Charles Bukowski: Keep Up If You’re Sick Enough

So, after clicking a few buttons and tabs, my laptop told me to write an article about my favorite poet, you know, for National Poetry Month. Okay, I told my laptop, will do. On the surface, the task seemed simple and straightforward. But after some consideration, I realized that to pick a poet was a challenge. And the reason’s not because I adore scores of poets or that my collection is so expansive, but because I find it difficult to define what poetry is. At times I’ll find the style in which a newspaper article was written to be poetic, while there are other instances when I’ll find the language of an actual poem to be merely pedestrian.

I resigned to the fact that all I can do is define what poetry is to me, as no universal demarcation exists.

Poetry should be so brutally honest that it is even more so than straight truth. It should push boundaries and take its readers to places unseen. It should spit the gamut of emotions in one’s face. One should squirm and grit his teeth and become uncomfortable before experiencing the catharsis offered by a poem.

Real poetry is unafraid.

It was only after this minor literary revelation that I knew I had to write about Charles Bukowski, a man the Washington Post once referred to as “the poet laureate of sour alleys and dark bars, of racetracks and long shots.” And Bukowski did little to disprove this portrayal; nor did he strive to. He was a self-admitted boozer and philanderer who reveled in the seediness of things. During an interview in his later years, Bukowski said, “I think degradation, black pimps, prostitution, are the flowers of the earth…it’s a liveliness.”

I found Bukowski in a roundabout way; I didn’t even know he was missing until he appeared in my hands and between my fingers. I’ve always enjoyed reading unconventional literature, so as a young man I was a Bret Easton Ellis (author of the infamous American Psycho) enthusiast. When I opened-up Ellis’s book of short stories, The Informers, there was a quote from John Fante’s Ask the Dust that simply blew me away. Okay, so I knew the next book I’d be reading.

Stay with me here; I wasn’t kidding about the roundaboutness.

So, I bought Ask the Dust, and this particular edition included an introduction by Bukowski. And like the Fante quote, I couldn’t shake Bukowski’s words from my brain. Though the introduction was brief, its grittiness and truth hit me hard. Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

“When I had enough cheap wine to drink I never went to the library. A library was a good place to be when you had nothing to drink or eat, and the landlady was looking for you for the back rent money. In the library at least you had the use of the toilet facilities.”

Wow, I thought, these guys (Ellis, Fante, Bukowski) must be the real deal. I was set with my reading list for months to come. And throughout these months I exhausted Bukowski’s collection of both prose and poetry. From the hilarity of the novel Post Office to the wretchedness of the poem “the world’s greatest loser,” Bukowski’s writings always thumbed their noses at cookie-cutter conventionality.

Let’s take a look at an excerpt from “the world’s greatest loser,” a poem about a disabled madman who never picked a winning horse at the racetrack:

you’d see him rolling on his rotten board
with roller skates underneath.
he’d propel himself along on his hands;
he had small stumps for legs
and the rims of the skate wheels were worn off.
you could see inside the wheels and they would wobble
something awful
shooting and flashing
imperialistic sparks!
he moved faster than anybody, rolled cigarette dangling,
you could hear him coming
“god o mighty, what was that?” the new ones asked.

Bukowski was a horseplayer throughout his life, and strangely took solace in what most would consider the worst the track had to offer. It was those that society left behind, or at least wanted to, that Bukowski found exciting. Not only does the above excerpt show Bukowski’s straightforward and descriptive poetic abilities, but it also shows how he plays with the idea of the poetic line as a unit of meaning. Take, for example, the lines, “something awful/shooting and flashing”; when each line is read on its own and out-of-context each carries a whole new meaning. “Something awful” has a dual meaning, describing the physical characteristics of his subject’s skate wheels, while at the same time could be a depiction of the subject himself and of the entire scene. “Shooting and flashing” are two acts that repulse society, unless of course, you are Bukowski. He ends the poem affectionately, with the lines, “i miss those/sparks.”

Would Bukowski appreciate the acclaim showered upon him during this year’s National Poetry Month? This question is not rhetorical. Let me save you some suspense. Bukowski wouldn’t even validate National Poetry month enough to scoff at it. Bob Dylan, a true poet in his own right, once stated, “A poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet.” Bukowski would seemingly agree: “To say I’m a poet puts me in the company of versifiers, neontasters, fools, clods, and scoundrels masquerading as wise men.”

Bukowski isn’t here with us anymore, but the grace of a writer is that he can tell you his story and share his unique life-approach through the works he left behind. So pick up some of his writings. Let the old bastard frighten you, offend you, and make you keel over with laughter.

Just don’t call him a neontaster.