Bukowski: ‘Drink, fuck and smoke plenty of cigarettes.’
"Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I'm not going to make it, but you laugh inside — remembering all the times you've felt that way."
Beyond the mythical tales of vicious bar fights, wild drinking binges and endless sexual conquests, there is a much more important side to American writer Charles Bukowski: the writing itself.
As we live in a culture of intense and harmful celebrity worship, it is easy to forget that Brad Pitt is a talented actor; not just a sex symbol with a six-pack, that Kurt Cobain was a genius songwriter; not just an eccentric artist with a nasty heroin addiction, and in the case of Bukowski; that he was a fantastic writer.
Called the ‘laureate of American lowlife,’ by Time Magazine, Bukowski started writing in youth. He wrote about poverty, the task of writing and the boredom of working menial jobs in hundreds of short stories and poems.
His first novel - Post Office - published when he was 50 years old, chronicles the life of his alter-ego ‘Hank Chinaski,’ as he battles his way through a life of booze, women and gambling. Chinaski nearly always features in Buk's work. He is a dark but massively humorous character. He is cynical, persistent and puts up with life with a Nietzschean Amor Fati not seen since Albert Camus' character; Meursault in the Stranger. Chinaski's (and Bukowski's) drunkenness wasn't a Rimbaudian pledge to 'derange the senses,' but rather a lifelong task of leaving them so battered by booze to render them useless.
Bukowski went on to write five more novels, dozens of poetry collections and even a film - Barfly - starring Mickey O’Rourke. His writing shows influence of Fante, Hemingway and Hamsun and is almost always set in his hometown of L.A. Fuelled by his drunken antics in public, his hilarious poetry readings and macho persona, he became one of America’s most popular writers.
Bukowski like all of us had his flaws and he made no secret of them. In fact, it’s his honest confession of all his imperfections that endears him to his audience. He was open about his alcoholism, boasted about his penchant for violence but most importantly it should be noted that critics have been heavy in their accusations of sexism. There’s even evidence for this; in a video shot by director Barbet Schroeder, Buk is seen to be verbally and physically abusing his third wife, Linda. Due to this it’s easy to overlook his ability to write sentences of immense profundity.
Take this excerpt from his poem, Raw With Love, which shows a sensitivity akin to Frank O’Hara and Verlaine:
‘I will remember the kisses
our lips raw with love
and how you gave me
everything you had
and how I
offered you what was left of
our bodies spilled together
the tiny flowing currents
immediate and forever
your leg my leg
your arm my arm
your smile and the warmth
who made me laugh
This is the side to Buk that people don’t know about; or rather choose to ignore. This is the man who broke down into tears when reading aloud the poem displayed above.
Literature is about release. It’s an escape from the dullness of real life. Its purpose is not just to communicate but also entertain. When reading, I often come across a culture of snobbish intellectualism and pretentiousness; writers trying to be complex just for the sake of it. All too often I’m sat with a Genet novel or a Rilke poem, and I just don’t have a clue what’s going on. This is the same for countless other writers. Either the prose is way too dense (check out James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake!), the plot is far too complicated, or the vocabulary has me reaching for the dictionary every two minutes.
And this can be exhilarating at times - when one is in the mood for a challenge. But what to do when all you want is to kickback and read a simple bit of humorous, relatable literature?
The answer is: Bukowski.
He once said ‘An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.’ And he does exactly that; ‘says a hard thing in a simple way.’ His writing is clear, simple, easy to process and yet he communicates the deepest of issues with a heartfelt passion; heartbreak, loneliness, existential dread, the thrill of drunkenness, the joys of sex... He brings out all the emotions. He has you roaring with laughter one second; and then feeling sad, horny, angry; or even craving a cold beer.
Popular all across the spectrum: blue collar workers, coffee shop hipsters, restless students, European intellectuals and countless others, Buk’s greatness lies in telling it as it is. Granted he knew how to "Drink, fuck and smoke plenty of cigarettes" but most important of all, he knew how to lay a line.