Bukowski: Sublime Genius, or Mean-Spirited Hack?


The scope of human perspective has always been limited - limited by the environment we're born into, by the social circles we chose or are compelled to move in, by our familial resources, by geography, by our relative intelligence. At least that's the way it used to be. Then the internet happened and fixed all of that! Finally, all ignorace and misinformation will be eradicated, weeded out, as the light of knowledge spreads to every corner of the earth. Forward, brave information dissemination juggernaut! But I've digressed before I've even started . . .

In the circles I move in, Charles Bukowski is looked on pretty fondly. He's everybody's favorite dirty, drunken uncle. Sometimes he gets a little out of hand, and he wouldn't be your first choice for a companion on a sunny day for a round of golf or a sail on the bay. But there are plenty of people who will do for those things. Anybody can enjoy a soak in the sun. But Hank will be there when nobody else is, when you've got nothing but a blank wall and a lot of cobwebs in the middle of a bleak, lonely night. I guess I figured everybody had a similarly sympathetic opinion of the old poet. Enter the internet. Searching the web for a certain poem one night, I innocently stumbled upon a thread ripping Bukowski's corpse to shreds. Heavy words were used, hatefull words. Words like "talentless", "hack" and "clown". Even more hurtfull were the words used to describe Bukowski's fans. We were "knuckle-draggers", "fools" and "idiots". We read Bukowski because we can't differentiate between real poetry and a cynical, commercial hoax. Now that's harsh.

As you might imagine, this indirect attack on my taste and intelligence by some anonymous cyber-entity compelled me to some serious soul searching. After all, my home is littered with books of Bukowski's poetry.

Let's give this a serious look. As far as Hank being an easily consumable substitute for more substantial poetry, I don't have much of a position to argue from. Since the age of 4 I've been consuming comic books, short stories, horror novels, classics, histories, biographies, etc., but poetry, I've hardly delved into. Perhaps it's the proverbial curve ball I never learned to hit. Fine. I also like Nirvana. Also, I can see where Hank might come off as slightly misogynistic. A lot of times, it seems he's playing the bully just to weed out the faint of heart. Or perhaps it's as simple as revenge, revenge for all the times he was bullied. Maybe people hate him because as an underdog who got over, he had the audacity to gloat about it, to claim his improbable victory and not apologize for it. It was quite an American saga for an old kraut, after all. Here in America, we love for the downtrodden to pull themselve's up by their bootstraps and 'make it', as long as they're sufficiantly humble when they get there. Maybe Bukowski was just a little too unapologetic for a lot of academics who had no doubt been pushed around as kids themselves, and would no doubt preffer to keep their refined literary circles free of beer-swilling, skirt-chasing, cuss word-using manhandlers of the English language, thank you very much. Maybe it comes down to simple jealousy.

I won't try to defend Bukowski as a person. But as a poet, as any kind of writer, he's damn effective. He illicits a reaction. He lived a real life and he told you about it. He didn't need to invent a thing and he never apologized. Maybe the things he did made him a complete asshole; that's not the point. No doubt he hurt a lot of people in his time; I don't care; I never had to know him. I only know his art. All we can ask of an artist is that he or she give us something REAL, and that Bukowski did, even if his form or his vocabulary was lacking. I'm sure there is no shortage of closeted child-diddlers out there who have earned wide critical acclaim for beautifully constructed verses about flowers and trees.

The trick is, you don't have to emulate your idols' behavior. If you make idols out of people in the first place, you're already a lost cause. When Bukowski was encouraging you to "stick to the beer" and to "for God's sake, put down the pen", he was offering you a bully's challenge. Old Hank didn't have any more authority to speak on the human condition than the next bumb and he knew it. He filled a lifetime's worth of pages with dirty jokes, spilt beer and spilt cum, simply out of courageous spite. He was going to be a writer no matter how much abuse it earned him. When he eventually made a life's work out of it and even got famous to boot, he'd damn sure earned a big belly laugh over it. Who can hate him for that?

I think Bukowski's shit breaks down like this: either you get it or you don't. You can not get it and still like it; you can get it and still not like it. Any which way you slice it, it's not going to save the world, but for those of us who get it and still like it, it provides a little bit of solace. It's a lot like the internet, I guess.

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