowski (pictured with the actors, Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke, below) and bears both some autobiography and much of his philosophy. Some lines still resonate (from memory):.
"To all my friends!" [and everybody was his friend when he had money to spend on them.]
"Why'd it have to be Eddie? He represents everything that disgusts me: obviousness, unoriginal macho energy."Nobody else in the family enjoyed it. It was a "sad movie about a drunk" for them. But it wasn't. It was a little guy with a superhero personality, fighting to make his way in the world, to make art amid poverty, and rail against injustice. He picked fights he knew he'd lose, yet we cheered for him. His superhero strength wasn't fists but wit. He was hilarious. For a long while, I used the movie to measure how cool a person was: Can they see the humor in Barfly? [the following quotes are not from memory but from IMDB]
It's true that a doomed fatality hangs like a heavy mist over the story, but its power derives from how Henry Chinaski soldiers on, uncompromised by health, wealth or power. When offered a chance not to live so poor, Henry tells Tully, the beautiful magazine owner, she's "trapped in a cage with golden bars."Wanda: I can't stand people, I hate them.Henry: Oh yeah?Wanda: Do you hate them?Henry: No, but I seem to feel better when they're not around.
Henry: Nobody who could write worth a damn could ever write in peace.and
Tully: You can really write. Why do you live like a bum?
Henry: I am a bum. What do you want me to do? Do you want me to write about the sufferings of the upper classes?
Tully: This may be news to you but they suffer too.
Henry: Hey baby, nobody suffers like the poor.Ironically, according to Wikipedia, Black Sparrow Press did help support him so he could write full time. But that's his thing, swimming in the bowels of America. He's at the perfect vantage to critique people--not just the government or the rich or people in high places--everyone's ready to sit under his scalpel of wit. The post office, the bar, everywhere you go:
Henry: This is a world where.... somebody laid down this rule that everybody's gotta do something, they gotta be something. You know, a dentist, a glider pilot, a narc, a janitor, a preacher, all that. [sighs] Sometimes I just get tired of thinking of all the things that I don't wanna do. All the things that I don't wanna be. Places I don't wanna go, like India, like getting my teeth cleaned. Save the whale, all that, I don't understand that.and
Wanda: I hate the police, don't you?
Bukowski's critics are legion (Poetry Foundation has a good summary), due in part to the above attitudes. "Hey, Bukowski's attacking my lifestyle," they seem to be saying. "So I'll attack his. Artists do not have have to live like Bukowski to be artists." E.g.:Henry: I don't know, but I seem to feel better when they're not around.
andHenry: Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.
andHenry: That's it.Wanda: That's what?Henry: I'm broke. Can't buy another drink.Wanda: You mean you don't have any money?Henry: No money, no job, no rent. Hey, I'm back to normal.
I do agree with critics on much of his poetry. Adam Kirsch writes, "Bukowski’s poems are best appreciated not as individual verbal artifacts but as ongoing installments in the tale of his true adventures, like a comic book or a movie serial. They are strongly narrative, drawing from an endless supply of anecdotes." This is partially true, but Bukowski's loose style created its own resonance. Maybe one in ten or twenty poems sang, but if gathered together, they'd represent the choir of a solid poet. He was prolific. He probably needed money for beer, cigarettes and visits to the racetrack.Tully: Why don't you stop drinking? Anybody can be a drunk.Henry: Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.
The critics are not as legion as his fans. For some guys I met, Bukowski was the only poet they read. Bukowski brought art to those who weren't in to art, which is probably a foreign idea to many who seek funding for the arts. Perhaps connecting with more than one population segment is the way to do it. Kick out the exclusive club and broaden your scope.
He is a writer that twentieth-century letters has to wrestle with, even if he falls outside the canon. This is what writers do, intentionally or unintentionally, by equating Bukowski to supposedly lower art forms: "like a comic book or a movie serial" (which I suspect some sequential artists might take exception to). If you slap a label, you don't have to actually think about what the writer's accomplishing.
Salman Rushdie said, "To look at the picture, you have to step outside the frame." With Bukowski, you have to step way back. He uses language and images that put people off. Somehow critics have to turn off their censors (increasingly difficult these days), and focus on the crux.
That said, I've not read as much Bukowski as I used to. Despite the wit and vitality, his vein is not one I plan to mine--at least not directly. Unless you plan to be an underground writer like Bukowski, a sample may be all you need. In the current political climate of systematized, unified thought, I doubt a Bukowski could bloom. However, doesn't that sound like the American nineteen fifties that are still mocked for their single-minded rigidity? Perhaps the lock-step political climate is already nurturing such writers.